Combined Flow in Music Performance
Hart and di Blasi’s (2013) study explores the experience of combined flow in musical performances. Their research was motivated by questions about whether flow can occur in group settings, to discover if group flow might have qualities that are separate from individual flow, and to determine how best to further study instances of group flow. The researchers interviewed six university students from a variety of disciplines who had a minimum of eight years experience playing music in group settings. Jam sessions were organized for the participants, and interviews were conducted afterwards. In addition, one of the researchers participated in one of the jams and produced a written narrative of events.
Individual flow has been described as a subjective state through which individuals become deeply consumed by an activity that is both challenging and intrinsically rewarding. Many work and leisure activities are associated with flow, including music listening and music practice and performance. The experience of combined, or group flow has been studied in sports settings, but surprisingly so far very little work has been done that examines group flow in musical ensembles.
In group flow situations, the characteristics of individual flow emerge (but in slightly different ways) while members are all focused on a group-based goal. The study discovered five overall themes related to and necessary for the occurrence of group flow. First, members must “find a niche” within the group and feel they are each bringing an individual skill or talent to the group experience. Second, the group must overcome individual differences and “break on through.” Individual differences such as personal tastes and skill levels must be overcome and the group must assume a collective identity. Third, the members must “find a group groove” and let go of individual thoughts and feelings in order to maintain the forward momentum of the jam and the enjoyment of the present moment. Fourth, the group must obtain a collective awareness that the jam is a fleeting experience that must come to an end. This was described by participants as a feeing of having your feet pulled from under you and being plunged back into reality. Finally, group members share highs and lows and realize that the experience was made available through group collaboration.
The study found that some, but not all, characteristics of individual flow occur in group flow settings. Of these, three seem to be salient differences as compared to individual flow. First, group members get a sense that they are in control of their own playing but do not try and direct or control the playing of others. Second, people lose their sense of self-consciousness or anxiety about how they are playing related to other members of the group. Third, the whole goal of the performance becomes the jam itself, or achieving the sensation of group flow, rather than some other goal like performing a piece of music perfectly. The authors conclude with a very brief discussion of the importance of the group flow experience in therapeutic, educational, and workplace settings.
Although it is not explicitly discussed in the article, it can be assumed that the ensemble in this study was performing some sort of improvised rock- or blues-based jam style of music. I wonder if group flow is unique to this kind of improvisation, or if collective flow could be experienced during performances of more structured kinds of art music, or if larger ensembles like symphonies could experience episodes of combined flow. In other words, what part of group performance enhances collective flow? Is it the improvisational aspects of a particular style of music, or is it simply the shared experience of individual flow?
Csikszentmihalyi claims that flow is a complex, subjective experience and therefore is difficult to measure using quantitative methods. Therefore, Hart and di Blasi’s study used “funnelled” interview data and a grounded theory approach to analyze transcribed interviews. Even though the flow state is subjective, that does not mean that it cannot be associated with certain neural states, and could therefore be operationalized for an experimental setting. For instance, certain physiological responses such as chills, or goosebumps, have been associated with flow-like states. Additionally, more research could be done that examines the relationship between flow and brain wave entrainment. Some video game research has used EEG data to determine which brain wave states are most associated with flow states during gaming.
In a similar ways, EEG tools could be used to monitor the brain states of ensemble members during a jam or performance. An experiment could be designed that monitored a small choral ensemble with EEG and video recordings. Researchers could review the experiment data and then use video elicitation to interview the participants to see if flow experiences were achieved and if so, what types of brain activity might be associated with these experiences. New consumer-grade, low-cost EEG monitors might offer new opportunities for this kind of research in the near future.
Hart, Emma, and Zelda Di Blasi. 2013. “Combined Flow in Musical Jam Sessions: A Pilot Qualitative Study.” Psychology of Music, October, 0305735613502374. doi:10.1177/0305735613502374.