There is nothing quite like the feeling of being fully immersed and completely involved in what you are doing. Psychologists call this state one of “flow.” Mihaly Csikszenthihalyi developed the concept of flow in the 1970’s and it has informed psychological research ever since. People are most likely to experience flow states when an activity is not too difficult nor too easy, and when they can adjust their performance to immediate feedback.
Why do some people find themselves slipping into flow states more readily than others? And do flow states have any lasting consequences or positive effects, in addition to the feelings of well-being and joy that participants report? A study of flow experiences among 76 high-level piano performance students by Manuela Marin and Joydeep Bhattacharya (2013) has yielded some interesting results.
Marin and Bhattacharya used standardized tests and two self-developed questionnaires to survey students about the length of time they had spent studying the piano, their practice habits, their experience of flow states while playing, and the types of music that they were playing when flow states occurred. They also collected basic personal information (age, gender) and asked the pianists to complete a questionnaire designed to uncover their level of emotional intelligence.
A high number of the students (69 out of 76) had indeed experienced flow states. Marin and Bhattacharya found that students’ gender, age, the number of years spent playing the piano and the age at which piano lesson were started, had no bearing on whether or not they experienced flow states. Only two factors were predictive: The amount of daily practice (the longer a student practiced the more likely that he or she would experience flow states) and the student’s level of emotional intelligence. Higher levels of emotional intelligence were associated with a higher likelihood of experiencing flow states.
Yet it isn’t clear how these results should be interpreted. An earlier study (Petrides et.al., 2006) had already uncovered a positive relationship between length of musical training and level of emotional intelligence. So the causal connections among emotional intelligence, practice time and flow experiences remain mysterious. Do flow experiences improve emotional intelligence or the other way around? Does longer practice cause flow states, or does the possibility of entering a flow state motivate students to practice longer? We do not know.
Musical style also turned out play a role in flow states. The highly expressive Romantic style (and especially the work of Chopin) was most frequently associated with flow states. (The work of Beethoven and Debussy came in second and third respectively.) However the Romantic style was also the most reported preferred type of music among the students, as well as the most frequently played. So we don’t know which factor is the determinant here: The musical-structural features of the Romantic style, the fact that the students prefer this kind of music to other styles, or the fact that they get the most practice on it.
Marin and Bhattacharya had expected to find a link between flow states and high musical achievement. To test this theory they looked at the relationship between the students’ experience of flow states and their past success winning piano competitions. They found no connection. Which factors turned out to be predictive of high achievement? The number of years spent playing and the length of daily practice. In fact, the odds of winning a competition doubled for each hour increase in piano practice per day.
Csikszenthihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row. 1990.
Marin MM and Bhattacharya J (2013) Getting into the musical zone: trait emotional intelligence and amount of practice predict flow in pianists. Frontiers in Psychology 4:853. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00853
Petrides, K. V., Niven, L., and Furnham, A. (2006). The trait emotional intelligence of ballet dancers and musicians. Psicothema 18(Suppl.), 101–107.