Psyching Up Musicians

Musicians can gain much by better understanding the psychology of music.

Posted Jan 06, 2021

Note: This post is based on excerpts from a draft of my forthcoming book Psychology for Musicians: Understanding and Acquiring the Skills (2nd Edition), to be published by Oxford University Press.

Hannah Gullixson/Unsplash
Source: Hannah Gullixson/Unsplash

On the surface, psychology and music may seem like disparate topics, but they do in fact make complementary fields of study. After all, psychology is the study of the amazing human mind, and it seeks to understand people’s behavior. And music, for its part, comprises some of people’s most fascinating behaviors, which allow expression and understanding of what it means to be human. So, there is actually a strong connection between psychology, a social science, and the art of music, a highly social form of human expression.

Psychologists who choose to focus on exploring human musical behaviors are surely specializing their research efforts. On the other hand, though, music psychology can address some rather “big picture” issues. Considering the origins of psychology and music as fields of study, it is easy to see why music psychology can approach some profound topics related to the human experience and the most meaningful moments in life. 

Psychology as a discipline emerged as an offshoot of philosophy, which is understood to be the study of knowledge, reality, and existence. It cannot get more “big picture” than that! A lot of early psychological study centered around understanding human beings in terms of temperament and consciousness. As the field evolved through the twentieth century, psychologists took greater interest in developing theories to explain broad phenomena such as human behavior, emotion, thought, and memory.

Music also is an extraordinarily human field of study. Music is an important branch of the arts, and one that in one form or another is extremely popular—even beloved—among people worldwide. The arts are understood to be concerned primarily with creative expression of the human experience. Those who have studied music from a distinctly psychological perspective have called it a “human obsession” (Levitin, 2006) and a phenomenon that “reveals what it means to be human.” (Williamson, 2014).

Music is an integral part of virtually all human cultures. In addition to using music in a sociocultural context, people also use it for more individual and personal purposes. That is, music is often used—or perhaps it is most visible when it is used—for interpersonal functions, such as sharing emotions and conveying other expressive “messages” to others, and bonding with other people; music is also used for intrapersonal means, e.g., meditation, affirming identity to oneself, emotional catharsis.

Meaningful Moments

Indeed, emotion seems to be the most important aspect of music (and many would say of all the arts more generally). Among those who identify as musicians, emotional expression usually is considered to be the paramount quality of performed music. And among music listeners, at both \ casual and connoisseur levels, having an emotional response to music is often the primary criterion by which they judge their liking or appreciation of it.

The experience of powerful emotion largely explains why people often speak of the “magic of music.” Profoundly emotional moments have been the subject of psychological study for decades. Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1960s emphasized the importance of “peak experiences” as deeply moving moments that have an exhilarating, elevating, or even mystical-like effect on people. Later in the 1980s and 1990s, the idea of “flow experiences” was advanced by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990). Flow is characterized by immersive feelings of energizing focus, a loss of self-consciousness and worry, and even an altered sense of time.

Not surprisingly, the emotional power of music has been frequently cited in psychological discussions of peak experiences and flow. Often the most powerful music experiences take place at live performance events, occur in the company of others, and are perceived by people to be emotionally positive (Lamont, 2011). The research indicates that strong experiences with music result from the interaction of three broad factors: the musicthe person, and the situation. (Gabrielsson, 2010).

By acknowledging the two nonmusical factors that contribute to strong emotional experiences (the person and the situation), music performers need not feel weakened. On the contrary, they may be in a better position to create powerful performances with a realistic awareness that factors beyond their sounded performance affect how listeners perceive their music. Instead of passively accepting performance conventions that may not benefit the experiences of modern audiences, musician may decide to assert some decision-making power around the nonmusical situational aspects of their performances. More broadly, musicians may choose to be more deliberate in building a public image and in selecting the enterprises to which they lend their music-making. Indeed, musicians should recognize that among potential future audience members, past personal associations or reminiscences will affect responses to presently heard music (Gabrielsson, 2010).

Contributions of Psychology

Gaining actionable insight into people’s strong emotional experiences with music (described above) is just one example of how understanding psychology can empower musicians to carry out their craft better. Of course, the term “psychology” can mean very different things to different people. Especially outside of the academic world, the word psychology is often used to describe the mental makeup of people: one might say that a good youth coach needs to understand the psychology of preteen kids. Among others, “psychology” is a section in a bookstore that is filled with self-help publications. Even within the academic world, psychology can refer to different fields of scholarly work. Some psychological inquiry reflects the field’s early origins in philosophy (mentioned earlier in this chapter), relying on scholarly introspection and examination and questioning of cumulated knowledge and theories of human mind and emotion. Sub-disciplines that would fall under the heading of philosophy-oriented psychology include phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and humanistic psychology.

The type of psychology that I am most interested in is best described as scientific psychology. This type of psychological inquiry places a premium on careful observation of human behavior as indicators of internal mental processes, and on using scientific methods to test theories seeking to explain human behavior, emotion, and thought processes. Subdisciplines that tend to be scientific include experimental, developmental, social, and educational psychology, and as such, these are some of the areas to which I focus my attention.

Psychology offers insights into humankind that can be very useful to musicians. Psychology promotes understanding of people: how they perceive and process the world around them, how they feel emotion, how they learn, and how they can skillfully perform certain behaviors, just to name a few things. Music is made by human beings for human beings. So, although performance technique and knowledge of music theory are essential to musicians, people are the most important elements of music. People are responsible for the emotion in music. Therefore, I assert that musicians really cannot optimally advance their craft without considering the insights offered by psychology.

Copyright 2021 Robert H. Woody.

References

Levitin, D. (2006). This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. New York, NY: Dutton.

Williamson, V. (2014). You are the music: How music reveals what it means to be human. London, UK: Icon Books.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Lamont, A. (2011). University students’ strong experiences of music: Pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Musicae Scientiae, 15, 229-249. DOI: 10.1177/1029864911403368

Gabrielsson, A. (2010). Strong experiences with music. In P. N. Juslin & J. A. Sloboda (Eds.), Handbook of music and emotion: Theory, research, applications (pp. 547-604). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.