The Pursuit of Happiness: Strong Emotional Responses to Music

Dr. Alexandra Lamont, February 26th   2015. 

“Describe in your own words the strongest, most intense experience of music that you have ever had.”

Please take a moment to think on this instruction. Does a strong emotional memory come to mind? If so, you have followed in the footsteps of volunteers who shared well over 1000 responses to this simple directive, used by Gabrielsson and Lindström (1995) to explore and categorise strong experiences to music (SEMs). Dr. Alexandra Lamont ( Senior Lecturer in Music Psychology at Keele University, has spent many years teasing apart questions inspired by the study of SEMs:

  • How does music make us happy?
  • Where, when and with whom do strong emotional responses to music happen?
  • Why does music contribute to our happiness?


While giving a lecture to our MSc Music, Mind & Brain ( class on Thursday 26th February 2015, Lamont suggested that there are two distinct ways of answering the questions above. Firstly, there is the traditional cognitive approach to wellbeing where music is studied by looking in detail at the underlying reward mechanisms in the brain. Conversely, the second more qualitative and phenomenological approach looks in detail at the stories people tell, how they tell them, and what people do or do not say which is important when considering the significance of SEMs. Lamont’s research has concentrated on this second approach by analysing SEMs, with a core focus on balanced happiness and wellbeing.

One of the main strengths of Lamont’s approach is the rationale behind it. Using the relatively new field of positive psychology, she argues that music has a unique potential to fulfil the three key elements that are essential for happiness and wellbeing: hedonism, engagement and meaning (Figure 1). Seligman’s theory (2002) states that we need a combination that incorporates all three elements in order to reach balanced happiness and wellbeing. Yet, how does music make us happy?

Captura de pantalla 2015-03-13 a la(s) 14.55.31

 Music listening is particularly unique because it can facilitate balanced happiness via a combination of these three routes.

Men play traditional gamelan percussion

Men play traditional Gamelan percussion

Hedonism or pleasure simply refers to the presence of positive affect and absence of negative affect. Music listening has the power to evoke a direct hedonistic route to happiness by boosting positive emotions, as Blood and Zatorre (2001) found in a landmark study. The authors demonstrated that positive responses to music were highly correlated to the same brain regions involved in pleasure and reward. Engagement can be described as gratification generated through absorption in a given activity; in a more colloquial way, it may be called ‘flow’. Listening to music has the potential for feeling fully immersed in a flow of energized focus, involvement and enjoyment. Meaning refers to going beyond oneself. Music is a good candidate to search for a ‘meaningful life’, creating a sense of identity and aesthetic connections with others. Thus, music listening is particularly unique because it can facilitate balanced happiness via a combination of these three routes, as shown in Figure 1.

Lamont sees the exploration of strong emotional responses to music as fundamental in our attempt to understand what the core drivers are for an individual’s happiness. Her grounded approach to music and emotion places great importance on the stories that people report, and she has found characteristics that directly match the three components of Seligman’s model. However, where when and with whom do strong emotional responses to music occur?


In one of her most prestigious works, Lamont (2011) analysed results from 81 undergraduates who responded to the same instruction: “Describe in your own words the strongest, most intense experience of music that you have ever had.” The listening experiences mainly occurred in live situations, such as music festivals and pop concerts (84.5% with other people and 82% while listening to pop music). There was a wide variety of music with examples ranging from Wagner to Cat Stevens, Rage Against The Machine to Keane. Participants reported strong experiences such as tears, thrills, and shivers down the spine. The results also showed a balance between expected and unexpected listening experiences, which overall were found to be overwhelmingly positive. Many of the responses from the study showed obvious links to hedonism:

“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.” (Matt).

This is not only an example of hedonism, but also of engagement and meaning, where Matt describes “thinking to myself” about the long-term effects music has on his life. The social context also came up frequently as a relevant influence:

“Listening to them [Radiohead] on CD is one thing, but when thousands of people surround you, singing to every word like you, the atmosphere’s electric, there’s no other feeling as strong, or intense, as that.” (Tom).


Lamont suggests that music is not simply for listening or playing pleasure, it is an essential quality in our lives and has the ability to improve our relationships and engage with life in a more meaningful and positive way. This supports Seligman and colleagues (2005) who suggested that the development of engagement and meaning are more crucial for life satisfaction than the pursuit of pleasure. Nevertheless, one question remains, why does music contribute to our happiness?

After being introduced to Lamont’s approach, we can say that strong emotional responses to music are mainly positive and occur in social contexts, however, the experiences are highly heterogeneous. Listening experiences also have the potential for generating happiness through association and reminiscence. A song that one day generates a strong emotional experience will probably evoke a similar feeling when heard again. Furthermore, Lamont (2012) showed that when playing music people also experience a large number of SEMs, suggesting that performing music provides the potential to attain hedonism, engagement and meaning.

To conclude, we have seen a new and more ecological approach to researching happiness when compared to the traditional brain centred trend in Psychology. Lamont’s views correspond with the idea of music as a powerful tool in our pursuit of happiness. We have seen strong emotional responses to music listening, namely people becoming absorbed, going beyond themselves and feeling intense positive emotions, thereby fulfilling the three routes to help achieve life satisfaction.


By Manuel Anglada-Tort & Pedro Kirk


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 Sciences98(20), 11818-11823.

Gabrielson, 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). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gabrielsson, A., & Lindström, S. (1995). Can strong experiences of music have therapeutic implications? (pp. 195-202). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Lamont, A. (2011). University students’ strong experiences of music Pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Musicae Scientiae15(2), 229-249.

Lamont, A. (2012). Emotion, engagement and meaning in strong experiences of music performance. Psychology of Music40(5), 574-594.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realice your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Freww Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). A balanced psychology and a full life. In F. A. Huppert, N. Baylis, & B. Keverne (Eds.), The science of well-being (pp. 275-304). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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