Monday, December 29, 2008

Strong experiences with music: Review of past research

Gabrielsson, A. (2001). Emotions in strong experiences with music. In P. Juslin & J. Sloboda (Eds), Music and emotion. Theory and research (pp. 431-449). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Past research on strong emotional experiences listening or playing music suggests that these experiences may have many properties in common with other types of strong experience, such as mystical experience (431). Notable psychologists have studied the descriptions of people who have experienced these transcendent emotions.
Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, coined the term “peak experience.” Characteristics of peak experiences include total absorption, disorientation in time and space, transcendence of ego, and fusion of the perceiver and the perceived. People who have had these experiences report a complete loss of fear, anxiety, inhibition, defence, and control. In Maslow’s words, “the emotional reaction…has a special flavour of wonder, awe, of reverence, of humility and surrender…[it] may be described as sacred”. Significantly, Maslow found music to be one of the easiest ways of having peak experiences.
Panzarella’s analysis of reports describing musical or visual art experiences revealed four major factors. ‘Renewal ecstasy’ is characterized as an altered perception of the world. ‘Motor-sensory ecstasy’ includes physical responses, including change of heart rate and breathing, and quasi-physical responses such as feeling “high” or “floating”. ‘Withdrawal ecstasy’ is a loss of contact with the physical and social environment. Finally, ‘fusion-emotional ecstasy’ denotes merging with the aesthetic object. The study showed that motor-sensory ecstasy and fusion-emotional ecstasy were more pronounced when listening to music (432).
Csikszentmihalyi’s influential concept of “flow” can be described as an intense, yet effortless involvement in an activity. The experience is ‘so enjoyable that people will do it…for the sheer sake of doing it’. Similar to the former descriptions, the state of flow also includes loss of self-consciousness. It can be felt in connection with many activities, such as rock climbing, chess, games, dancing, as well as making music. In musical terms, this concept seems most applicable to performance (432).

Many musicians have experienced these golden moments when their performance (or parts of it) seems to flow effortlessly from them. They play spontaneously, sometimes not consciously remembering the details, but feeling free and open and in harmony with their instrument and their environment. I think many would feel that this is an ideal transcendent state when musicians play with their most free and sincere expression.
Can this peak state be actively pursued? Or isn’t it a result of purposeful practice, conscious polishing of musical details, and then when these obstacles are overcome, a surrender to the rapture of the moment? I would like to paraphrase some advice from a former teacher: “freedom on stage can only be achieved when there has been enough structure in the practice room”. I also feel that other factors, including personality states, location of performance, and audience can also influence the state of mind of the performer. Then in the lucky (unsought for) moment when all of these influences come together, emotions can well up from within and stimulate peak experiences.

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