Professor John Sloboda, Director of the Unit for the Study of Musical Development at the University of Keele, on 29 November 2002

Joint Lecture of BRLSI and British Association for the Advancement of Science


The lecture explored the relationships between emotion and music through consideration of this unit's research studies and studies reported by other researchers.


Music education is generally considered ineffective today. Most children now are not able to be music-makers and they feel failures. Many leave school without music qualifications and, as adults, rely on passive consumption of recorded music. Music is the most unpopular subject in the national curriculum and children drop out as soon as possible. Research showed that many popular musicians were regarded, and felt themselves to be, failures in the school system. One unit survey showed that numbers playing an instrument rapidly declines after the age of 11 and that by adulthood most regret that.

The term `tingle' is too narrow - what will be discussed are `peak musical experiences', which affect a) `performance outcomes' - when people achieve musically coherent outputs, either in composition or performance; and b) `experiential outcomes' - when people's ability to reflect on music are enhanced through social, cultural, scientific, philosophical, spiritual and personal frameworks, at differing levels of sophistication, depth and breadth. Research into skills acquisition (particularly for performance) shows that motivation, structure and practice are essentials. Structure is inherent patterning or regularity of materials and practice is the relevant engagement of the mind, requiring persistence for success. (One estimate for acquiring skill of any kind of cognitive complexity at a level of relative competence is around 5000 hours of effort over a lifespan.) Thus, motivation is a basic essential for the achievement of the other elements of success and a set of valued personal outcomes.

Motivation is `extrinsic' and `intrinsic'. Extrinsic motivation arises from the social context in which music takes place, involving actors and interests. Values placed on musical activity by parents, teachers, peers and society and the rewards that musical success can bring determine that, and dropout rates. His research found that group activities extending beyond the school, and the transition between primary and secondary school structures, are crucial. Further, structured motivational systems, such as graded music exams (irrespective of grades attained) are important for providing goals within a structure. Intrinsic motivation arises from the personal experiences of the activity in and for itself, which appears to come directly to the receiver as personal responses- through pleasure, comfort, inspiration, etc. Unlike the future-oriented extrinsic motivators, they are generally immediate in effect.

Education today favours extrinsic motivation, particularly for performance outcomes, whereas both types of outcomes are arguably largely dependent upon intrinsic motivation. The speaker's `key thesis' is that peak experiences are primary motivators for long-term engagement in music. In music education (and perhaps elsewhere in education) concentration is upon measurable course or lesson outcomes rather than `life outcomes', which integrate music to values held in one's life. Also, there appears to be a fear of using and exploring emotion in the classroom, in fears of disruption or embarrassment. Similarly, academic concerns dominate music discourse, and personal enjoyment, judgements about value, emotion and feelings are treated as side issues. Although music educators include many tutors other than classroom teachers, only classroom education is statutory.

The term `peak experiences' was coined by Maslow to describe rare states obtained in `moments of self-actualisation'- i.e. from ecstatic derivations from love, music, artform or creative events, when there is `total attention to the object in question, complete absorption, transcendence of the ego', etc. Additionally, the term `flow' has been used to indicate involvement in skilled behaviour, such as musical performance, when the performer just observes and enjoys the activity, losing consciousness of self. Sometimes terms such as `thrills' or `chills' are used, to represent the `tingle' factor of music appreciation. (Here, vivid examples were given.) These relate also to intense relationships within the musical experiences of professional musicians. A gradation of musical experience suggests that only a dozen or so intense peak experiences may be felt over a lifetime. A `flow' of strong emotions may be felt more often and `thrills' frequently. More generally, however, there are moods experienced with music - such as cheer, comfort, energy, relaxation, etc. Psychological research has concentrated on the everyday, since that provides most data, is accessible, and has predictable responses - for example, certain music characteristics link with certain emotions. (An example of one piece of music played differently on two occasions showed how differing emotions may be engendered.) It is thought that they originate from the same prosodic features as in emotional speech, which are instinctive. Tingles and thrills appear linked to small-scale structural surprises, when expectancies are disrupted within a pattern of music - as through scale, timing, etc. (A short example employing 35 appoggiaturas, constantly changing expectations, showed how musical tension is created.)

From the age of three children respond emotionally and by adolescence music is used to manage moods, becoming an essential backdrop to daily rituals - e.g. getting dressed, washing up, being transported, etc. As one colleague put it - `the car is the 21st century concert-hall', where people may choose the type and level of music without inter-personal conflict. Music is used for differing aims in differing circumstances - e.g. as nostalgia, to energise a boring task, to increase concentration, to promote relaxation, etc. Researchers are less successful in predicting rarer emotional experiences - the more intense they are, the less predictable and more personal to individuals they become. They cannot predict what music will generate peak experiences for individuals. (Examples were given of pertinent reports.)

Why do these experiences occur? Researchers document and classify, but speculation on causation hinges upon the values placed upon musical experiences. Sometimes they prevent suicide, cure depression, change life goals, inspire creativity and more. Unlike paintings music is dynamic and it intrudes (as do voice communications) and it has a clear structure, which promotes expectations. Music appears intimate, but reminds or brings something new. Thus, music may be better than painting, architecture, etc. in the promotion of peak experiences. `Music grabs one by the throat in a way that other art forms don't.' Research into reminiscences suggests that lack of anxiety or threat is conducive to such experiences, particularly when children are alone, with family or with friends listening to music. In schools, such experiences prove rare, when teachers and assessments are involved. (Examples of reports were given.) Embarrassment, fear and humiliation predictably inhibit positive responses to music. Recent research indicates that while peak experiences can result in performers, they occur only when mastery of instruments and pieces is quite advanced and after much practice. Thus, early experiences cluster around listening and when they are strong they motivate engagement in musical activities, probably in search of repetition of the experience. Those then engaged over long periods into adulthood are more likely to report peak experiences. Conversely, music students pressured by competition often report loss of pleasure as anxieties grow. Too much music education is concerned with skill attainment, too little with the experiential elements. Professor Sloboda concluded his lecture with the comment -`Although school music is the least popular national curriculum subject among twelve and thirteen year olds it is exactly at that age that they are spending most of their free and unallocated time and money on music, outside the school.'

Many questions were raised and answered. Q. Which came first, music or language? (asked Professor Richard Gregory). A. Before both, `physiologically-based emotionally modulated vocalisation' as in infant speech noises, etc. is a likely forebear. Q. Are there detectable genetic factors? A. This has not been studied, but there are indications that music ability is less `heritable' than intelligence. Q. Is there a link between music and mathematics? A. Academics tend to think so, but research is lacking. Q. Does music affect driving situations? A. Research does indicate that driving errors are associated with `fast, energetic music' in some cases. Q. How beneficial is communal singing? A. Recorded music may `demotivate' young people from participating at a less demanding communal level, certainly. Q. How may popular music be approached? A. The main learning method used is by self-tutoring, through repeated listening and copying. Some schools are studying that principle, but the key is early enthusiasm, which may be inhibited if sought by teachers. Q. What kind of music and what style should be used in music education? A. Music educators for primary schools have developed a unique `school music', which is formal and didactic and based on some classical music. Most young people listen, however, to `pop' music, so issues of taste and training are important. While `every young person deserves exposure to the riches of classical music, musical educators need to know something about the music the young people they are teaching like and enjoy.' A survey of heads of music in secondary schools has shown that most today cannot identify pop music or artists, but it is expected that this will change over the next decade. Q. By the age of twelve or thirteen, is it obvious that some children are musically talented while others are not? A. At that age, the distinction is in achievement. His research shows that the difference between lengths and regularity of practice correlate closely with attained grades. (Relevant tables were shown and analysed.) Q. Can constant practice destroy enjoyment? A. If an inspiring model or teacher helps the participant to reach Grade 6 and above, `real music' is involved, which helps bring out rewards of enjoyment. Q. Can music serve as therapy? A. Little research has so far been undertaken, but there are indications that it can reduce stress. (The Chairman commented upon research being undertaken in Bristol on the effects of music on the immune systems of cancer patients.) More research currently is being done on the effects of music on concentration and academic skills - e.g. the `Mozart Effect' and IQ tests. Q. Does music affect spiritual experiences? A. Again, there is little research on that, but there are clear links between music and charismatic religious services.

Geoffrey Catchpole