Becoming a professional musician requires an incredible amount of work, and having a passion for music can help motivate the many required hours of practice. But can a passion for music also be destructive? In Somerset Maugham’s haunting short story “The Alien Corn,” a young man who is heir to a vast family fortune commits suicide when he realizes that he will never be more than a talented amateur pianist. Clearly, his passion for music proved to be dysfunctional.
Recently, some psychologists have made a distinction between “harmonious” and “obsessive” passion. Someone with a “harmonious” passion for an activity engages in that activity freely, without internal or external pressure. He or she leaves room for other activities in life. An “obsessive” passion, in contrast, results in an uncontainable desire to engage in a particular activity. Someone with an obsessive passion will continue to practice an instrument or play a sport even when doing so will exacerbate an injury. He or she will engage in the chosen activity to the point where health deteriorates, relationships are strained, and finances suffer.
A recent study by Canadian researchers examined these different types of passion in expert musicians. They found that musicians with these two different orientations set different kinds of goals, with different results. The harmoniously passionate musicians set “mastery” goals. This means that they set goals to learn and master difficult tasks, such as playing a tricky passage at its proper tempo, or being able to play a challenging piece from memory by a specific date. Having set these kinds of goals, the harmoniously passionate musicians tended to practice in specific and deliberate ways. The obsessively passionate musicians were more apt to set performance-approach or performance-avoidance goals, which refer rather to comparisons with other musicians than to mastery of specific tasks. For example, an obsessively passionate music student might set a goal to play better than others in her class, or to avoid getting the lowest standing in a competition. Because the harmoniously passionate musicians played their instruments freely, they did not feel the need to compare themselves with others. The tendency of the obsessively passionate to compare themselves to others seems related to the internal pressure they put upon themselves to do well.
The researchers found that performance levels could be predicted by the type of goals the musicians set, which in turn was related to the type of passion they displayed. Having a harmonious passion for music was linked to higher levels of performance achievement than was having an obsessive passion. In fact, as the authors write, “setting goals to outperform others seems to undermine musical performance.” Having a harmonious passion for music was also positively linked with life satisfaction, while there was no connection found between obsessive passion and life satisfaction. This is perhaps related to the tendency of obsessively passionate musicians to experience guilt and anger when they are prevented from playing.
A passion for music, and a passion for playing an instrument well, can be a source of great pleasure and well-being in life. But as Maugham’s story hints and as research seems to show, not all forms of passion will necessarily lead to excellence or to happiness.