Monthly Archives: April 2012

Music Made for Peak Perception

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

Music possesses the power to evoke human emotions, some extremely intense and meaningful in the contexts of our lives. For many, live performance can do this especially well. Even in the current age of omnipresent digital recordings, live music is still in great demand. For those of us who take the stage as performers, it can be difficult to think of a concert solely from the perspective of a spectator. We are used to focusing on how best to produce expression and transmit feeling through our music. We may not think as much about how audience members receive our expressive messages, and how they experience emotion during performances. But the emotional rewards felt by concertgoers can be just as powerful—if not more so—than those felt by the people on stage.

These magical moments that are so cherished by musicians and music lovers have also been the target of psychologists’ study for some time. The notion of peak experiences, first advanced and by Abraham Maslow in the 60s and 70s, refers to mental states in which people have strong feelings of wonder, enthrallment, and ecstasy. The 80s and 90s saw the popularization of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow, which describes how people can become so completely engaged in a challenging activity that time flies by and they experience the intrinsic rewards of the activity free of self-consciousness. One of the conditions of the flow state is a balance between the challenge of a task and one’s skill in carrying it out. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that music performance has been a frequent context for the study of flow, with Csikszentmihalyi himself often citing it.

Many musicians aspire to have peak performances in their activities. Ideally the presence of a public audience is not seen as a source of anxiety, but an opportunity to further enhance the strong emotional rewards of performance. As musicians seek these for themselves, I believe most would also like to provide peak experiences for their audiences. Although music listening and concert attendance aren’t typically thought of as challenging activities or tasks, they can still engender flow experiences. They are, however, clearly different from the act of performing music. Musicians can gain much with a better appreciation for all the factors that are present during a performance, specifically from the perspective of an audience.

One of my favorite chapters in the 2011 Handbook of Music and Emotion is by music psychologist Alf Gabrielsson, who reviews the research on “Strong Experiences with Music.” He tackles a few of the more fantastic examples of music-induced peak experiences, such as transcendental and religious experiences, trance states, and synesthesia (visions of colors and lights). He also identifies some of the most important contributors to peak experiences during a live music performance. These influencing factors, in the broadest terms, are the musicthe person, and the situation (see also Lamont, 2011). These three things interact to create the added dimensions that make live music so unique and powerful—the thrill of real-time vocal and instrumental production, the visuals on stage and around the venue, and the social aspects involving performers and audience members.

The sound properties of the music that make it expressive include timbre, rhythm, pitch, tempo, dynamics, and articulation. You might say that the art and craft of musicianship consist of choosing the right order, combinations, and variations of these things in order to communicate to a listening audience. There has been some interesting research that has provided insight into how certain musical devices can even elicit physiological responses from listeners. For example, John Sloboda’s (1991) study of classical music lovers was able to identify some pretty specific musical triggers among Westerners. Among them, tears were linked to melodic appoggiaturas, shivers occurred after sudden harmony changes, and a racing heart followed instances of rhythmic syncopation.

This would suggest that it is a worthwhile endeavor to develop mastery over one’s instrument in order to allow expressive musical devices to be carried out with control and precision. But just because performers can produce expressive features in their music, doesn’t mean that they always will do so. My own research has shown that even among advanced musicians, expressive intentions don’t always make it into the sound properties of performance (Woody, 2002, 2003). Some musicians trust that their own emotions will naturally infuse their music and elicit the same feelings from listeners. It doesn’t always work. As part of developing expressive performance skills, it can be fruitful to simply direct musicians’ attention to the acoustic sound properties that they’re producing—and how they’re perceived by listeners—instead of dwelling only on their inner intentions to be expressive (Juslin & Laukka, 2000). Take, for instance, a pianist who wishes to communicate sadness and longing in melody. Her strategy for making the melody expressive may be to muster up feelings of sadness and longing in herself while performing. This emotional process could divert her attention from accurately hearing whether her sounded music contains features that will be perceptible to listeners. In fact, her own felt emotion could wrongfully convince her of the expressiveness of her music. As far as the music is concerned, listeners have no other way to access the heart of the pianist but by the way she presses the keys on the instrument (and the sound it produces). This is why listening to recordings of themselves can be so helpful to musicians; it can afford them more objective appraisals of their performance quality.

The other two factors of strong experiences with live music are the person and the situation. Many things can affect an audience member’s disposition and extra-musical associations during a concert, some of which are clearly outside of the control of any performer. (Though this doesn’t mean they should be dismissed altogether, as we’ll see below.) Situational factors, however, are often chosen—or passively accepted—by performing musicians. Anything that affects how audience members receive the sounds and sights of the performance can be extremely influential. This is why much pre-concert time is spent on sound checks to ensure the best acoustics given the physical layout of a venue. But the visual aspects of a performance are also critically important. A recent NRP Music interview brought one case in point to my attention. Aside from her impressive technique, some of cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s notoriety can be attributed to how physically expressive she is in performance. She points to the moving and dancing that rock musicians commonly do onstage, saying “it always struck me as sort of surprising that people would find that strange in classical music.”

Concertgoers take many cues about emotionality from what they see in musicians’ facial expressions, bodily movements, and other physical attributes. Quite a few research studies have confirmed that what people hear—or think they hear—can be heavily influenced by what they see (among them Behne & Wöllner, 2011). Even among musically sophisticated audience members, judgments of musical quality are often biased by things like performer attractiveness, wardrobe, and stage behavior. There is also the prestige effect, which says that listeners’ perception can be skewed by whether they believe they’re hearing, say, the “naïve interpretation” of a student musician, versus a “bold rendition by innovative expert.” It also explains the famous (among classical music followers, anyway) Joshua Bell subway experiment, in which the world-class violinist went ignored while playing virtuosic repertoire in a busy Washington, DC Metro station.

No doubt some musicians lament that elaborate costuming, scenery, and stage “antics” may be used to compensate for poor command of one’s musical instrument (i.e., technique, including sounded expressiveness). Such visual elements are often referred to as extra-musical factors. I would suggest, however, that they are more para-musical, in that they are necessarily part of live performance. No music can be perceived and understood outside of some cultural and personal context. Music performance has always been about more than the pleasantness of the sounds produced. Audio-purists should take heart, though, to know that research affirms that the music does matter. But it’s also clear that performers can no more afford to ignore the para-musical factors that affect perception than they can what’s accomplished through technique.

One clear message musicians can take from this research is that audiences do not parse out various aspects of live performance. Many times an intense emotional response to music is less about the music, and more about the person taking it in. Music-induced peak experiences can often be cathartic in nature, characterized by the feeling of releasing something within. In another study, John Sloboda (1992) reported how many listeners described music as a trigger or an outlet or a way to deal with things that are “bottled up” inside. He concluded that in many instances, “music does not create or change emotion; rather it allows a person access to the experience of emotions that are somehow already ‘on the agenda’ for that person, but not fully apprehended or dealt with” (p. 35).

Perhaps the most successful performers try to know the types of people who are in attendance at their concerts. They not only practice the notes that they will produce on stage, but they consider the other factors that will affect the audience’s perception. Instead of merely accepting the conventions of their performance genre—for better or worse—they more actively select the physical and social factors that hold sway in live music. The may even have some insight into the kinds of emotions their audience members seek to have stirred up or released by the music they take in. Playing or singing for a crowd of engaged and emotionally responsive people will likely make the experience all the more rewarding for the performers themselves.


Behne, K. E., & Wöllner, C. (2011). Seeing or hearing the pianists? A synopsis of an early audiovisual perception experiment and a replication. Musicae Scientiae, 15, 324-342.

Gabrielsson, A. (2011). Strong experiences with music. In P. N. Juslin & J. Sloboda (Eds.), Handbook of music and emotion: Theory, research, applications (pp. 547-574). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Juslin, P. N., & Laukka, P. (2000). Improving emotional communication in music through cognitive feedback. Musicae Scientiae, 4, 151-183.

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

Sloboda, J. A. (1991). Music structure and emotional response: Some empirical findings. Psychology of Music, 19, 110-120.

Sloboda, J. A. (1992a). Empirical studies of emotional response to music. In M. R. Jones & S. Holleran (Eds.), Cognitive bases of musical communication (pp. 33-46). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Woody, R. H. (2003). Explaining expressive performance: Component cognitive skills in an aural modeling task. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51, 51-63.

Woody, R. H. (2002). The relationship between musicians’ expectations and their perception of expressive features in an aural model. Research Studies in Music Education, 18, 53-61.

Copyright 2012 Robert H. Woody

Source of images: Flickr Creative Commons: 12.