In perhaps no aspect of human culture do people resonate emotionally more than with music. It far predates the written word (and, arguably, perhaps even language itself) and serves numerous functions in people’s daily lives. Biologically, music regularly heightens physiological arousal, exciting listeners to the point where skin conductance is measurably increased and areas of the brain associated with reward become considerably more active. Socially, music is a “zero-acquaintance tool,” serving as the most common topic of discussion among strangers getting acquainted. As such, it is an immediately accessible source of shared cultural knowledge, making it a ripe currency for spirited conversation and bonding. Psychologically, music fulfills basic needs for personal identity development, self-affirmation, performance achievement, emotional coping and mood regulation, and general aesthetic appreciation. It has even been suggested to increase both self-efficacy and control beliefs. Music is also intimately connected to autobiographical memory; specific lyrics, melodies, harmonies, or rhythms may facilitate satisfying reminiscences to individuals as “mediated memories.” Finally, music’s capacity for narrative storytelling and communication of cultural values are ideal for promoting empathy and meaning-making among listeners. Such research findings simply confirm what millions of people worldwide implicitly seem to know already: As an emotional barometer, a social lubricant, a tool for self-knowledge, and a cultural unifier, music is without peer among the communicative arts.

However, while listening to music in itself can be emotionally

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intense, performers of music may experience it quite differently, as the skill and focus required to perform may prevent the emotional component from becoming principal in the artist’s mind. Yet hardly an artist alive would argue against emotion being a critical part of a great performance. One of the authors of this essay (Julie M. Licata or JL) contributes an idiographic accounting of their own experience in preparing different styles of music for performance, and how the vibrant emotion of music-making can be projected outward into the living environment. Specifically, JL’s best performances occur when they inhabit an open, non-judgmental, mindful state to be a conduit of emotive content. At its best, this focused channeling of emotion also incorporates the audience in a meaningful experience.

There are many types of musical performance, each having its own nuanced modes of preparation, transmission, and reception. There are significant differences between playing in a large symphonic orchestra, a small chamber ensemble, a pop/rock band, a pickup folk music trio, a big band or jazz combo, and an experimental improvised group. These differences include not only the size of the ensemble but also the level of pre-composition and rehearsal versus improvisation, whether the music is being read from notation or is memorized, and the technical, musical, and performative skill or experience of all the musicians within the specific musical context in which they are performing. On a basic level, much emotional intention may be determined before the performance when explicit musical choices are made: where to crescendo, when to push the tempo, and which notes to emphasize or whisper. These intentions, put into action, can only be executed as intended if ample and proper practice is put in before the exhibition. However, the ultimate goal of most performances is to share and connect with the audience. JL’s initial hope is that practice and preparation have left them in a place where they are not actively thinking about executing these predetermined actions, but rather that in the automatized process of actuating them, they can also feel the emotion that accompanies the material without being carried away by it. The dividing lines between control, freedom, awareness, and (ideally) non-judgmental reactivity in music performance are thus very fine.

Like many areas in which a skilled performer must execute a demanding task, accomplished musicians can immerse themselves completely in a focused, ordered, and highly structured state

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of consciousness described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1997) as “flow.” Individuals in a flow state display complete absorption and concentration in an enjoyable task, show heightened awareness without self-consciousness, and often experience a sense of timelessness while they are performing. This is made possible by a combination of high skill level (wherein complex behaviors may be sufficiently automatized), a difficult task (to provide mental stimulation), and, often, high autonomy and intrinsic motivation—all of which drive the individual to “identify and engage progressively more complex challenges” (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002, p. 92). It is generally established that performing music can be a flow experience for artists. As JL and many others attest, this can be particularly felt as the merging of action and awareness. Once they begin playing a piece, JL will immediately notice how their instrument sounds in the environment, how it is tuned with other performers (if at all), any impacts of temperature or humidity, where there is tension in their body, how the audience is reacting, etc. These considerations are then incorporated into their feelings about being on stage and their desires for the successful execution of their intentions. As long as they remain in this state, each of these elements (and others) can rotate effortlessly and without judgment through awareness so that JL can react as needed to project the sounds that will engage and connect with the audience in the way that is most emotionally meaningful.

In many cases, a minimalist approach can be ideal for the artist to accomplish their goals. This is supported by some mindfulness research suggesting that a lower level of achievement striving has been shown to lead to better performance among the highly skilled (following the Taoist concept of wu wei or “effortless striving”). Although a high amount of preparation does take place for all musicians, those like JL often do not want to go into a performance with a complete “plan,” as an inorganic approach risks sounding forced, unnatural, and/or less authentic. This is especially true in the case of more improvised music, where the preparation is necessarily more mindful and meditative than procedural because so much of the performance is unexpected. For an optimal experience, then, JL must set themselves up to have the ability to execute easily the required physical tasks, but also to be as “present” as possible in order to be aware of environmental elements both expected and unexpected. They not only feel the current moment but also remember the past and consider the future to create something that resonates as a cohesive journey within themselves and their audience.

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To be clear, their flow state is not dependent on the audience, whom they cannot control. Rather, as a highly intrinsically motivated performer, they play music for the mindful experience of being at ease within their own body and do not tie personal goals and perceptions of success to the piece’s reception.

Such focus on process over product is central to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow-related notion of the autotelic personality, for whom the very experience of a task is itself the end goal. The musical experience begun by JL as a performer and shared by a listener (particularly a live performance) is very much about the process and not the outcome, with most of the process happening in performance preparation. This journey is temporally bound: Once a sound is made and heard, it is then gone and does not stay to be looked at, inspected, or studied. The journey may also include perceived “mistakes” and wrong turns, which mindful performers learn to accept non-judgmentally and even welcome; they are organic, natural, and in tune with life and nature and the human condition, and thus they enhance the narrative experience. Indeed, embracing the journey and the ups and downs of performance is a large part of what can provide both artist and audience with some of their most moving moments. It also is what affords audiences the openness to remain engaged in the creation of a musical phenomenon that goes on for 30, 60, 90 minutes or more.

Flow theory also acknowledges interactionism, allowing that under some circumstances, “group flow” or “networked flow” can result in creative and high-achieving collective endeavors. In the case of musicians, an ensemble itself may enter a group flow state wherein members display a harmonic cognitive focus through the parallel processes of playing and also listening to the other members of the group. This allows them to attain a high level of synchrony and even anticipate each other’s actions (Sawyer, 2006). Thus, in the enjoyable pursuit of their performance goals, the group may itself become an autotelic unit. Moreover, during a performance, a dynamic can be created between the musician(s), the environment (i.e., the physical space, the acoustics, and even the social context of their performance), and the audience, creating a complex system of communicative experience that may be bristling with affective content and feedback loops to be processed and shared by those in the system.

Amid this busy system, is there actually room for a performer to have real-time, non-premeditated emotional responses to the

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music? Yes, because much of the execution of music and the emotion around it can happen outside of awareness, or may even be projected through the audience. A person’s subjective experience with this musician-environment-audience system is highly individualized. Yet if it is operating “in tune” (so to speak), the system may be versatile enough to represent anyone’s personal emotional history or current life situation, with an almost mystical degree of resonance. At some point, the entire system can be said to create a numinous appreciative experience for all those involved—one that is entirely unique and nonreplicable, and which may not be entirely conscious. The emotional salience of the experience, however, can conceivably be accessed, retained, and remembered indefinitely. To one individual the performance may be focusing and calming; to another, it may be euphoric and arousing. Both, however, are equally valid responses, as it is the act of interacting emotionally with the system that endows the music with its universal and profound capability for meaning-making.

It is a logical argument that if a musician is truly engaged with the emotional process of creating the music, then the audience must feel it (and vice versa), but we have demonstrated here that this is not necessarily the case. To musicians like JL, whether an individual in the system experiences the emotional connection or not—be they a performer or listener—depends on their openness at any given moment to participate in the beauty of creation and the sharing of a moment in time. By their willingness to contribute to the creation of a mediated memory, all elements of the performance system can experience engaged emotionality and a true peak experience.

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  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books.
  • Nakamura, Jeanne, & Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2002). The concept of flow. In C. R. Snyder & Shane J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 89-105). Oxford University Press.
  • Sawyer, R. Keith (2006). Group creativity: musical performance and collaboration. Psychology of Music34(2), 148-165.


Julie M. Licata

Julie M. Licata, DMA, is an Associate Professor of Music at SUNY Oneonta, specializing in percussion performance and music cultures. Their preferred email address is

Michael A. Faber

Michael A. Faber, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at SUNY Oneonta, where his research focuses on social and personality processes related to media usage. He can be contacted at

How to Cite This:

Faber, M. A., & Licata, J. M. (2022). Fluido con affetto: The role of flow and emotion in music performance. Clio’s Psyche, 29(1), 69-74.

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