Updated: Jan 12
Earlier this year, I participated in a brain imaging experiment to study how the brain reacts during music performance. The study was carried out by Jasmine Tan Wei Rou at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Being in a state of flow or in the zone is the mental state in which one is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment when performing an activity. Attention is so undivided that one becomes unaware of things such as noise, time, hunger or tiredness. This concept was named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and has been referenced in a variety of fields, including music.
For the purpose of the experiment, participants were required to perform three pieces. The first piece is one that induces a state of flow, the second piece is of equal liking to the first but does not induce a state of flow, and the third piece is of equal difficulty to the first but does not induce a state of flow. I performed three original songs: Garden Green, In The Woods and Espresso-Oh.
The researcher noted that I am very still for a singer even during flow. She was able to measure my brainwaves while I was singing, which she had not been able to do for many other singers as the facial muscle activity, breathing, and other movements are more easily picked up than brain waves.
She also noted that there are a lot of alpha waves in the frontal areas of the brain when I perform. The more alpha waves present, the less active the brain is. This shows that when we are doing something we know very well, such as playing music, we do not involve the frontal areas of the brain as much. These areas have been linked to self-monitoring and may be involved in making oneself feel self-conscious during a performance. Feeling self-conscious would directly cause problems during a performance so turning off the activity of the frontal areas of the brain is like getting out of your own way, enabling smoother and more confident performances.
Learn more with Deb Borg with her articles for WKMT.