Sex, Drugs, & Music

Goldsmiths Music, Mind, & Brain Blog, March 2013

Have you ever had a strong musical experience? Pleasurable music activates many of the same brain areas as other euphoria inducing stimuli such as sex, food, and drugs (Blood & Zatorre, 2001). Most adults listen to music 44-70% of their waking time and children 80%. However, it’s less than 10% of this time that we are actively focused on listening to music (Sloboda, O’Neill and Ivaldi, 2001). Only during this focused listening time can we experience strong musical emotions.

Strong emotional experiences of music were what Dr. Alexandra Lamont, senior Lecturer in Music Psychology at Keele University, discussed when she visited Goldsmiths College (18th of March 2013). Dr. Lamont comes from a multidisciplinary background in the fields of music, education, and psychology, with her research focusing on issues such as musical choice and preference, music and wellbeing, and emotional responses to music. She affirms that more than food, drugs, and sex, music can provide a sense of meaning, identity, and engagement with the world.

Dr. Lamont conducted a study (Lamont, 2011) with a group of 81 undergraduate students on strong emotional responses to music in a variation of an earlier study by Gabrielsson (2011). By collecting participants’ freely written responses in the form of personal narratives for approximately 4 years, she has gathered detailed information about where, when, with whom, and with what type of music these students had their most powerful musical experience. This type of qualitative data allows Dr. Lamont to take an ecological approach to understanding how music powerfully affects people in real life, not just in a highly controlled and socially sterilized laboratory. Each of the narratives describes a confluence of various emotional and situational factors which combined into a powerful moment for each individual.

A researcher might try to analyze this large body of narratives by looking for specific words or phrases (e.g. live, audience, exhilarated, anxious, friends, familiar…), quantifying the number of times they appear, and categorizing them. However, this may fail to fully represent the complexity and interconnected nature of the factors contributing to such powerful emotional-musical experiences. Therefore, Dr. Lamont used an alternative methodology, which we will explore further, while taking a quick look a common model in the field of Positive Psychology.

For Dr. Lamont, the motivation to explore naturalistic experiences of music came in large part from a model of pleasure, engagement, and meaning encountered in Positive Psychology (Seligman, 2002). In essence, this model states that a person can can find fulfillment in his or her life only when they are engaged in their activites, find pleasure in them, and understand that they have meaning to themselves or others. Dr. Lamont combined this framework with a widely-used model of musically induced emotion (Juslin & Vastfjall, 2008) and as a result she had constructed a simple and effective tool for describing powerful musical experiences:

Courtesy of Alexandra Lamont

In particular, she explained emotional responses in terms of pleasure (positive and negative feelings), engagement, and meaning. While pleasure is rather self-explanatory, engagement refers to complete absorption in a musical experience whereby one enters a state of flow. Meaning arises when the music is connected with a person’s sense of identity, spirituality, or going beyond oneself. Dr. Lamont aligned and integrated Juslin and Vastfjall’s seven mechanisms for induction of musical emotion (outer terms in above model) to account for the variety of factors contributing to emotional experiences of music. She saw that each of the seven mechanisms contributed to one or more aspects Seligman’s model. The arrows connecting the two models can vary in size depending on the particularities of a given musical experience. For example, when someone has a powerful memory associated with a certain song, the arrow for episodic memory would be relatively large.

If you have had a powerful experience with music, did it take you by surprise? Were you with others? Were you performing or listening? Try applying the model above to your musical experience. To show how the model is applied, Dr. Lamont related one powerful example of an unexpected musical experience:

A young man boards an empty train at dusk after returning from a particularly difficult weekend with his girlfriend. His iPod, on loud volume, shuffles to a piano ballad and after the first few bars the lights on the train turn off, leaving him to look out at the dark gray landscape as he listens to the following lyrics:

“God, please bring the rain
Yeah, and bring it soon
Let it flood right through the houses
Into Judy’s room
With a father on amphetamines
Her mother hides the pearls
Reach out into the darkness And find my little girl…”
(Ryan Adams, Shadowlands,

The song finishes and the young man is in tears, having reached the resolution to end his relationship. The loudness of the iPod enhanced his feelings (pleasure), the dark train and landscape pulled him into the experience (engagement), and the episodic memories of his girlfriend aligned with the lyrics (meaning).

Although this experience was a solitary one, 84.5% of strong musical experiences take place with others, often in live settings (e.g. festivals and concerts), and with popular music (82%). Such experiences can vary in expectancy (expected, somewhat expected, and unexpected) and can involve both positive and negative emotions.

Strong emotional experiences can also occur during music performance. These types of experiences often involve mixed emotions due to performance anxiety combined with the pleasure of performing for others. Dr. Lamont again categorized each performance narrative using the model inspired by Seligman’s positive psychology framework (figure above). One participant wrote about a performance of ‘Aus Liebe’ by Bach (

“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 [deeply] silent…” (Lamont, 2011)

This performance experience is an example where all three principles of the positive psychology model are present. The emotion experienced was positive and deep, and there was a strong connection between the musicians and the audience which created a sense of meaning and engagement in the flow of the performance.

Not all performing experiences reflect all three perspectives in Dr. Lamont’s model. For performers with anxiety, the negative emotions they experience can prevent them from fully engaging in the music, and feelings of inadequacy can inhibit a sense of meaning. In the future, Dr. Lamont plans to further investigate strong emotional experiences, however in respect to the different ways in which an experience can be strongly positive, strongly negative or entail mixed emotions. Moreover, she would like to examine how the tenets of positive psychology can reduce the effects of performance anxiety. In particular, emphasizing strengths to promote meaning and engagement may enhance performance (e.g. focusing on expressing the beauty of a difficult passage).

Whether performing or listening, music provides an effective way to enhance the quality of our lives in ways that sex, drugs, and food cannot. Dr. Alexandra Lamont’s qualitative research has shown that narrative descriptions of musical experience avoid reducing complex emotional situations to simple quantified phrases. Her narrative approach, inspired by positive psychology and a model musical emotion, helps to enhance our understanding of why music engages us, moves us, and connects us to others.

Ian Straehley, Alana-Louisa Schmider, and Konstantina Menouti

Further Reading:
Blood, A. J., & Zatorre, R. J. (2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(20), 11818-11823.

Juslin, P. N., Liljeström, S., Västfjäll, D., Barradas, G., & Silva, A. (2008). An experience sampling study of emotional reactions to music: Listener, music, and situation. Emotion, 8(5), 668.

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

Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic Happiness. London: Nicholas Brealy.

Sloboda, J. A., O’Neill, S. A., & Ivaldi, A. (2001). Functions of music in everyday life: An exploratory study using the Experience Sampling Method. Musicae scientiae, 5, 9-32.

Gabrielsson, A. (2011). Strong Experiences with Music: Music is more than just music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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