The Benefits of Full Engagement at Music Festivals

benefits of music festivals
Photo by David Calderón on Unsplash

How do you feel when you listen to music? Whether alone or with others, it is fascinating how powerfully music can engage the senses.

Every culture shares one thing in common – music.

Archeologists know this because they’ve discovered all types of instruments throughout the world. In fact, the oldest instruments are flutes found in a cave in Germany. Carbon dating indicates they’re between 42,000 and 43,000 years old (BBC, 2012).

Researchers are learning how music affects our brain. They know that like language, music competence happens through exposure and develops along a typical timetable (Croom, 2011).

But why is music competence important to our development? What purpose does it serve?

Scientists also want to know how music affects our perception of pain or anxiety. Can it increase hope? How does listening to music with other people change our experience of it?

Most people agree that music lifts us up when we’re sad. It helps us concentrate and relax. As Leo Tolstoy wrote,

“Music is the shorthand of emotion.”

Now psychologists and neuroscientists are determining if he’s right.

A Look at Positive Psychology and Music

Positive psychology researchers want to know the connection music has to our well-being. Neuroscientists want to know how our brain responds to music and why.

“Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.”

E.Y. Harburg

Ongoing research in these areas reveals that music changes both our mood and our brain. For example, scientists at Glasgow Caledonian University (EPSRC, n.d.) are exploring how music conveys emotion. Their goal is to develop a mathematical model that explains this.

A model could lead to creating computer programs that identify mood-boosting music. Patient-specific programming prescriptions could help people better cope with emotional and physical pain.

Groundbreaking researcher Martin Seligman developed the PERMA model of well-being, as a way of bringing science to the study of happiness. A key element of this model is the idea of engagement.

The concept of engagement is like flow theory. In Seligman’s (2011, p. 16) book Flourish (2011, p. 16), he describes engagement by asking the following questions:

  • Did time stop for you?
  • Were you completely absorbed in the task?
  • Did you lose self-consciousness?

Many attendees at music festivals would respond yes to at least two of the three questions. For those not attending festivals, the answers are likely the same.

Neuroscientists also have explored the connection between music and the pleasure it elicits. They’ve learned that dopamine releases as a result of intense pleasure in response to music. Specifically, the anticipation of pleasure derived from music releases dopamine in the caudate. The release happens again in the nucleus accumbens during peak states of pleasure (Croom, 2011).

Brain Reward System
Oscar Arias-Carrión1, Maria Stamelou, Eric Murillo-Rodríguez, Manuel Menéndez-González and Ernst Pöppel.Substantially modified by Seppi333 [CC BY 2.0 (]


We don’t know why humans listen to music. Scientists believe there’s no biological reason to do it. Salimpoor and colleagues (2009) decided to explore this. Their question was whether listening to music leads to emotional arousal. They measured heart rate, respiration, and other physiological markers.

A strong positive correlation exists between pleasure and emotional arousal. When we listen to music we experience pleasure and emotions are the foundation of this (Salimpoor, Benovoy, Longo, Cooperstock, & Zatorre, 2009).

Can music help with adolescent anxiety? Sylvia Kwok (2018) explored this in her research. Integrating hope and emotional intelligence with music therapy had four promising effects. Young people experienced more hope, emotional competence, and subjective happiness. They also experienced significant decreases in anxiety.

Do reactions to music differ based on listening to real versus synthesized music? Does the level of a listener’s musical training play a role? Chapin and colleagues (2010) investigated this in their study.

Participants in their experiment had some musical training. This training led to an emotional response when they heard an experienced musician. Synthesized music didn’t yield an emotional response. They theorize that an empathetic connection between the performer and the listener exists. The scientists believe mirror neurons play a role.


The Power of Music

“Music is about vision.”

Benjamin Zander

Conductor Benjamin Zander explains the transformative power of classical music. His 2008 Ted Talk is enlightening and entertaining. You’ll learn the importance of “one-buttock” playing and why no one is tone deaf.

Researcher Marcel Zentner (2017) designed an intriguing study about emotions invoked by music. Much of the previous research focused on the usual emotions of happiness or sadness. This is often a subjective analysis made by the listener. He reverse-engineered the approach to emotional identification.

In his study, participants identified every emotion they felt, forty in total. These led to the creation of a list of nine categories. They are wonder, nostalgia, tenderness, transcendence, peacefulness, energy, joyful activation, tension, and sadness. These are further divided into three broad categories: sublimity, vitality, and unease.

Zentner wanted to know if brain activity confirmed what listeners said they feel while listening to music. For example, if you said “wonder,” where would that show up in the brain? Brain scans showed that there are “differential patterns” dependent on what a person actually felt while listening.

From Pereira and colleagues (2011), we learn that listeners are more emotionally engaged when hearing music they like. They used pop/rock songs to test their assumptions. For example, which is more important, preferences or familiarity with the song? They discovered that it’s familiarity that triggers responses in the brain.

Robert Gupta (2012) explains the power music has to heal. Music therapy, as he says, can succeed where conventional medicine fails. It can rewire the brain. It can bring light to the darkest corners of the mind. You might need a tissue.

Much of the current and past research shows that music moves us physically and emotionally. Music can improve our happiness and sense of well-being. The next question is can we experience this in groups?


A Look at the Psychology of Concerts

“The true beauty of music is that it connects people. It carries a message, and we, the musicians, are the messengers.”

Roy Ayers

There are many types of concerts including classical, rock, R&B, hip hop, pop, jazz, and more. Each type has the potential to impact listeners in different ways.

Shoda, Adachi, and Umeda (2016) studied the effect of live versus recorded listening experiences. For their study, they recruited 37 people to listen to six classical piano pieces. Seven pianists performed these selections live. The researchers randomly assigned the participants to one of the seven pianists. After ten weeks, participants returned to listen to the performances again. This time through speakers.

Monitoring participants’ heart rate occurred in both conditions. They found that live performances appear to have a stress-reduction effect on the audience.

Vincent Moon and Nana Vasconcelos (2014) set out on a cinetrek. The purpose was to explore and share music rituals from around the world. With nothing but a backpack and camera, Moon stopped in far-off locations. What he discovered is that there are grandpas who could be as popular as Beyoncé.

Music connects us even when the concert isn’t professional. In fact, spontaneous music might even be more impactful.


The Personal Benefits and Positive Effects of Music Festivals

“Music has healing power. It has the ability to take people out of themselves for a few hours.”

Elton John

There are several types of music festivals throughout the world. Some are religious. Others are futuristic. Some take us back in time. They all serve a purpose: to bring like-minded people of all ages and stages of life together. If you’re a concert or festival goer, you’ll be happy to know that there are a few benefits to attending festivals.

Yolal and colleagues (2009) identified family togetherness, event loyalty, escape/excitement, event novelty, and socialization as important to attendees. They studied people at the Eskisehir International Festival.

The researchers found gender difference among attendees. Females stressed the importance of family togetherness, escape/excitement, and event novelty. They also discovered age differences. Older attendees ranked family togetherness as important. Younger attendees cited socialization and event loyalty. As people aged or had more education, they favored event novelty.

Novelty is one thing our brains love. Whether it’s a shiny new car, house, shoes, or almost anything, newness gets our attention. You could attend the same music festival every year and still experience novelty.

The potential reward of something new triggers the release of dopamine. Novelty isn’t the actual reward, but what it could represent is. When we experience something new, the frontal and temporal regions activate. The release of dopamine motivates seeking behavior (Bunzeck & Duzel, 2006).

The desire to socialize isn’t a surprise. We evolved as a social species. Matthew Lieberman explains that we’re wired to connect with other people. Music festivals are a great place for this to happen.

Here’s how he explains the importance of our social brain.


Music festivals allow attendees to escape from the day-to-day grind. Surrounding yourself with new people and enjoying the revelry is entertaining, and relaxing. For hours at a stretch or even days, you’re able to pretend you’re someone else – someone without a care in the world.

Unlike other forms of hedonic pleasure listening to too much music isn’t likely to cause you harm. It’s more or less a safe indulgence. Rickard (2014) makes this point in an editorial titled, Music and Well-being. The only real problems might be hearing loss or a ticket for noise violation. Both are simple to manage.


The Social Benefits of Music Festivals

“It’s really interesting how music can knock down a wall and be an open connection between you and someone else where something else can’t. When music comes along, it just opens your heart a little more.”

Phillip Sweet

Does attending music festivals affect the psychological and social well-being of attendees? If so, how? This is what Packer and Ballantyne (2011) wanted to know. Their study involved two stages. A focus group discussion with ten young people (aged 18-23), and a questionnaire (n=100). The questionnaire participants were between the ages of 18-30.

In stage one, the group members had all recently attended music festivals. Based on the discussion, the researchers coded and classified responses. Using positive psychology constructs as their guide, they identified themes.

Packer and Ballantyne (2011) narrowed the benefits to four. They are the music, social, festival, and separation experience. Music is the common ground for social and festival experiences. The interactions among attendees and performers facilitate separation from everyday life.

The most important function of a music festival is to provide attendees with time and space to explore. The researchers cite personal growth and self-discovery as key outcomes. Participants reported a greater sense of well-being. This included feeling accepted by self and others, and generally positive about life. Some attendees believe festivals give their lives more meaning.

Four facets of the music festival experience
Image via MusicInAustralia


Their research focused on young people. Later you’ll read how they applied their model to a more diverse group.

Pavlukovic and colleagues (2019) identified social benefits and costs associated with music festival attendance.

The benefits include:

  • increased tourism
  • promotion of a city and/or culture
  • contribution to the local economy
  • providing employment
  • increasing the standard of living
  • more money to improve or maintain the environment
  • money to maintain cultural heritage
  • increased cross-cultural knowledge and understanding


Are there Disadvantages?

Music festivals aren’t all “happy, happy, joy, joy” experiences for everyone. As mentioned above, escapism is one reason people attend, but escapism has a dark side.

Check out this video: What is escapism and how does it affect people?

From a community perspective, festivals can potentially cause problems and minor inconveniences.

Pavlukovic and colleagues (2019) identified these disadvantages as:

  • increased noise
  • increased crowds in public spaces
  • destruction or erosion of the environment where the festival occurs
  • cultural commercialization
  • erosion of the local language
  • risk of promotion of negative activities (gambling, drugs, violence, etc.)
  • new patterns of local consumption
  • increased tension between contemporary and traditional lifestyles
  • increased costs to residents for food and transportation during festivals

Another downside to music festivals, especially those held outside, is Mother Nature. Oftentimes these events continue through rain or shine. As EDM points out in their article, The 10 worst music festival disasters, weather doesn’t always cooperate. When the venue isn’t well prepared this can lead to horrible consequences.

Sometimes music festivals are oversold. When this happens the likelihood of people getting harmed increases. Large crowds can become aggressive. EDM’s article highlights the Roskilde Festival 2000. The crowd trampled and suffocated nine people. One of the worst tragedies happened at the 2010 Love Parade.

Making lots of money can be a motivator for some organizers. For example, the 2017 Fyre Festival, scammed festival goers who paid up to $250,000 per ticket. The event was oversold, not held in its advertised location, and didn’t happen. People arrived to see a tent city soaked by recent storms. The organizer, Billy McFarland received a six-year sentence in a US federal prison.


Research and Studies

“Complete strangers can stand silent next to each other in an elevator and not even look each other in the eye. But at a concert, those same strangers could find themselves dancing and singing together like best friends. That’s the power of music.”

LZ Granderson

Another area of research within this field is how to make the experience more impactful. As we’ve already discovered, people attend festivals for a variety of reasons. Unless asked, they’re not necessarily thinking about it from a well-being perspective. They’re thinking about the fun they’ll have without getting bogged down by the details.

This is what Ballantyne and partners (2014) studied next. They asked, “How can music festival attendance enhance well-being?” This time the team chose a more diverse music festival. It attracted people of varying ages and backgrounds.

They used their four-facet model (separation experience, festival experience, music experience, and social experience) together with Laiho’s (2009) functions of music model, to create two questionnaires.

The first included 23 questions to measure psychological, social, and subjective well-being. The second consisted of 24 questions, 22 of which came from the first. It measured the interplay between those constructs and Laiho’s model. That model examined the psychological role of music in adolescence. It includes interpersonal relationships, identity, agency, and emotional field.

Their results show that attendees want a more holistic music festival experience. This should include attention to more types of engagement opportunities. The authors offer several suggestions including music-making workshops, audience participation, camping, and self-catering.


The Importance of Music Festivals

“The world’s most famous and popular language is music.”


If you’ve never attended a music festival, take a peek at this articleThe importance of music festivals: An unanticipated and underappreciated path to identity formation. Rudolph (2016) shares her experience attending the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee. Also included is her research about what motivates people to attend.

She and her team captured data from 150 respondents. Two key findings were:

  • 67% of respondents planned to make new friends
  • 66% of respondents already had

Social connection is a big part of attending Bonnaroo, as you’ll soon discover. This also is true for other music festivals.

Depending on one’s age, attending a music festival can help define who you are or help you escape. It can connect you to strangers or deepen an existing relationship. Festivals also can help you feel revitalized.

For communities, music festivals provide opportunities to boost the local economy. They also help to popularize specific regions which can lead to increased tourism.


Key Takeaways

“There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.”

Albert Schweitzer

Attending a music festival provides psychological and health benefits. These include connecting with others, reduced stress and anxiety. While there are potential downsides, a well-planned event mitigates them. From an individual perspective, a person can exercise greater situational awareness.

What music festival are you attending next, and why?


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About the Author

Kori D. Miller, MA, is a habit change aficionado, facilitator, and coach. Kori loves helping others achieve their goals one bite-size step at a time. She completed graduate-level coursework in positive psychology through the University of Missouri-Columbia and is completing a master's program in Educational Psychology with a specialization in neuropsychology.


  1. Morena De Lopez

    This is an excellent article.


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