My philosophic search / Has left me in the lurch

Here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine that you’re presenting a concert. You let in half the audience with no preparation, no instructions, just have them take their seats. But you give a pre-concert talk to the other half of the crowd in which you encourage them to enjoy themselves, and point out certain landmarks in the music that the audience will be surely glad to notice. Guess who has the better time?

Knowing our human weakness for suggestion and self-delusion, you might think it was the second bunch. You’d be wrong. Researchers Jonathan Schooler, Dan Ariely, and George Loewenstein actually tried this: they had a bunch of volunteers listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, dividing the volunteers into four categories. The first received no instructions. The second were told to try to be happy. The third were told to try to monitor their moment-to-moment happiness. The fourth were told to try to do both. They had the volunteers assess their own mood both on a numeric scale and by adjusting the smile/frown on a representation of a face.

To assess the impact of our experimental manipulations on happiness, we examined the changes to individuals’ responses to the critical happiness questions before and after listening to the music. The results of this investigation provide preliminary evidence that both monitoring and efforts to maximize happiness can actually impair the achievement of happiness. …[M]onitoring happiness significantly reduced happiness as indicated on both the numeric happiness scale and smile-face happiness measure. …[T]rying to be happy also reduced individuals’ hedonic experience, albeit primarily by reducing the reported mood.

The title of the paper says it all: “The Pursuit and Assessment of Happiness Can Be Self-Defeating.” In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert sums up why:

Two reasons. First, we may be able deliberately to generate positive views of our own experiences if we close our eyes, sit very still, and do nothing else, but research suggests that if we become even slightly distracted, these deliberate attempts tend to backfire and we end up feeling worse than we did before. Second, deliberate attempts to cook the facts are so transparent that they make us feel cheap.

I wish I had found this research 12 hours earlier than I did, since it puts a rather provocative spin on just about everything that was said at yesterday’s Engaging Art confabulation between ArtsJournal and the American Symphony Orchestra League. The event was partially a hive-mind brainstorm on how, or whether, to change the classical concert experience to attract more and younger audience members. There was lots of talk about increasing interactivity, about engaging the audience in conversation, in making them feel as if they had a hand in creating the experience. Schooler, Ariely, and Loewenstein’s research would suggest that this would reduce the overall pleasure of the experience, since thinking about what makes you happy tends to interfere with your ability to be happy—they compare it to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: “[I]ntrospection about happiness may be impossible because introspecting affects (and potentially undermines) happiness.” There’s also the complication, reiterated again and again throughout Gilbert’s book, that what people say makes them happy almost invariably doesn’t.

But it also suggests that the traditional, temple-of-art music-appreciation presentation (which I’ve always rather liked) is self-defeating as well, since it promotes monitoring of the experience. You’re encouraged to listen for landmarks, to notice things, to sense the connection between the local and the global. And it turns out that all that encouragement just gets in the way of the joy of listening.

The first point I find mildly counterintuitive to my own experience, but the second I find really counterintuitive. A fair portion of my listening takes place on the analytical side, and I don’t feel like it reduces either the experience or the memory of that experience. In fact, if I’m deluding myself at all, I would bet that it’s in retrospectively enjoying a performance more—my tendency is to store away the good parts of a concert, and let the mediocre moments fade from memory.

What’s going on here? I admit that I don’t know; but my gut feeling is that it has something to do with the fact that my own musical education was primarily physical, and only secondarily intellectual. I started with piano lessons long before I knew what chords were called, what sonata form was, what orchestration meant. My primal experience of music was getting my hands dirty with the actual building blocks themselves, not just watching somebody else construct the house and learning the name for the pattern of bricks. So in listening to a piece, my ear starts mapping out the form and the flow intuitively, not because somebody has just told me to.

If this is indeed correct (and I’d love to know if there’s any data out there—I couldn’t find any), then it would suggest that the best way organizations could spend their outreach money is in simply buying instruments and getting them into the hands of kids. Anecdotally, this fits in with the corresponding decline of applied music education in public schools and classical mindshare in popular culture; my own experience is that getting rock fans to listen to Mozart can sometimes be a tough sell, but getting rock musicians, even self-taught ones, is a piece of cake.

It also suggests that the best concert experience would be the most neutral and music-focused, and that any form of window-dressing, be it old-fashioned or new-fangled, is just a distraction. Odd—you may be thirsty, but if you have to have the well pointed out to you, the water isn’t as sweet. It turns out what jazzes us the most is serendipity.


  1. For what it’s worth, none of this sounds counterintuitive to me. It all sounds as expected, and right on the money, your speculation included.ACD

  2. It’s counterintuitive to those of us with musical training, but entirely understandable for those who don’t. We’re used to listening analytically because we patiently learned how to do it, learned to derive enjoyment from it, and then decided to do it even when we didn’t have to.I’ve noticed that normal people who didn’t pick that up, even on the level of childhood piano lessons, find other ways to enjoy classical music, such as noting the passing moods of a piece or focusing on a single section of the orchestra, or musician in a chamber ensemble. I once talked to a visual artist after Bruckner’s Fourth who was surprised by the amount of variation inside a single movement, and found it overwhelming. Happy, sad, ironic, bitter, then happy again; that’s a lot to take on when the music you’re used to listening to doesn’t have that sort of range. A pop or rock album may have that range, but not inside a single song, usually. The trick is how to discuss music in terms they’ll understand without watering it down for the hard-core listeners.

  3. <>Marc wrote:<> <>It’s counterintuitive to those of us with musical training, but entirely understandable for those who don’t.<>Perhaps I’m the exception that proves the rule (I’m being kind here). As I’ve said, none of this sounds counterintuitive to me, and I’m a conservatory-trained musician.ACD

  4. Just to clarify: I think what Marc and I consider counterintuitive is the idea that listening analytically would inevitably be less enjoyable—even though that’s what the monitoring portion of the study would seem to indicate. I think all three of us agree that it makes the experience <>more<> enjoyable for us, which is why I suspect early, kinesthetic musical activity is the x-factor that wasn’t present (or at least wasn’t controlled for) among the volunteers in the study.Marc: one other thing that strikes me about your comments re: musicians and normal people (and yes, that’s an accurate assessment, and I’m darn proud of my abnormality) is that it affects the use of the terms <>simple<> and <>complex<>—musicians usually use those words to refer to the musical vocabulary, whereas laypeople use them to refer to the emotional content. It’s one of the reasons the music of someone like Stephen Sondheim, say, gets tagged as “complex”—the musical materials are actually admirably elegant, simple, and straightforward, but the emotional content is often quite varied within a single number (even a funny one—I’m thinking of “Everybody Loves Louis” from <>Sunday In the Park With George<>, for example).

  5. I’m one of the “normal” people who doesn’t play an instrument though I tried when young and became frustrated when it turned out I wasn’t an overnight virtuoso.I hate people telling me what to listen for in music, particularly in a musical appreciation lecture style, unless it’s from a friend who is besotted by a piece of music and who tries to describe it in their individual language.I have an old painter friend who feels the same way about art in museums, so he always brings along earplugs in order to block out the droning from docents trying to Explain The Art.I like to read about music, but usually after I’ve heard it myself, so that the writing literally has more resonance.

  6. <>Matthew wrote:<> <>Just to clarify: I think what Marc and I consider counterintuitive is the idea that listening analytically would inevitably be less enjoyable—even though that’s what the monitoring portion of the study would seem to indicate.<>I found it not to be counterintuitive because of the way the study was described. The test subjects were “civilians”, NOT trained musicians, and that’s precisely what I would expect of civilians. Had the subjects been trained musicians, and the results were the same, THAT would have been counterintuitive.ACD

  7. I’d challenge the assumption that “happiness” is what we seek from music. For me, it is the wide gamut of emotions that makes a musical experience so valuable. Sometimes I am absolutely gutted, moved to tears…not happy, but very alive.That aside, I really do think it is about the delivery. Your typical public university music appreciation class is filled with students taking the course because it fulfills a G.E. While a group of them just want an easy A, there will be those who learn HOW to listen. If it is taught correctly, they will actually enjoy it…despite themselves. The problem is that most of the normal concertgoing audience already knows HOW to listen (or they listen according to their own definition). Attempts to pre-analyze the music makes an assumption that they don’t know what they should be listening for. I think a lot of it all comes down to ego in the end.

  8. One of the fascinating things about the musical experience of an audience is the fact that it is made of a random assortment of people who are brought together by a single stimulating event. The idea of measuring something like “happiness” at a concert seems kind of odd to me. I think that it would only make sense if the concert were a concert of “happy” music. Imagine feeling “happy” at a performance of the St. Matthew Passion. I would be “happy” if my friend were one of the soloists and did a good job and I knew that she would get a good review for her performance, but the emotional content of the music is so complext that “happy” wouldn’t otherwise make it into the picture.I also think that people new to participating in the audience part of a performance have a limited attention span. Giving them a pre-concert talk and telling them what to listen for might actually take something away from the actual experience of the concert because of the attention that they “spent” while listening to the person giving the lecture.

  9. I don’t see how the conclusions about the experience of listening to music while monitoring music relate so inevitably to the data about the experience of listening to music while monitoring, or trying to induce, happiness. Monitoring happiness is one, seemingly artificial, thing; listening analytically or in other close ways to music with its abstract stories and shapes seems quite another. Maybe like trying to monitor happiness while someone reads you a book vs. trying to pay attention to the story.

  10. That is exactly what happened to me when I heard the premier of Sam Jones’ Tuba concerto on two consecutive evenings.First evening I listened to the pre concert lecture. Mr Jones himself explaining the piece. I listened >i>for>/i> and heard none of what he described.Second evening I listened <>to<> the piece and what I heard was completely different. I am not a trained musician.

  11. Tim: That’s a good distinction. What I had in mind as an analogue was the music-appreciation approach that encourages listeners to approach a piece analytically even though they may not have ingrained analytic habits—I would guess that instructions of that sort <>would<> lead non-musicians to a certain moment-my-moment “am I listening the way I’m supposed to” monitoring that would probably get in the way of tapping into the music’s available happiness. You know the Randy Newman song “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong”? He was way ahead of the psychological research curve on this one.

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