Music as a Route to Lifelong Well-Being

Why do you enjoy music? Do you find it intensely pleasurable and addicting? Do you find yourself lost in the flow of the music? Does music connect you to other people and ideas beyond yourself? According to Keele University professor Alexandra Lamont, each of these approaches contribute to musical enjoyment and general well-being, with the maximal experience being achieved when all of these elements are combined.

Dr. Lamont, the current editor of Psychology of Music, spoke to the students of the Music, Mind, and Brain course at Goldsmiths, University of London on the 26th of January, 2012. Lamont’s research builds upon general concepts within the field of positive psychology to investigate how involvement in music contributes to well-being. Before discussing Lamont’s specific research, we will explain some basic terminology within the positive psychology field.

Positive psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology which looks at human activities which encourage pleasure, strength, and engagement. Positive psychologists delineate three critical components which are necessary to achieve a state of well-being (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

  • Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure. Hedonism involves the maximization of positive affect and minimization of negative affect.
  •  Engagement is the “pursuit of gratification through absorption in a given task or activity” (Lamont, 2011b, p. 230). This is related to a state of “flow,” which is characterized by intense concentration and loss of self-awareness and sense of time (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988).
  •  Meaning is involvement in something which is larger than oneself.

According to Lamont, music listening and performance create strong positive responses by capitalizing on any or all of these three routes to happiness. The first of three studies discussed in Lamont’s talk was related to strong emotional experiences in music, which expands on the work of Gabrielsson (2001). Lamont asked 46 undergraduates to describe their strongest remembered experiences in music listening. Lamont analyzed the responses using a qualitative approach, which is an in-depth analysis of specific narratives on a case-by-case basis to extract recurrent commonalities and themes. She adopted an idiographic analysis, which emphasizes each individual case as a distinct unit of analysis. This is in contrast to the approach employed in Gabrielsson’s (2001) research of content analysis, which tallies the number of times a certain response or theme recurs in the total sample.

Lamont found that the majority of strong listening responses were positive in nature and were experienced in live music settings (e.g. concerts and festivals) along with other people. Most involved familiar music, indicating that many participants were intentionally priming themselves toward an expected positive response. Interestingly, several experiences were also in unexpected settings, such as funerals or weddings, or in response to unfamiliar music. A variety of genres were represented, from classical through rock to hip-hop, with the majority focused on pop music. The following account details a strong listening experience which tapped into all three of the paths to well-being (hedonism, engagement, and meaning):

“A few years ago, I got on stage with a ska band called Lightyear. I was quite drunk and so were my friends who were with me. I was dancing with the singer and everyone was going crazy. I just remember thinking to myself no matter what life throws at you, you will always have music and it will always make you feel good.” (Lamont, 2011b, p. 236)

Lamont went on to discuss her soon to be published paper on strong emotional experiences in music performance (forthcoming in Psychology of Music). 35 student performers completed the task of describing their strongest emotional responses to music, in the same manner as the listeners in the aforementioned study. A main difference between performers and listeners was that performing can more often lead to negative emotional responses and anxiety. As in the listening responses, the majority of accounts were positive and involved other people (fellow performers and/or audience). The overall range of responses, however, was more varied across the sample. The most typical profile included mixed emotions, with anxious, self-centred feelings before and/or during the performance but positive post-concert appraisals which involved interpersonal relationships.  Lamont found clear references throughout to the three paths to well-being. Hedonism was accessed through pleasure in the success of the performance. Engagement and meaning were often attained through connection with other performers and the audience.

The final study Lamont discussed was related to lifetime involvement in music. Through an online questionnaire, Lamont acquired responses from amateur adult musicians across the world detailing their involvement in music from childhood to the present. Participants ranged in age from 21 to 83. A striking finding was the discontinuity of music making across the lifespan. Many participants were musically active in childhood, quit performing for a long period (due to familial and career obligations) and showed a renewed interest in music many years later, often by taking up a new instrument. As described by Linda (age 68):

“I sang as a teenager and I haven’t done anything since… It’s given me a new life, I mean a totally new life. 18 months ago, I was doing very little and was quite lonely. Now I’m in 4 different choirs, I’ve got some good friends and I’m very busy… It’s given me a whole new life again.” (Lamont, 2011a, p. 380)

Lamont related this return to musical involvement at a later age to Erikson’s model of stages of identity. According to Erikson (1959), each life stage has a potential crisis. Lamont explained that “music provides a way to negotiate many life transitions and identity crises, from leaving school through to retirement. For many middle-aged adults, involvement in music provides a way of exercising the need for generativity and care” (Lamont, 2011a, p. 381). Many older adults use music as a source of motivation and means of achieving integrity as part of their “end of life review,” the last phase in Erikson’s model.

 Erikson’s Stages of Identity

 All three studies discussed here lead to the conclusion that music is a major theme across the lifespan. They show that music is not only a means of short-term gratification, but a route to complete absorption in an activity which can provide a sense of connection to other people and ideas. Given the omnipresence of music throughout life demonstrated by this research, future implications may include the implementation of a wider range of musical activities for all stages of life. This could be achieved by providing diverse opportunities for musical activities in a community setting, such as in amateur choirs, adult music classes, and nursing home concert series. Lamont shows that even if you’re not a musician, music has the ability to touch you in an emotional and meaningful way. For those of you who have quit music or never played, it’s never too late to find music engaging and gratifying.

Amit Avron, Christopher Coupe, and Kelly Jakubowski

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988). The flow experience and its significance for human   psychology. In Csikszentmihalyi, M., Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 15–35). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Erikson, E. (1959). Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: W.W. Norton and Company,    Inc.

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

Lamont, A. (2011a). The beat goes on: Music education, identity and lifelong learning.     Music Education Research, 13(4), 369-388.

Lamont, A. (2011b). University students’ strong experiences of music: Pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Musicae Scientiae, 15(2), 229-249.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

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