Self-enhancement Through Musical Experience

Musical Subjectivity, Empathy, and Feelings of Self-esteem

Can music elevate self-esteem? How can we explain the fact that listening to our favorite music makes us not only happy but also more self-assured, is furnishing us with energy, and driving away our anxieties?

Already in antiquity, both Plato and Aristotle ascribed music with the capacity to strengthen human self-assurance, and to influence habits in such a way that everyday challenges are coped with more successfully. At present as well, many people share this intuitive conviction, for example using music to regulate their emotions or getting in the proper mood for an important event such as an athletic competition.

Although musical researchers have already done important work in this area—for example on the emotional effects of music and the use of music as a mood regulator—until now the connection between feelings of self-esteem and musical experience has not been empirically explored in detail.

In this project we will supplement research to date with a systematic examination of the potential function of music as a means of self-enhancement. A central focus will be on ascertaining whether experiencing music can elevate self-esteem and if so, what factors play a role here. Are such personal changes grounded in specific aspects of musical expression, or rather do they rest on personal connections between the music and the listener? What role is played here by aspects of musical experience such as being pleased, empathy with the performer, and personal acquaintance with the piece? Or on the other hand does music spark specific emotions such as nostalgia that in turn have an influence on self-esteem? Our project aims at identifying elements of the complex experiential process at work in music that shores up the self, examining them for relevance.

To answer the above questions, we have planned a series of experiments and studies, the first of which has already been carried out. Our chief aim here was to render music’s reinforcing function experimentally visible. To this end we studied manipulations of feelings of self-esteem through different pieces of music that in a preliminary evaluation had been described as “motivating,” “reinforcing,” or “de-motivating.” In addition, we examined the influence of moderating variables such as being pleased, empathy, nostalgia, and familiarity, together with personal variables such as degree of self-esteem and personality characteristics.

In a further experiment, an ideographic design was chosen to test the relevance of the personal connection between music and listener for the contribution of musical listening to self-enhancement.

To verify whether an everyday connection exists between musical-listening behavior and self-esteem, we have planned an experience sampling study—a survey of self-reported data at several testing-time points over a period of 7-10 days.

This work is aimed at empirically validating the theoretical “Musical Self-Enhancement Model” (“MUSE-M”), and at estimating the impact of the individual factors of the model. First results have shown that the self-esteem enhancing function of music can be experimentally demonstrated, and that it depends on both the expressive qualities of the musical piece and personal characteristics such as level of self-esteem before listening to the music. But aspects of musical experience such as being pleased by the piece being heard and strength of empathy with the performer also contribute to an increase in self-esteem.

This project contributes to understanding the positive feelings that can be sparked by music, and provides an answer to the question of why aesthetic experiences of music are so important for many people. The relevance of music listening for self-enhancement processes underscores its relevance for everyday well-being.

This project represents qualifying work by Paul Elvers in pursuit of a Ph.D. degree under Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann’s supervision. The empirical partial studies were carried out in cooperation with Jochen Steffens and Timo Fischinger.


Elvers, P., Fischinger, T., & Steffens, J. (MS in preparation). Music listening as self-enhancement: Empowering music boosts self-esteem.