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POM40510.1177/0305735612448510LamontPsychology of Music


Emotion, engagement and

meaning in strong experiences
of music performance

Psychology of Music
40(5) 574594
The Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permission: sagepub.
DOI: 10.1177/0305735612448510

Alexandra Lamont
Keele University, UK

This paper explores the emotions connected with music performance. Performing music provides
the potential to attain wellbeing via the hedonic and eudaimonic routes, appealing to pleasure,
engagement and meaning (Seligman, 2002). To date, most research exploring emotions amongst
performers has focused on these components separately, exploring positive or negative affect, flow, or
the development of performer identity. In the current study, 35 university students (mean age 20.6
years) gave free reports of their strongest, most intense experiences of performing music. Accounts
were content analyzed using the Strong Experiences of Music Descriptive System (Gabrielsson &
Lindstrm Wik, 2003), and also analyzed for the components of wellbeing using an idiographic
approach. Four basic types of response were characterized, emphasizing: (1) negative and positive
emotions and personal engagement; (2) negative and positive emotions, engagement and meaning;
(3) positive emotion and meaning; or (4) positive emotions, engagement, and meaning. The emphasis
on the eudaimonic route to wellbeing (through engagement and meaning) shows that young
musicians do have valuable and rewarding experiences with the potential to sustain long-term
motivation to engage with practical music-making. The value of the positive psychology framework
is also demonstrated by its applicability to descriptions of strong experiences of performing music.

emotions, flow, music performance, positive psychology, wellbeing

Research is beginning to demonstrate that performing music has considerable potential to
generate wellbeing. Successful performers will derive considerable pleasure from their ability to
make music, being able to meet technical challenges with high levels of skill, and enabling them
to connect with other performers and with an audience. Involvement in musical activities has
been shown to have positive effects on mood (Valentine & Evans, 2001), quality of life (Clift

Corresponding author:
Dr Alexandra Lamont, School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire ST5 5BG, UK.
Email: a.m.lamont@keele.ac.uk



et al., 2010) and engagement (Davidson, 2011), and to be a very rewarding leisure activity
(Lamont, 2011a).
However, performing music also poses many challenges. These include initiating and
maintaining motivation and interest in the early stages, the need to develop a musical identity
and strong sense of self-efficacy throughout a lengthy training programme, managing
transitions between stages of education and between training and professional life, overcoming
performance anxiety and musculo-skeletal damage, and meeting the requirements of lengthy
amounts of daily practice and repetition. Many music students experience a number of healthrelated problems (Kreutz, Ginsborg, & Williamon, 2009; Williamon & Thompson, 2006), while
professional musicians are prone to a number of physical and psychological complaints
(Altenmller & Jabusch, 2010; Wynn Parry, 2004) and almost all professional musicians
appear to experience stress (Bartel & Thompson, 1994; Langendrfer, Hodapp, Kreutz, &
Bongard, 2006). The current paper explores the contradiction between positive and negative
emotions in relation to performing music, focusing on memorable experiences from a relatively
young sample of adults and drawing on concepts from positive psychology to interpret these.
Positive psychology (e.g., Seligman, 2002) approaches wellbeing in a multifaceted manner,
combining two different traditions (Ryan, Huta, & Deci, 2008). First, the hedonic tradition
focuses on happiness or pleasure, defined as a presence of positive affect and an absence of
negative affect (Kahneman, Diener, & Schwarz, 1999). The simple fact of experiencing positive
emotions such as joy and contentment has been shown to have many psychological benefits,
including health and cognitive outcomes (e.g., Fredrickson, 2001; Fredrickson & Levenson,
1998). Second, the eudaimonic tradition focuses on living life in a satisfying way. Within this,
two different routes have been identified (Seligman, 2002). First, engagement has been shown to
be an essential component. Balancing appropriately high levels of challenge and skill is said to
lead to an engaged state of flow, where the individual loses self-awareness through complete
absorption in the task (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). People experiencing high
levels of flow in general are found to be more motivated and creative in both work and leisure
(Csikszentmihalyi & Lefevre, 1989). Second, meaning refers to using ones strengths or
commitments towards something larger than oneself, such as voluntary work, social groups or
religion, which also contributes significantly to personal wellbeing (e.g., Wills, 2009).
Autonomy over ones own actions is also held to be an essential ingredient in the pursuit of
both types of eudaimonia (Ryan et al., 2008).
Within positive psychology both traditions, hedonism and eudaimonia, are held to be
necessary in the pursuit of happiness (Waterman, 1993), and a balance is required between the
three components of pleasure, engagement and meaning in order to achieve a state of subjective
wellbeing and authentic happiness (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005; Seligman, Parks, &
Steen, 2005). At a global level, wellbeing varies with genetics (factors such as personality and
positive dispositions), demographics and circumstances, but under normal circumstances
individuals can control around 40% of their wellbeing through the pursuit of intentional,
chosen, effortful activities (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005). Research is still lacking
into how different activities might engender wellbeing within this framework, although
Csikszentmihalyi (2002) identifies a list of different activities which are likely to induce flow in
participants, including active participation in dance, theatre and the arts, reading, sex, eating,
and even vandalism and joyriding. Active involvement is central to this (cf. Argyle, 1996).
The positive psychology framework has already been used to interpret and analyze data on
the effects of music listening (see Lamont, 2011b). The growing body of research on different
beneficial elements of music-making and performing can also be mapped onto this positive


Psychology of Music 40(5)

psychology framework to explore how music-making leads to wellbeing. As with most previous
research with music listening, the different facets of the framework have tended to be addressed
by different researchers using different methodologies and theoretical approaches. These are
first considered separately and then brought together.

Hedonism through music performing: Positive and negative affect in music

Performing music can be a very positive emotional experience. For example, the physical act of
singing, whether alone or in a choir, has been found to reduce levels of tense arousal and to
increase levels of energetic arousal and positive hedonic tone (Kreutz, Bongard, Rohrmann,
Hodapp, & Grebe, 2004; Valentine & Evans, 2001), as well as to improve perceived quality of life
(Clift et al., 2010). Childrens initial motivations to learn instruments are hedonic: 7- and
8-year-olds say they began to learn an instrument because it looked like it would be fun, exciting,
or enjoyable (McPherson, 2001; McPherson & Davidson, 2006). Persson (2001) found that the
hedonic motive of playing for enjoyment appeared to be the most influential for adult piano
performers (see also Lamont, 2011a), and peak and strong emotional experiences in music
are also found in performers relating to their own performances as well as listeners (Whaley,
Sloboda, & Gabrielsson, 2009). Gabrielsson and Lindstrm Wik (2003) identified a large
number of largely positive emotional components in their Strong Experiences of Music (SEM)
descriptive system, derived from 1,354 free descriptions of such strong experiences. Volunteer
adult participants were asked to write about their strongest and most intense experience of
music, and results were content analyzed to outline the components of these experiences in the
SEM descriptive system or SEM-DS (Gabrielsson & Lindstrm Wik, 2003). The SEM-DS covers
seven aspects: the overall general characteristics, physical reactions and behaviours, perception,
cognition, feelings/emotions, existential and transcendental aspects, and personal and social
aspects (see also Table 1). Although the majority of responses described music listening rather
than performing, around 19% of the reports address performance (Gabrielsson, 2010,
2008/2011). Nonetheless, positive emotions dominated the descriptions of these strong
experiences of both listening and performing, particularly joy and happiness, rapture and
euphoria, and calm and peace.
Considering the negative elements of music performance, a great deal of research has
explored music performance anxiety (Kenny, 2004; Wilson, 2002). Performance anxiety
affects around a quarter of professional performers to a significant degree (Steptoe, 2001), and
is commonly defined by the physical and mental sensations experienced (Lehmann, Sloboda, &
Woody, 2007). Its symptoms are created by the autonomic nervous systems response to
perceived threat, and include physiological symptoms like increased heart rate/pounding chest,
excessive sweating, dry mouth, nausea, trembling hands, and cognitive symptoms such as loss
of concentration and negative thoughts about the performance (Lehmann et al., 2007). All the
symptoms of performance anxiety also appear in the SEM descriptive system: muscular tension/
relaxation, trembling, shaking, palpitations of the heart, perspiration, stomach reactions,
feeling dizzy, sick and in pain can all characterize either a strong positive or negative experience
of music.
Wilson (2002) identified three sources of performance anxiety: trait anxiety, or predispositions for anxiety or unrealistic thinking about performing; situational stress, such as
that created by a given performance context; and (lack of) task mastery over the music to be
performed (see also Wilson & Roland, 2002). Treatments have focused on the symptoms (e.g.,



relaxation techniques, biofeedback training, or anti-anxiety medication), the performer

(therapy for their anxiety levels, developing positive beliefs and goal orientations), the situation
(choice of venue, inclusion of group as well as solo situations, and practising the performance
as well as the piece), and the musical task (selecting appropriately challenging music; Connolly
& Williamon, 2004; Gruzelier & Egner, 2004; Kenny, 2006; Lehmann et al., 2007). The most
successful approaches to treating performance anxiety as a trait focus on cognitive and
behavioural measures, and flow (see following section) has occasionally been referred to as a
desirable state which might help reduce anxiety (Wilson & Roland, 2002).

Engagement and flow in music performing

Most literature exploring the development of musical performing skills has highlighted the
importance of motivation (both extrinsic and intrinsic) in sustaining childrens and young
peoples interest in music as an activity (e.g., McPherson & Davidson, 2006; Woody &
McPherson, 2010). Particularly in the early stages, the influence of other people has been
identified as critical in providing the necessary extrinsic motivation for a child to continue with
music (e.g., Davidson, Howe, & Sloboda, 1997). Differences in intrinsic motivation and
achievement in music performers during childhood and adolescence have typically been
interpreted within a framework that emphasizes the learners cognitive orientation to learning
(for example, self-concept, self-efficacy, attributional beliefs; Austin, Renwick, & McPherson,
2006), which relates to the notions of autonomy and self-determination referred to earlier
(e.g., Ryan & Deci, 2000; Ryan et al., 2008).
This cognitive approach has also been linked to the psychological state of flow. Playing and
performing music has the potential to induce a flow-like state, even in infants and young
children (Custodero, 2005). Gabrielsson and Lindstrm Wik (2003) uncovered musical
performances that reflected engagement with loss of self-awareness, indicative of flow: for
example, sometimes it is as if it isnt me who is playing. The fingers move by themselves
(p. 176). Flow may also predict long-term motivation and achievement in music performing.
For instance, amongst a sample of adolescent musicians, ONeill (1999) found that higher
achieving children reported significantly more flow experiences with music than lower
achievers (see also Fritz & Avsec, 2007). Similarly, Sloboda (1991) found that adults who
described having had peak experiences with music before the age of about 10 were more likely
to pursue involvement with music later in life. High levels of engagement and flow in music
may thus provide one reason for performers to continue to re-engage with the activity (cf.
Woody & McPherson, 2010).

Meaning in music performing

From the perspective of positive psychology, the search for meaning (which has been less
explored than the other routes to happiness) is allied most closely with spirituality and
religion. However, the notion of searching for meaning and something beyond oneself has
two clear parallels in music performing: first, as a passage of self-discovery in terms of identity
formation and, second, as a shared experience with co-performers and/or an audience (cf.
Walker, 2010).
Becoming a musician is an important achievement in terms of developing an identity in
music (Hargreaves, Miell, & MacDonald, 2002; Juuti & Littleton, 2010; Lamont, 2002; ONeill,
2002). Becoming a performer is a somewhat separate achievement (Davidson, 2002), with a


Psychology of Music 40(5)

fundamental goal of communication to an audience (Bailey & Davidson, 2005; Hargreaves,

MacDonald, & Miell, 2005). Developing a positive identity is important as a motivator: a lack of
musical self-concept or musical identity leads many people to disengage from musical activities
(e.g., Ruddock & Leong, 2005; Wise & Sloboda, 2008), and managing transitions while retaining
a positive identity is important for long-term success in a musical career (Juuti & Littleton, 2010).
Developing a group or social musical identity is also important. Persson (2001) found social
motives and the importance of belonging to be the second most influential factor in motivating
pianists to continue playing. These powerful social motives for musical engagement have been
studied by Faulkner and Davidson (2004), showing how members of a male choir feel that
singing plays an important role in connecting with other people (family, friends and wider
social groups) as well as communicating to others (cf. Davidson, 2004). Even in small ensembles,
the influence of others is an important motivator: for example, members of wind quintets
reported they had formed the groups out of a desire to work with friends or other musicians
whom they liked and respected (Ford & Davidson, 2003), and Gabrielsson and Lindstrm Wik
(2003) highlighted a sense of community amongst performers and between performers and
listeners in their examples of strong experiences of performing (see also Sawyer, 2006).
Conversely, a lack of such positive social contact through music can lead to performers dropping
out (Moore, Burland, & Davidson, 2003).

An integrated approach to happiness and wellbeing in music performing

As indicated by the diversity of research reviewed earlier, most of the research focusing on
aspects of wellbeing and fulfilment for performers has tackled these concepts separately.
However, the positive psychology approach to happiness and wellbeing implies that it is
important to consider them in an integrated manner, as parts of a whole. The SEM-DS provides
one potential means for doing this. Gabrielsson and Lindstrm Wik (2003) have identified
direct physical and physiological responses to the music such as chills alongside high arousal
feelings of rapture and euphoria, ecstasy and intoxication (see also Gabrielsson, 2010),
implying a hedonic state. In addition, these are accompanied by a number of different cognitive
characteristics, such as focused attention and complete absorption, feeling embedded in the
music, and coming to hear things in a new way, implying engagement and flow. Finally, the
more spiritual elements of transcendence such as out-of-body experiences are present, as well
as aspects of personal and social development, indicating meaning-making. The combination
of elements may account for the power of such experiences in a range of therapeutic outcomes
(e.g., Gabrielsson & Lindstrm, 1995). However, most of the analysis presented to date has
focused on identifying the different elements of SEMs across participants in a nomothetic
manner, rather than exploring their co-occurrence within particular accounts in an idiographic
way (Pelham, 1993; although see Gabrielsson, 2008/2011). Moreover, while examples are
given of performers reporting strong experiences of their own performance through illustrative
quotes, the analysis has not separated out performing and listening SEMs and so it is hard to
know how far the general descriptive characteristics and overwhelmingly positive emotions
found in these experiences apply specifically to music performing.
The vast majority of research on emotion in performance centres on the communication of
emotion to the listener (e.g., Gabrielsson, 2003; Juslin & Laukka, 2003; Juslin & Madison, 1999;
Lindstrm, Juslin, Bresin, & Williamon, 2003). Indeed, Juslin and Timmers point out that [w]
hat counts is the sound that reaches the listener, not what the performer is feeling (2010,
p. 478), and very little research has considered the emotional impact of the performance on the



performer. Van Zijl and Sloboda (2011) have begun to explore this, finding that personal
involvement with emotions varies at different stages of preparation for a performance. Emotional
playing featured in the earlier stages of preparation, while an expressive performance was found
to consist of more detached and conscious communication, with a small proportion of felt
emotion. Research with jazz musicians (Sawyer, 2006) has suggested the importance of a link
between flow and group cohesion in generating a state of intense emotional empathy through
improvisation. These studies both combine the concepts of engagement and meaning, providing
support for the fruitfulness of an integrated approach from positive psychology to understanding
emotions in music performers. However, they have not considered the long-term impact of such
experiences, nor the potential influence of hedonism within the search for wellbeing.
The current study thus addresses the holistic nature of strong experiences of music
performing amongst a population of young adults with an interest in music, exploring the
kinds of experiences they choose to report and any commonalities in their experiences. It adopts
the same self-report methodology as the SEM project, drawing on this and other findings that
performers possess an adequate vocabulary for music and emotions (e.g., Greasley, Lamont &
Sloboda, in press; Sloboda, 1991) and can accurately describe performance situations (Osborne
& Kenny, 2008). It also focuses on young adult participants as a relatively homogeneous age
group who have had sufficient potential opportunities for strong experiences of music through
performing in the relatively recent past (Gabrielsson, 2006), strengthening the dependability of
the self-report technique. It explores whether performing experiences can be characterized
using the tripartite conceptualization of wellbeing from positive psychology.

A total of 35 undergraduate and graduate students completed free descriptions of their
strongest experiences of or related to music performing. The sample consisted of psychology
and music students from a medium-sized university in the north-west of England who had
opted to take a course in music psychology. There were eight male and 27 female participants,
with a median age of 20 years (ranging from 20 years to 35 years 1 month, SD = 2.8). Most
participants were White Caucasian (88.6%), and the sample also included two Chinese and two
Other Asian participants. All participants had experienced some kind of musical training; a
large majority (88.6%) had more than six years of musical training; and 74.3% had more than
10 years of training. The median grade level achieved for the 23 participants who reported this
was grade 8 (SD = 1.278), with 15 participants having achieved grade 8 or higher. A total of
65% reported having more than three years of performing experience in the last five years. The
sample is thus comparable in its variance in musical expertise (taking age into account) with
Gabrielssons sample (2008/2011), where 20% were professional musicians and 56% amateur

Identical instructions were given to participants as in the SEM project (Gabrielsson & Lindstrm
Wik, 2003). At the top of one side of A4 paper was printed: Describe in your own words the
strongest, most intense experience of music that you have ever had. Please describe your
experience and reactions in as much detail as you can. If you need to use more paper, feel free.
The rest of the page was left blank. On the opposite side was set out a series of follow-up


Psychology of Music 40(5)

questions, following Gabrielsson (2006), which participants were instructed to complete as

necessary if they had not referred to the answers in their free descriptions. These asked where
and when the experience took place, whether it was the first time they had experienced the
music and whether this strong experience recurred during later experience with the same
music, feelings before and after the experience, what the cause of the experience was, and
finally, whether such strong experiences were experienced often. Participants were not guided
to write about either performing or listening specifically, but allowed to make their own choice
of what kind of musical experience was most salient for them; the current paper focuses only
on those who chose to write about performing (for analysis of the listening experience data, see
Lamont, 2011b).

Participants were recruited over five years (October 2006 to November 2010) at the start of an
optional module in music psychology for which they gave informed consent to take part in a
range of studies. They were given response forms and asked to take these away and complete
them alone, returning them to the researcher the following week. All participants were given
pre-assigned randomized participant numbers to protect their anonymity, and this enabled
their responses to be matched to their responses from other questionnaires giving details of age,
gender, ethnicity and musical training. Participants gave their consent to be referred to here
using their first names only.

Data were first analyzed using qualitative content analysis drawing on categories from previous
research (Krippendorf, 2004). Although Gabrielsson (2008/2011) did not specify the precise
content analytic techniques used in his analysis, it corresponds to a qualitative approach where
text is not simply counted for frequencies of occurrence but is examined closely in order to
classify it into a parsimonious number of categories of similar meaning (Weber, 1990). The
initial coding was conducted using the SEM-DS as elaborated by Gabrielsson and Lindstrm
Wik (2003), and a few categories were added and two existing categories expanded to include
material relating specifically to music performance situations. Frequency of occurrence of
each topic was counted in terms of the number of participants who referred to them, to enable
comparison with Gabrielssons (2010) results (Table 1).
Most participants reported positive emotions, with 88.6% reporting some positive emotion
in their accounts (compared with 72% in Gabrielsson, 2010). However, there was also a very
high proportion of negative emotions (62.9%) compared with only 23% in Gabrielssons
findings. Unsurprisingly, topics mentioned but not specifically enumerated by Gabrielsson in
relation to performance were also frequently found: over half the participants reported a change
from negative to positive emotions in connection with performance anxiety (18 of the 20
participants who noted changed emotions, or 51.4% of the total), and a similar proportion
(54.3%) reported a specific response from the audience, with a high number (34.3%)
highlighting the importance of interacting with other performers. In addition, over a quarter
of accounts mentioned the challenge of performing, over a third noted the hard work, effort
and time that went into it, and over half mentioned skill.
The current results differ from Gabrielssons (2010) findings in three other main respects.
First, there are many more responses relating to the topics of community and communication
through music in the current data, as 68.6% of performers mention this topic compared with



Table 1. Results according to SEM-DS (from Gabrielsson & Lindstrm Wik, 2003, comparing frequencies
from Gabrielsson, 2010)

General characteristics
Unique, fantastic, incredible, unforgettable
Hard-to-describe experience, words
Physical reactions, behaviours
Physiological reactions
Behaviours, actions
Quasi-physical reactions
Other senses
Intensified perception, multimodal
Changed/special attitude: expectancy,
receptivity, absorption
Changed experience of situation, bodymind, time-space, part-whole
Loss of control (surprise, being
Changed relation/attitude to the music
(magic moments)
Associations, memories, thoughts
Intense/powerful feelings
Positive feelings
Negative feelings
Different feelings (mixed, conflicting,
changed (including 18 overcoming
performance anxiety)
Using music to express mood3
Existential and transcendental aspects
Existential aspects
Transcendental aspects
Religious experience
Personal and social aspects
General new insights, possibilities, needs

Number of participants
(total N = 35)

% of total

(2010) %2






































Psychology of Music 40(5)

Table 1. (Continued)

Music-related new insights, possibilities,

Confirmation of identity, self-actualization,
interactions with other performers
audience response
Performance-specific issues4
Hard work, effort and time
Challenge and difficulty posed by
Skill in performing

Number of participants
(total N = 35)

% of total

(2010) %2















Notes: 1percentages for the current data are given to one decimal place to report the data more accurately due to the
comparatively small sample size; 2most of the percentages are published in Gabrielsson (2010) and the remaining figures
were supplied directly (Gabrielsson, personal communication); 3Gabrielsson (2010) notes that the use of music to express
mood was not explicitly asked for in his data and if it had been this figure would probably have been much higher; 4these
performance-specific issues were added to the SEM-DS for the current results since they could not be accounted for
elsewhere in the descriptive system.

only 18% of respondents in the earlier results. Conversely, while 41% of Gabrielssons
participants mentioned general insights, possibilities and needs being generated by their SEM,
only 5.7% mention this in the current sample (while a very similar number mention specifically
musical insights, possibilities and needs in both sets of results); in opposition, many more
performers noted confirmation of identity and self-esteem (48.6% compared with 15%). Finally,
there are far fewer mentions of most of the perceptual elements and imagery from the current
sample compared with the larger sample in Gabrielsson (2010).
These results provide confirmation of the general transferability of Gabrielsson and Lindstrm
Wiks (2003) SEM descriptive system across different samples and the relevance of most of the
categories to examples of strong experiences of music performing specifically, although there are
differences due to the specific nature of music performing (see Appendix 1). However, as
illustrated earlier, this nomothetic content analysis approach cannot identify particular types of
respondent or experience, and so an open-ended thematic approach was also adopted here to
analyze the free accounts (Richards, 2006). An idiographic approach has been applied, taking
the individual account as the unit of analysis (Pelham, 1993), as previously done for music
listening accounts by Lamont (2011b) and for concert audiences by Pitts (2005a).

Characterizing the strong experiences of performers

Considering each account first in a descriptive sense, a variety of experiences was reported,
both in terms of activity and context. Table 2 provides an overview of the contexts of the strong
experiences of performing. The vast majority (33 of the 35 experiences, 94%) involved other
listeners of some kind, and 21 of these (60%) were with non-critical audiences in the form of
concerts and gigs or playing for friends, while 12 (34.3%) were for critical audiences in recitals,


Table 2. Activities and situations of strong experiences of music performing
Alone With friends With an audience

Group concerts

Orchestra Band Choir Orchestra/Band Choir Recital/Exam Competition/ Lesson


Group competition













Number of parcipants

Figure 1. Styles of music involved in strong experiences of performing

examinations, festivals, competitions and lessons. The majority (80%, or 28) of the strong
experiences were of playing, with 20% occurring with singing.
As shown in Figure 1, over half the strong experiences occurred with classical music. While
most participants described the context to provide explicit or implicit clues to the style of music
being played (e.g., I had wanted to play in a rock band for so long), there were a large number
of accounts (18) that did not specify particular pieces, artists, or composers. Thirteen
participants reported specific pieces or tracks, while four indicated specific moments of
performing within a piece or playing a single note. The data thus represent a range of levels of
specificity, situations and musical styles, although the emphasis within the performing accounts
is of playing an instrument or playing in a group of instrumentalists.
The thematic analysis revealed four main types of performance account, each of which will
be considered in turn in relation to the key concepts of positive psychology. These groups are
those emphasizing different components of the three routes towards wellbeing, as illustrated in
Table 3, and thus embody different performer typologies. The groups are broadly similar in
terms of age, musical experience and background, although those in group 3 have less musical
training overall and less recent performing experience.
Over half of the participants (18 out of 35) mentioned negative emotions relating to
performance anxiety (with another describing a situation which turned from anxiety and
anticipation about her first ever experience of playing to overwhelmingly positive emotions


Psychology of Music 40(5)

Table 3. Typology of performer responses by routes to wellbeing

Group 1
Group 2
Group 3
Group 4





with > 10
yrs training

Participants with
> 3 yrs performing
experience in the last 5

Positive and
negative affect
Positive and
negative affect
Positive affect
Positive affect
















once that barrier had been crossed and a second reporting a positive experience which later
became negative due to lack of opportunity). These divide broadly into two groups, the first two
in the performer typology.
The first group, consisting of 11 accounts, described negative emotions giving way to positive
emotions in a highly personal context, with little reference to the audience or to other
performers. Participants indicated high levels of stress prior to the performance, reporting
being nervous, worried and anxious before they played, with anxiety being expressed
around the challenges of the music it was a difficult piece which had taken me approximately
a year to learn (Emma) and around the performers own state: I felt very nervous, felt like I
was not well-prepared for it, even my fingers freezed up [sic] (Abia). Most described how they
had engaged in solitary hard work through practice as a strategy to overcome these negative
emotions. The majority of these experiences led to successful performances: the nerves subsided
and performers reported feelings of relaxation, enjoyment, adrenaline and, occasionally,
flow-like states of lack of self-awareness. These subsequently led participants to gain in
confidence: It has given me the confidence to know that enough practice does pay off eventually
(Elizabeth), and to continue making music: Although it was really hard and pushed me to the
limits, I found it amazing fun and felt really proud of myself when I finished (Hannah). As Julia
noted after a university music recital, I wanted to do it again.
For Emma, and several others in this group, the anxiety seemed to be bound up with the
exhilaration of the performance:
When I started to play it I had a nervous butterfly feeling which became really intense as I continued
with no mistakes. I could feel the music and I felt like I wasnt in control even though I was playing it.
As the song went on the sound made me feel an intense feeling of happiness and satisfaction.

This exemplifies the personal challenge and self-reflective understanding that characterized the
responses from this group. If any connections were drawn with others, they tended to be negative ones, as Alice explained:
Though having looked at the music before arrival, I felt very inadequate when I couldnt play the music
up to speed and to the standard of the majority of the other players. This led to feeling very exposed in
sectional rehearsals, though the tutors provided useful fingerings and technique advice. I also found
the intense all-day rehearsing tiring as I wasnt used to playing that much.



Overall, the negative experiences prior to performance for this group were replaced by
positive emotions during and after performance. However, one participant reported having
been prescribed anti-anxiety medication which gave her a negative reaction, and attempting
the performance (a recital) without the medication: I was very nervous before I went in to play,
and continued to be nervous throughout. It manifests itself, with me, in sweaty palms, shaking
and complete mind blank (Amy). These physical features, as noted earlier, are also part of the
SEM-DS. Unfortunately the poor level of achievement in the performance led Amy to note that
she would probably not perform again until she had mastered her anxiety.
The second group (six in all) also included the negative-to-positive emotional change
embodied in performance anxiety, and a confidence boost through conquering this, but
alongside it emphasized social relationships with others (both performers and audience) which
reflected the social dimension of meaning. The following description shows how the performer
sees herself as connected to a wider community, both in terms of the others involved in the
production and the audience:
Prior to playing I was really nervous. When we began playing I began to relax and stopped shaking.
There is one particular part of the song which was really difficult for me to play; but at the same time
the most beautiful. I remember that the technique to play it was painful but when I got to the end of the
piece I was crying! I think the way my classmates had done the lighting had a lot to do with it, secondly
the adrenaline rush of performing in front of a large crowd and lastly performing brings you wholely
[sic] in tune with the musicality of the song itself. Plus it was a huge self-esteem boost and I remember
just being on a high for weeks. (Kirsty)

Others reported similar connections with their fellow performers and the audience: the buzz
I got from playing with a live band and singers/actors in front of a large audience in a theatre
was immense (Adam). This group viewed the pressure and stress created by performance as
somehow responsible for the adrenaline rush they experience during and after performing,
and the performance itself is the catalyst for converting the negative into positive: a few minutes
into the performance, nerves turned into the most fantastic hour of my life (Jonathan).
The third group, with 10 responses, overwhelmingly expressed a strong sense of positive
emotion. These tended to be shorter and less detailed than the other descriptions in terms of
what exactly it was that evoked the strong response. For example, Alanna noted it felt wonderful
and my emotions were of extreme elation about a performance at the Barbican, while Grant
stated It was a great gig and we had an amazing reception. Seven of the 10 described
experiences that included singing (although the participants were not always the ones doing
the singing, as in the band gigs), and nine were about performing situations to non-critical
audiences. Audience response was sometimes invoked as part of the strong response: once
everyone applauds you feel a huge buzz (Hayley), and connections between the performers
were also prevalent:
hundreds of people took part. It was so intense and loud and there were so many great songs with
everyone singing in tune. (Ruth)

In one rather unusual example, Jake eloquently described how the audience and the
performers came together: the poetic unleashings of freedom experienced when my band, the
audience and myself collaborated for perfect microcosms of moment. Jake and one other in
this group spoke about how music was their life, and that they had found their passion through


Psychology of Music 40(5)

this kind of activity and it was what sustained them. In summary, this group was characterized
by a strong sense of positive emotion, engagement with others (both performers and listeners), and
including a sense of personal growth through music (gaining confidence, finding their direction),
with an absence of explicit statements relating to the challenge and skill aspects of flow.
In the fourth group (eight responses), participants clearly illustrated all the features of
wellbeing (positive emotions, engagement, meaning, social relationships and achievement).
These were the most detailed and longest accounts, reflecting a wide range of features of the
SEM-DS from descriptions of physiological reactions all the way through to connections with
the audience and personal development. They differed from the second group in that there were
no indications given of negative emotion, although challenge and skill was often referred to.
Participants reported their experience in terms of a kind of synergy achieved between
themselves, other performers and the audience, and these accounts also emphasized the sound
quality, the beauty of the music, and a sense of euphoria. For example, one oboist reported in
detail about an instance of playing the St Matthew Passion in front of a large audience:
There is an aria called Aus Liebe (+/ Because of love). During this aria two cor anglais players play
accompanying repetitive notes. A flute plays the melody; and a soprano sings the words. I played
second cor anglais. For cor anglais this aria is very heavy, since you need a lot of breath to play it to
the end. During this performance in the Jacobi church, it seemed that the four musicians became one.
We played as if we were in trance, as if we were not physically there. The voice of the soprano was so
pure, so full of unspoken emotion. During this aria the audience was totally silent. It was a very deep
silence. The atmosphere in the church was very special. When the aria had come to an end, it seemed
as if I had to wake up, as if I had to come back from another state of being. When I looked at the
audience many people were crying. Emotionally I was totally exhausted. At the same time I felt an
enormous happiness. (Anemone)

Anemone referred to the technical challenges posed by the music (you need a lot of breath to
play it to the end), but emphasized the sound quality produced by herself and the other performers and the effect this had on herself, the other performers and the audience. Sound quality
was a common feature in all these descriptions, and they also included mentions of physiological reactions more frequently than the other groups. There was also a sense of compulsion
shown in these accounts, from Alicia, who reported that she had to step in to create a chamber
choir for mixed voices to Sian, the orchestra member who felt, after a performance of Les
Misrables, that she wanted to be up there forever.
All but one of these accounts mentioned the specific music that was involved, not only by
name but in detail. For example, Lydia recalled a memorable performance of Mozarts Requiem
and began by describing the music itself:
The music is so powerful that it leaves you unable to not be moved; its haunting, beautiful and packed
with such strong emotion, its just impossible to not be left moved by it. It physically affects me even to
listen to it now, as soon as I hear the strings and woodwind in the Introitus my spine tingles!

She then went on to explain the depth of connection to the specific performance:
as soon as it begins you are unable to think about anything other than the wonderful music. Its almost
like the music made me feel powerful, and I think it had the same effect on everybody as it had never
sounded so good . . . At the end of the performance I just felt absolutely elated. I felt like we had really
done justice to the music.



These performances were also all characterized by a strong sense of achievement, but this
achievement went beyond the individual (as in the first group) and came from a more confident
foundation than those in the second group. Ruth illustrated this confidence well:
Playing the flute is a real passion, but when put within a performance as strong as this, I find it hard to
convey how amazing it makes me feel and how I can completely lose myself in the music itself.

These four types of performance reflect different emphases on the elements of positive emotions,
engagement and flow, and meaning and social relationships. While they all include aspects of each
of these in certain combinations, the weighting given to these combinations are different, and may
reflect a hierarchy with a progression towards higher levels of wellbeing. The first group was the
most negative in the current data, considering their music-making as a very personal and almost
introverted activity which could have substantial negative impact on their emotions and their
willingness to continue. However, if performance situations went well, the impact was more
positive. The second group also suffered from negative expectations but had stronger connections
with their fellow performers and the audience, leading to a more robust sense of identity in music.
The third group appeared almost to take their positive musical experiences for granted, as although
hard work might have preceded the performance, the performance itself was reported in global
terms as prioritizing hedonism along with engagement with others. There were no instances of
critical audiences in these accounts. Finally, the fourth group did not exhibit any negative emotions
in relation to performing, showing a well-developed sense of musical identity and a robustness to
their performing which encompassed many positive features.

The current results highlight that, while some of the general features of strong experiences of
music highlighted by Gabrielssons work (2010, 2008/2011) are also found in specific
investigations of performers, there are different patterns of response when considering
performance as a separate activity. Performing often includes a high proportion of negative as
well as positive emotions, sets a high level of challenge (either from the performers themselves
or from audiences, critical or otherwise) and requires a high level of skill. It has the potential to
generate more connections to others, both other performers and the audience. Finally,
performing also provides more potential for confirmation of identity and self-esteem in relation
to music, which is likely to set the groundwork for future careers in music (cf. Davidson &
Burland, 2006; Lamont, 2011a; Pitts, 2009).
As outlined earlier, the balanced approach to wellbeing is held to be dependent on combining
features of hedonism, engagement and meaning. Thus individual accounts were examined for
the relative balance of these features, and a typology of four different pathways has been
illustrated. Each includes elements of all three sources of wellbeing, but with different
emphases (Seligman, 2002; Seligman et al., 2005). First, in relation to hedonism or pleasure,
almost all the experiences included positive emotions. This confirms earlier findings that
performers choose to engage and re-engage through some kind of intrinsic enjoyment of
performing (Persson, 2001) and supports the importance of the hedonic route (Kahneman
et al., 1999). However, hedonism would not be an accurate overall characterization for
participants reporting situations of intense negative emotions. These reflect many features of
preparation and pre-performance anxiety found in earlier research (Lehmann et al., 2007;


Psychology of Music 40(5)

Osborne & Kenny, 2008; Steptoe, 2001). The discourse around preparation and anxiety
indicates that, for some, performing is not inherently pleasurable, although appropriate levels
of skill can help performers meet these challenges, generating flow states. Thus every account
included a strong emphasis on at least one element of eudaimonia (Waterman, 1993),
including flow, personal and social meaning in differing combinations. It is possible that a
degree of arousal is necessary for some performers to achieve high quality performances, just
as it also seems necessary for performers to re-inject felt emotion into their playing prior to
giving a performance (van Zijl & Sloboda, 2011). Furthermore, the presence of a critical
audience in around a third of the performance accounts suggests that other people can also be
responsible for generating a memorable performance situation which may also evoke some
negative emotions (cf. Brotons, 1994).
The emphasis found here on both elements of eudaimonia, which has been linked to
autonomy and intrinsic motivation (Ryan et al., 2008), is encouraging in showing how young
performers can develop stable and lasting self-concepts in music (cf. Davidson & Burland,
2006). The current results illustrate the importance of flow and peak experience (present in
most of the types identified here) in generating and sustaining motivation for future engagement
with music (ONeill, 1999; Sloboda, 1991), and future work on identity across the lifespan
should consider the importance of flow more closely, as well as how this might be affected by
musical training. Most of the long-term effects on individual participants performing careers
and choices (personal meaning) came from experiences that prioritized challenge rather than
pleasure through music. This highlights that the path towards success as a performer need not
always reflect enjoyment (counter to Perssons 2001 findings), and supports Davidson and
Burlands (2006) argument that it is important for musicians to develop methods for coping
with negative experiences. However, Davidson and Burland also emphasized the importance of
having a range of positive experiences with others in order to develop a strong personal musical
identity. The relative paucity of entirely solitary experiences in the accounts here indicates that
participants felt that strong experiences of music performance were more typically shared with
others (generating social meaning), even if the effects of such shared performance might be
considered more often in terms of the individual rather than the group. The results also suggest
that emotionally connecting to others could be an alternative way to combat performance
Research on listening in everyday life has highlighted the importance of self-chosen music
in having maximum emotional impact (e.g., Mitchell, MacDonald, Knussen, & Serpell, 2007;
Sloboda, Lamont, & Greasley, 2009). However, a further novel outcome from the current data
is that the majority of these strong experiences of music performing come from music that is
not chosen by the participants (in the context of examinations, lessons, and orchestral and
choral concerts), which nonetheless engenders strong experiences. Importantly, this music is
still familiar to the participants, since it is extremely unlikely that a performer can experience
wholly novel music in the context of a performance. Prior knowledge of the music through
performing (combining auditory and kinaesthetic modalities) may thus prime a strong
experience in a performance setting, where the presence of the audience contributes to the
charged atmosphere, in the same way that listeners can prime themselves for strong
experiences (DeNora, 2001), particularly in live musical situations (Pitts, 2005b). This may
also account for the comparative infrequency of loss of control statements in the current
results, since performers who know the music well will be able to anticipate more than listeners
always can.



Methodologically, the open-ended approach combined with idiographic analysis adopted

here has provided rich data from young adults about a range of musical experiences and
enabled finer-grained interpretation of these experiences. While people without musical
backgrounds often find it difficult to articulate elements of their emotional response to music,
those with musical training and also those with an active and strong interest in music do have
access to a vocabulary to express themselves in relation to music (Greasley et al., in press). The
current sample all had comparable amounts of musical training to participants in Greasley
et al.s study, and thus should have the same ability to describe their emotional experience in
similar amounts of detail. While some chose not to, most of the participants provided accounts
which were longer and more detailed than those provided from adolescents using a similar
methodology by Osborne and Kenny (2008). The task context could have influenced this
(although participants were given the task to do in their own time, it is possible that some
might have not treated this with the appropriate degree of seriousness). However, Gabrielssons
(2010, 2008/2011) data, provided freely by volunteers, also varies in length and level of
detail, so it seems likely that the depth and detail of the accounts is a relevant feature of the
descriptions which merits being taken into account of in the current results. Future research
might explore whether variations in the accounts can be explained by other individual
difference factors such as personality type, and to test the validity of this methodological
approach by comparing it with ratings of subjective wellbeing and emotional state. Finally, a
careful idiographic analysis according to context enables this data to go beyond the earlier
findings from Gabrielsson and Lindstrm Wik (2003; Gabrielsson, 2001, 2006) to explore
features of the performing situation in more detail, since it is becoming increasingly
acknowledged that every feature of musical engagement and involvement is highly contextspecific (Sloboda et al., 2009).
In summary, the results illustrate that strong experiences of music performance are
dominated by the eudaimonic route to happiness, with the hedonic route playing an important
role. Like listeners, performers strongest experiences are characterized by engagement and a
search for meaning, although they occur largely with non-chosen music that is almost always
familiar to the participants and in front of an audience. These experiences have considerable
long-term effects on performers musical lives, and post-event evaluations of those experiences
that include some negative elements show that performers recognize the value of performing
within their musical careers. These experiences provide valuable and overwhelmingly positive
memories of performing which they can draw on to sustain their motivation for music, both
from a hedonistic and, more importantly, from a eudaimonic perspective. It would be important
to explore these experiences in a wider sample of participants at different levels of musical
achievement to investigate how far single experiences can predict a lifetime of musical
engagement, and to consider how important the audience is at different levels of performer
expertise for providing the appropriate level of motivation for high quality performance
As well as all the participants who gave consent for their accounts to be shared, I would like to thank Alf
Gabrielsson for providing support, advice and data for the current paper.

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Dr Alexandra Lamont is currently Senior Lecturer in Psychology of Music at Keele University,
where she has particular responsibility for teaching psychology of music and running
postgraduate programmes in psychology of health and wellbeing and child social development.
Her research spans a broad range of topics, methodologies, and age-ranges, focusing on why
people engage with music (listening and performing) in different ways. Dr Lamont is the
current editor of Psychology of Music (20122017).


Psychology of Music 40(5)

Appendix 1
Music listed in relation to strong experiences of music performance
Music listed (artist/composer and piece/song)


Karl Jenkins Adiemus

St Matthew Passion
Schubert Unfinished Symphony
Tchaikovsky 1812 overture
Berlioz Te Deum (conducted by Sir Richard
Mozart Requiem
Vivaldi Gloria
Les Misrables
Mozart Piano Sonata (unspecified) and
Albeniz Spanish preludes
Chopins Raindrop prelude, Schuberts
Impromptu in Gb and the first movement of
Mozarts Sonata in A major
Various, including theme tunes such as Lord
of the Dance and Harry Potter, and Pomp
and Circumstance
Lord of the Rings
Coldplay Clocks
John Butler Ocean
Bitter Creek rock band [unspecified own
original music]
[unspecified, band]
[unspecified, rock band]
[unspecified, band]
[unspecified, choir]
[unspecified, choir]
[unspecified choir, jazz]
[unspecified, singing, advertisement]
[unspecified, band, improvisation]
[unspecified song, band]
[unspecified, orchestra for theatre]
[unspecified, orchestra, conducted by Sir
Colin Davis]
[unspecified, keyboard/synthesizer]

Jacobi Church, Utrecht
Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra concert
Leicestershire Arts Orchestra concert, De Montfort Hall
Woodard schools collaboration concert, Symphony
Hall, Birmingham
Keele University Chapel
Concert hall
School performance
A Level music recital, 6th form college

[unspecified, keyboard]
[unspecified, piano]
[unspecified] Grade 6 piano piece
[unspecified, piano]
[unspecified, orchestra]

Second year university music recital

Albert Hall Proms
University talent competition
The National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham
Moscow Underground, Denver, Colorado
A club in Burton
The Sugarmill, Hanley
Beijing international childrens choir competition
Schools choir competition
Choir tour/performances
Trafalgar Square
Pub gig
Theatre performance
Theatre performance
Barbican Concert Hall
Yamaha Music Showcase Final, Kani Hoken Hall,
Cousins home
Piano examination
Bromsgrove Music Festival
Inter-school annual orchestral competition
Music lesson
University music recital, Chapel
Singing concert in Germany