Exploring the Impact of Live Performance Art on Overall Psychological Well-Being

Dec 3, 2019

Live art performances of all kinds - music, theatre, visual art, literature - are undoubtedly exciting and special. These experiences can also have a more significant impact on an individual's overall mental health than one might think. Murray State professor of psychology, Michael Bordieri, Ph.D., visits Sounds Good to discuss. 

Music is deeply engrained into the emotional psyche. Goosebumps, tears, great joy or great sorrow, tension, fear - we relate to art of all kinds in hundreds of ways. New research shows that while the consumption of art in any setting can be enjoyable, live performance, in particular, tends to provide greater improvements to an individual's psychological well-being.  

"Sometimes psychologists study obvious things," Bordieri begins. "I don't think we need science to tell us that live performance is exciting, engaging, that there's something about it that's special. I think most of us who have been to a concert or had those experiences know that something about being there in the moment, really engaging and immersing yourself fully in the music, can be an incredibly powerful experience. What's exciting now is that we have a little bit of science to back that up. In fact, there's a really big area of psychology that's emerging, looking at the benefits of music and in particular, live music as a way that could lead to increased psychological well-being. There are folks who have kind of dabbled in this area and sort of pioneered, and what we're seeing now is really an explosion. Especially around the idea of things called music therapy - the idea that music may not just be enjoyment, but could have therapeutic applications as well."

"There are a couple different ways of looking at this," Bordieri continues. "Some research has looked at what people experience when they listen to music on a recording vs. listening to it live. What they find is that there seems to be indicators of different brainwave activity and different emotional experiences among individuals exposed to live music compared to listening to a recording. All music can be beneficial; there's plenty of evidence there. But something about live [music] is special. It adds...increased engagement, stronger emotional expression, and associated stronger brain activation in those same regions. Which kind of makes sense. There's more happening live. There's something more to the experience that can be there."

In addition to the increased visual and aural components of a live performance, there is a social aspect that goes along with consuming art with other people. "It's a shared experience," Bordieri explains. "In a world where we might be increasingly isolated and lacking social contact, live concerts provide a way to come together and be part of a shared experience with others. There's some studies, a recent one in Australia, that looked at individuals who attend and frequent live music performances, concerts, and those who didn't. They find that those who do tend to be happier, have greater social connectedness, and more psychologically adjusted in the world."

Live performance is, of course, relatively vague. The spectrum of possible genres, forms, locations, etc., is incredibly vast. Bordieri explains that neither size of the audience or venue nor the type of art makes a difference in impacting mental health. "I'm not sure that one size [of crowd] is right. It could be that a variety of experiences matter. Sometimes large crowds can give that full immersion experience, but sometimes, tiny concerts can really matter as well. The experience of a living room or something more intimate can also have really powerful effects," Bordieri says. "For folks who are fans of classical vs. rock, [what seems to matter] is experience. Getting there, immersing yourself in the experience, [as opposed to finding] one particular genre or type of music."

"I guess the only requirement is something you enjoy and want to immerse yourself in. I think this connects with the broader psychological literature and research into the importance of being present, immersing yourself, and participating in experiences," Bordieri explains. "We spend so much of our time in our minds. That's what we do at work and at home -- planning for what's next. What e-mails do I have to send? What's on my shopping list? We spend a lot of our day in our mind, not present to what's happening here and now. One of the mechanisms that's showing up in this [research] is that live performances give us an opportunity, an invitation, into here and now, this moment, this place, to really experience it and participate fully in that experience. There tends to be tremendous psychological benefit when we can show up just to here and now with nothing else. I think music offers an invitation to that space."

"If we take a step back and take a look at the basic psychology going on here, it seems to me that what matters most is the social connection, the sense of community, and being present. It could be theatre...it could be readings...the piece here is being fully immersed and present in an experience. I think what's nice about that then is that it lets folks customize and do something they really care about. I don't think the secret is listening to one type of music or only going to this place. It's about finding a way to gather into a community and to share an experience of something that really leaves you amazed in some way or thinking differently or transported to a different place. That's the power of what art and live performance can do. I think it's about finding your connection and getting out there and enjoying what's happening in our community and finding these spaces to come together and share an experience," Bordieri concludes.