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Music as a Shoulder to Cry On

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

It’s a well-known fact that people use music to manage their moods and emotions. Not only do people turn to music to enhance good moods—think DJs spinning tunes to create a party atmosphere—but but they also use it when negative emotions are prevailing. In the pre-Civil War American South, groups of African slaves sang spirituals to pass the time laboring in the fields and to encourage themselves (sometimes secretly) with ideas of freedom. And nowadays, perhaps more than ever, people can individually use music to manage negative emotions. I suspect that every day around the world, millions of teenagers deal with relationship breakups and unrequited love by escaping into their favorite sad music in the privacy of their earbuds.

SadMusicListeningSadness is a strong emotion that most people try to avoid in their lives. So it’s interesting to consider why sad music is so popular. For some time music psychologists have studied this. Recently one of my favorite music research journals, Musicae Scientiae, devoted an entire issue to the topic of emotional regulation through music, and a good number of the studies addressed sad music specifically.

Let me quickly address some terminology: Referring to music as “sad music” or “happy music” can bother many (including myself usually) because music does not contain emotion. Emotions reside within people. Music is not emotional per se. It is, however, expressive, meaning it does possess qualities that engender emotions in people. So when I refer to “sad music” here, I’m referring, as the research does, to music that people themselves identify as sounding sad to them.

How people use sad music seems to be different than what they do with other music. Research has shown that most music listening is done while doing something else, such as morning personal grooming, doing chores around the house, exercising, and socializing with others. Listening to sad music, however, is more likely to be done as the sole activity. That is, listeners are probably not splitting their attention between sad music and, say, brushing their teeth or focusing on crossing the street safely during a run. Also whereas other listening may be done to improve mood (make it more positive) or provide a diversion from boredom, listening to sad music seems to be done for entirely different and more complex purposes.

If you’re feeling good and you want to keep the positive vibe going, you likely turn to “happy music” to help you keep feeling happy. But by and large, people do not turn to sad music to feel sad. Most people report a mix of emotions—including positive ones—when listening to sad music. One research team posited that even sadness responses to music comprise a range of emotions, including grief, melancholia, and sweet sorrow (Peltola & Eerola, 2016). The grieving process is thought to include the emotions of anger, fear, despair and guilt (Bonanno et al., 2008), all of which music can accommodate.

When listening to sad music induces grief, it often does so by triggering memories of painful past events and causing listeners to re-experience negative feelings from the past. This can lead to a particular kind of grief, namely cathartic grief. This can be seen in those moments when music prompts you to have a “good cry.” People don’t often listen to sad music with the enthusiasm or enjoyment they have with other kinds, but they may choose to do it because they anticipate some cathartic benefit. One participant in the Peltola and Eerola (2016) study said:

I really don’t like to listen to sad music, because it brings up memories….I remember just how sorrowful and desolate I was back then…and those feelings attack me again; instantly I feel just as sad, anxious and sorrowful as I did then….On the other hand, if I let myself go through those feelings, I usually feel relieved afterwards. (p. 91)

Listening to sad music appears to be very commonly done by people in the aftermath of suffering loss or significant emotional pain. In fact, for many people, music listening may be the most important personal strategy for finding consolation (Hanser et al., 2016), even more important than receiving support from friends and family or eating comfort food!

It is not clear exactly how people feel consoled from listening to music, or how they can ultimately experience positive emotions from hearing music they identify as sad. One theory has been offered by musical brain researcher David Huron (2011), who has explained that when a person is in a sad state, the body releases the hormone prolactin. The result is a consoling or a “warming” psychological effect. Perhaps music-induced sadness is a safer kind of sadness. That is, people need not always experience—or try to re-experience—a painful life event, but instead can use music to more safely enter into a simulated sadness (or as Huron calls it a “sham sadness”) in order to enjoy the physiological consoling effect.

From a mental health standpoint, it is ideal when grieving leads to coping and ultimately to acceptance. Another recent research study found some evidence that listening to music can contribute to people finding acceptance amid negative life situations (Van den Tol, et al., 2016). Music seems to allow people to express and get in touch with negative emotions that might otherwise be repressed. But psychologically speaking, there is a critical difference between healthily experiencing negative emotions and ruminating on past life events that were painful or traumatic.

It seems likely that listening to music allows people to feel the emotions they need to feel without retelling themselves a trauma story, which can lead to damaging rumination. Rumination is associated with persistent PTSD and depression. Not surprisingly, ruminators have an attraction to sad music, but for them it appears to only perpetuate feelings of dysphoria (Garrido & Schubert, 2013); it serves merely as accompaniment to painful nostalgia sessions and “brooding on the past” (Barrett et. al, 2010).

Personally, I would speculate that even greater psychological benefit may be possible from music making experiences with sad music, as compared to listening experiences. If it’s good to listen to the sad music of others, might it be even better to create your own? As I’ve written about elsewhere, music participation has been shown to have powerful social and emotional benefits, including among homeless and other marginalized individuals who commonly struggle with depression and other emotional problems (Bailey & Davidson, 2005). And I know there is at least one nationwide music therapy program, Guitars for Vets, that specifically aspires to treat PTSD through music making; a pilot research study of this program (Dillingham & Zablocki, 2011) has shown some very promising results.


Bailey, B. A., & Davidson, J. W. (2005). Effects of group singing and performance for marginalized and middle-class singers. Psychology of Music 33(3), 269-303.

Barrett, F. S., Grimm, K. J., Robins, R. W., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., & Janata, P. (2010). Music-evoked nostalgia: Affect, memory, and personality. Emotion, 10, 390-403.

Bonnano, G. A., Goorin, L., & Coffman, K. C. (2008). Sadness and grief. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., 797-810). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Dillingham, T. R., & Zablocki, C. J. (2011). Guitars for Vets: Evaluating psychological outcome of a novel music therapy. Unpublished research. Retrieved from

Garrido, S., & Schubert, E. (2013). Adpative and maladptive attraction to negative emotions in music. Musicae Scientiae, 17(2), 147-166.

Hansler, W. E., ter Bogt, T. F. M., Van den Tol, A. J. M., Mark, R. E., & Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M. (2016). Consolation through music: A survery study. Musicae Scientiae, 20(1), 122-137.

Huron, D. (2011). The science of sad sounds. [Video File]. Retrieved from

Peltola, H., & Eerola, T. (2016). Fifty shades of blue: Classification of music-evoked sadness. Musicae Scientiae 20(1), 84-102.

Van den Tol, A. J. M., Edwards, J., & Heflick, N. A. (2016). Sad music as a means or acceptance-based coping. Musicae Scientiae, 20(1), 68-83.

Copyright 2017 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: TOMMY AU PHOTO on Flickr Creative Commons.



School Music vs. Real Music

ImageWhen all the activities of the 2014 Super Bowl had concluded, many people agreed that the music around the NFL finale was much more interesting than the game itself. It included a wonderful breadth of style. The multitalented Queen Latifah sang America the Beautiful, operatic superstar Renée Fleming performed the National Anthem, and we were treated to a lively halftime pairing of Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Following Ms. Fleming’s breathtaking performance, I tuned back in to Twitter and saw some tweets about her singing the anthem. Most praised her rendition, but a number of music-oriented tweeters said things to the effect of: “For once we got to hear the anthem sung by a real singer.” Maybe this sentiment is just the letting off of steam by formally-trained musicians, frustrated by their preferred styles being left out of the big-time media spotlight too often. But I did note that instead of referring to the anthem’s operatic stylings as “my kind of music” or even “good music,” some people suggested that we finally got to hear some “real music.” Not surprisingly, I was disappointed that in complimenting Ms. Fleming’s performance, some felt the need to put down the previous offerings of other non-classical singers (consider checking out “My Vote Against Partisan Musicianship”).

Clearly many in the world of formal music education consider classical music (or maybe jazz) to be the most meaningful, exemplary, and real music there is. This perspective, however, is not shared by the vast majority of people in Western society. This includes the students that school music teachers are charged to educate. Research has confirmed that in the minds of many young people, there can be a significant disconnect between their conceptions of school music and what they consider to be real music (Boal-Palheiros & Hargreaves, 2001; Hargreaves & Marshall, 2003; Lamont et al., 2003). For music educators, this disconnect is more than just a nuisance, or a mark of immaturity that must be overcome. Learning of any kind is greatly influenced by students’ intrinsic motivation for the subject matter and their beliefs about its relevance to their lives.

Research suggests that many adolescents see music classes (like those in other subjects) as undertakings done to satisfy teachers and parents. School music is linked to the performance of non-preferred styles, using an analytical approach, and difficult or boring class sessions. Keep in mind, of course, that this broad perspective does not represent only the kids who have found a home in the school band, choir, or orchestra, but the comparative majority who elect not to take any music at the secondary level. In contrast, real music is associated with popular and familiar styles, using a subjective and emotional approach, and often a relaxed and fun setting with others. This conception of real music is much closer to that held by most people around the world. They turn to music for the emotional rewards it provides, and it is very often a part of deeply meaningful social interactions among people.

As alluded to above, this disconnect between school music and real music can cause many students to avoid music learning opportunities altogether once these class offerings become elective for them. And for the students who do continue in school music, many carry on musical “double lives” that prevent them from getting the most out of their childhood music experiences. I was a prime example of this myself as a kid. I played trumpet in the high school marching band, concert band, and jazz band, but outside of school, I was a heavy consumer of popular music (as a child of the 80s, I’m sure you can guess what fills my iTunes library yet today!). What’s more, like so many other music students, my musical divide was not just a matter of stylistic genre. My musicianship in school was limited to playing just one instrument, almost always from notation, and in preparation for a public performance. My out-of-school musicality was also quite limited, but in very different ways. It revolved around listening and singing to recordings, either alone or with friends, but never for an audience. I’m sure many others can relate with me on this, including a lot of our best young music students of today.

In no way am I suggesting that we’re doing it all wrong in formal music education, or that we should try to reproduce exactly in music classrooms the informal learning experiences that so naturally happen outside of school. I would, however, urge music educators not to dismiss students’ preferred styles of popular music as somehow less real or worthy of consideration. Pop, rock, hip-hop, country, rap, and others make up the native music of the students we serve. This is not a reason to ignore these styles—we require native English speaking students to take English classes throughout their schooling—but a reason to respect them. It’s also important to acknowledge people’s natural orientation to music, that is, the appeal it has through personal relevance, emotional investment, and social interaction. These things are not only part of natural musicality, they also can contribute to efficient learning (Cassidy & Paisley, 2013).

I believe that we in music education could benefit more from looking at how people learn music in the real world and incorporating aspects into our teaching activities. Constructivist theory in education tells us that people learn much through active involvement with their environments. Especially important for children are collaborative experiences with other kids and adults. This is because human beings instinctively observe what others do and attempt to reproduce it themselves. Young people desire opportunities to experiment with music (including freely making mistakes), to be creative and expressive with it, and to find personal meaning in it (Campbell et al, 2007). When these characteristics are present in school music activities, those learning opportunities are more likely to be viewed as “real music” experiences by students of all ages.


Boal-Palheiros, G. M., & Hargreaves, D. J. (2001). Listening to music at home and at school. British Journal of Music Education, 18(2), 103-118.

Campbell, P. S., Connell, C., & Beegle, A. (2007). Adolescents’ expressed meanings of music in and out of school. Journal of Research in Music Education, 55, 220-236.

Cassidy, G. G., & Paisley, A. M. (2013). Music-games: A case study of their impact. Research Studies in Music Education, 35(1), 119-138.

Hargreaves, D. J., & Marshall, N. (2003). Developing identities in music education. Music Education Research, 5(3), 263-274.

Lamont, A., Hargreaves, D. J., Marshall, N. A., & Tarrant, M. (2003). Young people’s music in and out of school. British Journal of Music Education, 20(3), 229-241.

Copyright 2014 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: MTSOfan on Flickr Creative Commons

Feedback in Music Teaching: Why “Good!” Is Not Good Enough

TeacherStudentAs a music teacher, I can get so preoccupied telling students what I’d like them to do, and trying to motivate them to do it, that I forget afterward to let them know how well they did. I may suppose that students don’t need me to spell it out for them. Won’t they hear it for themselves if their music sounds better? Or pick up on the grimace on my face if it doesn’t? Receiving feedback, though, is a critical part of the learning process. If we as teachers are not making a point to communicate it to them, we shouldn’t assume that our students are figuring it out on their own. And simply shouting “Good!” while student sing or play their instruments offers little in the long run.

Giving feedback is a hallmark of quality music instruction, but one that can be easily overlooked. Good teachers are keenly aware of the responsibility to manage how time is spent. Although hopefully the biggest proportion of lesson time is occupied by student music making, teachers must also take time to talk to students. In the throes of a well-paced lesson, teachers will want to be efficient with their verbalizations in giving directions and explaining musical concepts. (I also hope teacher allow for students themselves to talk about their music making, as this can provide insight into the cognitive strategies underlying performance.) Offering feedback to students is just as important as these other teacher roles.

Last month I came across two good sources online that took up the topic of feedback. The first was a Freakonomics podcast titled “When Is a Negative a Positive?” In this short episode, journalist Stephen Dubner shares some research from the field of business management. Tackling the question of whether positive or negative feedback is more motivating, the podcast offers the answer: it depends…on the recipients’ level of expertise. With people who are new to a particular endeavor, positive feedback seems essential to help them increase their dedication to it. But for those who are more expert in a field, negative feedback can be more efficient in producing growth.

This general idea has been found in music education also, as researchers have probed the value of positive versus negative feedback. For teachers who work with beginning musicians, one of the most important qualities they can have is a warmth dimension (Lehmann, Sloboda, & Woody, 2007, ch. 3). Most young students thrive under the tutelage of a teacher whose personality is friendly and encouraging, and who makes music learning a positive (even fun!) experience. This type of learning environment would necessarily include much positive reinforcement from teacher to students. However, as kids mature and increase in commitment to their music activities, they seem to be able to handle more critical feedback from teachers. In fact they may even welcome it, knowing that it can advance their skill level, which in turn makes music participation more rewarding. Research studies in high school band contexts have found that these older students are able to benefit from negative feedback and they seem to understand that taking criticism is a necessary step toward musical improvement (Duke & Henninger, 2002; Whitaker, 2011).

Another online source that recently took up the topic of feedback was author Annie Murphy Paul, who writes much about how people learn. She offered up a blog post on keys to giving good feedback. Drawing on the results of educational research, she points out that effective feedback goes beyond just praise or criticism. It is informative and instructive to learning goals. Ideally feedback shows students how to monitor and evaluate their own performing, in effect making them less dependent on the teacher and more in control of their own learning. “The ultimate goal of feedback,” says Paul, “should be to teach learners how to give feedback to themselves.”

Of course these ideas also have much application to music education, especially to student musicians who have grown beyond the beginner stage. As teachers, we can be so focused on helping students prepare the music they’re working on that we neglect our responsibility to prepare them as musicians. We do this best by empowering them with the musical knowledge and skills they need to be self-sufficient learners who are able to make musical decisions for themselves. This is one of the reasons that simply telling students “Good!” accomplishes little. Broad feedback like this does not give learners much to take with them into the future. In these “Good!” moments, students can too easily think “ah, my teacher is pleased” without understanding what they did to produce the musically pleasing result.

I think we should aspire to offer more specific feedback that’s primarily directed at what students our have done, as opposed to who they are. Don’t get me wrong…we should make sure our students know that we respect them as people, and we believe them to be capable musicians. But whether using praise to inspire greater investment in music, or criticism to produce performance improvement, the main object of the feedback should be students’ music making. Telling students “you guys are awesome” or “you’re fantastic musicians” may be well intentioned and seem important in building self-esteem and a musical identity. But the positive feeling students get from simple praise like this can be fleeting. Consider, however, specific feedback directed at students’ performance, such as, “You used excellent breath support on that phrase” or “When you focus on rhythm there, your solo comes to life.” This feedback is informative and gives learners something they can take with them into the future. It can reinforce the physical skills and cognitive strategies that allow them to perform at their best. It’s true that young people rely heavily on the appraisals of others in self-concept building, but they do so based on beliefs about what things they can do well. If you just tell a student she’s a great musician, she may dismiss it as nice teacher flattery; even if she really receives the compliment, the emotional impact may soon fade. But if you tell her, for example, that her piano playing has improved since she started using more dynamic contrast, then you’ve given her knowledge that can be very useful going forward.

Giving feedback is something most music teachers do naturally. But a reminder now and then can be helpful. Perhaps we should strive to be more mindful and adaptable. It seems the right amount of positive and negative feedback depends on where our students are in their individual musical development.


Duke, R. A., & Henninger, J. C. (2002). Effects of verbal corrections on student attitude and performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 46, 482-495.

Lehmann, A. C., Sloboda, J. A., & Woody, R. H. (2007). Psychology for musicians: Understanding and acquiring the skills. New York: Oxford University Press.

Whitaker, J. A. (2011). High school band students’ and directors’ perceptions of verbal and nonverbal teaching behaviors. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59, 290-309.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody


Source of image: Jose Kevo on Flickr Creative Commons

Entertainment is Not Just Entertainment

Music educators often worry about their subject matter not being taken seriously. Other subjects like math, English, and science seem to be especially valued in our society. Most everyone agrees that it’s important that our children receive an education in these things. The subject of music, however, is sometimes relegated to the status of a frill. In many schools, music—and the other arts, for that matter—is seen as an extra-curricular or enrichment activity for students. It seems that in the minds of many, school music exists merely to provide entertainment for school assemblies, sporting events, and occasional concerts.

RockwellTrumpeterSo perhaps as music teachers and arts advocates, we need to take forth the message that music is not just entertainment. I certainly agree with this point, and support efforts to make it better known to school administrators, parents, and student musicians themselves. But I also believe we need to be careful how we go about refuting the perspective of “music as mere entertainment.” We can stray from the true nature of the arts when justify music’s place in schools through its contributions to other skills like abstract reasoning, language acquisition, math proficiency, self-discipline, and spatial intelligence. Although I believe that such transfer effects exist (some of them anyway), I’m not sure if they really make for a compelling argument. I mean, if I discover that my child is struggling with math, will my first response be to find more music opportunities for her? More likely, I’ll look to have her provided with some better math instruction.

Of course it would be silly to take the position that music is not entertainment. For many people, myself included, music is a top form of entertainment in modern life. We spend many hours of our everyday lives listening to music. We take in concerts and other events with our families and friends. And my personal favorite, we make music together…in community auditoriums, church and temple sanctuaries, park amphitheaters, and also in our living rooms, garages, and around the dinner table! These activities can be so important in our lives. Perhaps, in fighting the perception that music is just entertainment, we have missed a larger truth: entertainment is not just entertainment.

This became evident to me over the holiday season as I spent time with my family and friends. Sure, we exchanged gifts and had a few meals together (okay, more than a few). We also enjoyed some very rewarding moments together “entertaining” ourselves. Some of what we did was spectator oriented: we watched televised sporting events, saw a movie, and took in New Years Eve music performances on TV. And some of what we did I would call more participatory: we played cards and board games, sledded down a snowy hill, and even went to an indoor trampoline park. Musically, there was singing, piano and guitar playing, and I even offered up a midnight rendition of Auld Lang Syne on my trumpet when 2012 became 2013. (My friend Joel even tried his hand at deejaying on a new keyboard synthesizer that he bought for his kids, but we won’t talk about that…deadmau5 he is not! 🙂 )

These times of entertainment with family and friends are not just throw-away moments in our lives. They don’t matter less than time spent at our jobs or in carrying out the mundane tasks of home life. In fact, these times of entertainment may be the most important moments of our lives. Often this is when we feel most connected with others, when we grow and solidify relationships, and when we know that we matter to the people in our lives. And even our entertainment in solitude—our alone time listening to music, watching television, or making music for pure enjoyment—can be important moments to us as human beings. These can be critical opportunities for identity development and intrapersonal nurturing. By the music and other entertainment we choose, we can learn about ourselves, and better establish who we are.

So yes, let’s continue to get the word out that music is not merely entertainment. And let’s also not forget that entertainment itself is not just entertainment.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: Norman Rockwell on WikiPaintings.

When Practice, Practice, Practice Isn’t the Answer

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

For many musicians, it’s a common scenario: You stand backstage about to go on, and you can feel the adrenaline coursing through your body. You may feel your chest pound, your breathing grow shallow, or a swarm of butterflies attack your stomach. As you take the stage, you notice your hands shake. It’s bad enough that you have to experience these unpleasant feelings, but you also worry that they will ruin how your music sounds onstage.

For those who’ve struggled with it, performance anxiety can seem like a fact of life. They accept it as an inevitable part of performing. And accordingly, they may come to believe that they’ll never sound in concert as good as they did in rehearsal. Performance quality—how accurate or otherwise “good” the music sounds to an audience—is paramount. So dealing with anxiety means somehow compensating for the drop-off in quality that happens onstage. “If I play it 95% well in rehearsal, but only 80% in performance,” one might think, “then if I can get it to 110% in rehearsal, I can expect 95% on stage. Right?”

From this perspective, many have advised musicians that the key to a successful performance is over-preparation. Practice your music so much that even your worst rendition still sounds pretty good. Practice so you know it incredibly well, then practice it some more so that your body will deliver it onstage without thinking, without trying. Then, according to this view, you can have utmost confidence and no reason to worry going into a performance.

I’m certainly a believer in the necessity of practice for building musical skills. But I don’t believe it is always the key to overcoming performance anxiety. In fact, I would suggest that if you can play or sing your music well in rehearsal, but not in the concert, then additional practice is a poor strategy for managing stage fright. Instead of accepting and coping with a drop-off from practice to performance, I’d recommend seeking to remove the factors that diminish quality onstage.

Psychologist Glenn Wilson has divided the sources of musical performance anxiety into three categories: the task, the situation, and the person. Many musicians and researchers, including myself, have found this model useful for understanding performers’ anxiety issues and selecting effective treatments (Klickstein, 2009; Lehmann, Sloboda & Woody, 2007, ch. 8; Wilson & Roland, 2002; Valentine, 2002). When musicians experience anxiety because they believe they’re physically incapable of playing or singing their music, then the task is the source, and additional practice is a viable treatment. However, the situation is a more likely source when worry is brought on by the conditions of a public performance. Situational factors include the presence or absence of co-performers, the makeup of the audience, and any consequences of performance (e.g., an audition or competition). The person as a source of anxiety refers to the influential role that musicians’ own thinking plays. As I mentioned in a previous post, performers’ own thought processes can be empowering or debilitating.

As prevalent as performance anxiety is, the value of diagnosing it has not seemed to catch on. More common are recommended cure-alls, ranging from the silly (“imagine your audience in their underwear”) to the simplistic (“practice, practice, practice”). Also popular are reactive strategies for confronting anxiety. Breathing and muscle relaxation exercises have been found effective for many, and some turn to beta blocking drugs. I think this reflects the fatalist attitude mentioned above, in which musicians accept anxiety as fact and resign to battling symptoms without considering what’s causing them.

A preventative approach starts with identifying the source. While practicing the musical task is undeniably important when approaching a concert, much research suggests that also very influential are the performance situation and what goes on inside the heads of musicians themselves. Here I’ll share a couple recent studies that highlight the impact these can have and the value of addressing them specifically in treatment strategies.

In a 2011 study published in the journal Psychology of Music, three researchers in the UK compared perceived performance anxiety experiences of several different types of musicians, including classical, jazz, and popular (Papageorgi, Creech & Welch, 2011). Across all of their participants, solo performance elicited more anxiety than group performance. Additionally, classical musicians tended to report higher levels of anxiety. The researchers concluded that the traditionally formal context of classical performance may create additional pressure and increase anxiety levels.

That higher anxiety is linked to solo performance (vs. group) and classical contexts (vs. more informal) has been reported in much previous research. These clearly represent situational factors. Greater mastery over one’s music (the task) through practice does not address the intense “on the spot” feeling of a public solo performance, or additional pressure that may be brought on by formal concert settings. Instead, musicians can deal with situational stress through mental rehearsals, in which they try to remain calm while vividly imagining aspects of public performance. When situational anxiety is particularly debilitating, performers may choose a program of systematic desensitization. In this treatment approach, musician carry out a series of performances, learning to control their physiological arousal while gradually progressing from least anxiety-inducing to most anxiety-inducing conditions.

In another recent study, British conservatoire students underwent a “mental skills” training program that addressed sources of anxiety within the categories of the person and the situation. Participants learned to manage anxiety through goal-setting, cognitive restructuring (changing thinking through self-talk), and vivid imagery in mental rehearsals. Compared to a control group, those who received the training experienced a significant increase in their self-efficacy (i.e., perceived competence) toward performing. The post-training comments of these musicians “revealed greater levels of self-awareness, confidence, facilitative views toward and heightened control over anxiety, and healthier perspectives toward music-making” (p. 342).

As the old joke goes, the way to get to Carnegie Hall may very well be practice, practice, practice. But it may not be the key to having performance success once onstage. What’s more, excessive practice may not lead to enjoyment of the experience. Not only can stage fright harm the musical product being presented to an audience, it can prevent musicians from enjoying performance for themselves. I would suggest that many would be better served to focus not on the quality of their music—which may just drive them to more practice—but on finding greater “in the moment” awareness and reward for themselves during performance. This may prompt them to think more carefully about the situational factors that affect their performance experience, and reexamine their thought processes during music making.


Clark, T., & Williamon, A. (2011). Evaluation of a mental skills training program for musicians. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 23(3), 342-359.

Klickstein, G. (2009). The Musician’s Way. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lehmann, A. C., Sloboda, J. A., & Woody, R. H. (2007). Psychology for musicians. New York: Oxford University Press.

Papageorgi, I., Creech, A., & Welch, G. (2011). Perceived performance anxiety in advanced musicians specializing in different musical genres. Psychology of Music. doi: 10.1177/0305735611408995

Valentine, E. (2002). The fear of performance. In J. Rink (Ed.), Musical performance: A guide to understanding (pp. 168-182). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, G. D., & Roland, D. (2002). Performance anxiety. In R. Parncutt & G. E. McPherson (Eds.), The science and psychology of music performance (pp. 47–61). New York: Oxford University Press.

Copyright 2012 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: luxorium on Flickr Creative Commons.

2012 Music Educators National Conference

I’m at the Music Educators National Conference in St. Louis, presented by the National Association for Music Education (NAfME). I’m presenting some ongoing research of mine as a poster session. The contents of my research poster are below.

Special thanks to my UNL colleague Dr. Eric Richards, who composed the melodies used in the study.

Music Education Research to Practice

I’m presenting at the 2012 Professional Development Conference of the Ohio Music Educators Association. Two of my sessions fall under the heading of Research to Practice. This is obviously an interest of mine. I believe research is a worthwhile endeavor that can inform what musicians do in their performance and what music teachers do in their instruction. Below I’ll provide descriptions of a couple of sessions I’m doing, along with the handouts for each.

Research to Practice: Bring Vernacular Musicianship into Your Classroom
(Thursday, February 16, 5:15pm)

Recent research has promoted the merits of incorporating popular music—or “vernacular music”—into school music. Vernacular musicians tend to acquire a skill set that differs from that typically emphasized in formal education. A number of music researchers have provided evidence that the adoption of certain popular music practices could improve music education altogether. Although many music teachers are not philosophically opposed to using popular music in their teaching—after all, it is what’s on their iPods—they have little experience actually doing it. Their own musicianship may lack certain skills important in vernacular music making. These critical skills include playing by ear, improvising, composing original music, and creating music collaboratively with others.

This session will survey recent research on vernacular musicianship while simultaneously applying its findings to music instruction. Those in attendance will learn how to broaden their teaching approaches to make classroom activities and curricular offerings more inclusive and better representative of the musical world that today’s students live in. An underlying message of this session is this: An ultimate goal of music education is to equip children with the skills needed for participatory involvement with music for the rest of their lives. Developing the skills of vernacular musicianship may be an important step in realizing this.

Handout for Bring Vernacular Musicianship into Your Classroom

*          *          *

Research to Practice: The Psychology of Music Performance
(Friday, February 17, 8:00am)

Ideally our students approach music making with the goal of performing heartfelt expression that will emotionally move their listeners. Truth be told, however, this probably happens too infrequently in our rehearsal rooms and school auditoriums. Sometimes the only emotion student musicians bring to a performance is fear, as stage fright takes hold. Can teachers do more to encourage expressive musicianship and stave off the onset of anxiety in performance situations?

Whether student performances are marked by moving expressivity or debilitating stage fright can be influenced by the way we teach music to them. This session will consider the interrelated nature of motivation, performance anxiety, and expressive performance. It will draw from the research in these areas and apply it in practical tips for teaching and learning. During this session, attendants will have a chance to clarify their own musical motivations, and receive recommendations for capitalizing on student motivational patterns. Also, the audience will learn the keys to managing stage fright and ways to structure music performance activities to help avoid anxiety altogether. This session will illustrate that a learning environment that taps students’ intrinsic motivation for music is crucial in efforts to teach toward expressive playing and singing, and away from the conditions of performance anxiety.

Handout for The Psychology of Music Performance