• Simon Høffding
Part of the New Directions in Philosophy and Cognitive Science book series (NDPCS)


This chapter engages with the question of whether musical absorption is not some kind of “flow” experience. I analyze Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow to draw a twofold negative conclusion to the question. Firstly, the theory is so general and conceptually underspecifying, especially with regard to the nature of self-awareness, that more or less any pleasant experience might instantiate flow: as such it is not falsifiable. Secondly, in spite of its generality, a number of DSQ experiences are incompatible with the theory as its predictions on the relation between challenge and skill do not hold.

In almost every talk I have given on musical absorption, be it to a specialist or general audience, I have been asked if this isn’t just the same as or some version of “flow”. In this chapter, I will attempt to show why this is not the case and why the so-called phenomenon of flow has little to teach us about the nature of musical absorption.

The term in its academic use is coined by Csikszentmihalyi who writes that: “the metaphor of ‘flow’ is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives” (Csikszentmihalyi 1997, 29). Flow can be experienced in “programming a computer”, “reading a good book”, “closing a business deal” (ibid.), or having a nice dinner conversation with friends (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 71) and is loosely defined as being “full of experiences” that “are in harmony with each other” (ibid.) or even wider as “joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life” (ibid., xi). I will criticize the notion in two steps firstly showing that the notion is too general and theoretically underspecified to say anything essential about musical absorption and secondly that many of its claims are incompatible with the phenomenology of musical absorption.1

Based on the descriptions above, such as reading a good book or having a nice dinner conversation, flow seems to be a very ordinary kind of experience and it is not evident how such experiences are particularly creative or processes of total involvement with life. Rather, it seems that flow simply designates pleasant experiences in general. Yet, there are a number of more specific criteria for flow such as the relation between skill and challenge (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 74) the “merging of action and awareness”, “loss of self-consciousness”, and its “autotelic nature” (Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson 1990, 8) to name a few. Let me begin with the three latter ones and treat the first one later in relation to the DSQ. By autotelic nature, Csikszentmihalyi means that an activity is enjoyed for its own sake. Under some description, I think that could pertain to musical absorption as well, but it is an odd category because it rather than describing the quality or nature of the experience, pertains to the motivation for having it. Further, means and end can be tricky when it comes to experience. Even if not phenomenally present, professional artists engage in their art to make a living and perhaps I have nice dinner conversations with good friend because I unconsciously wish to demonstrate and affirm my own social status or consolidate useful connections. Here, the “merging of action and awareness” is more accurately describing a phenomenal property of the flow itself. Like Fredrik’s description of a conversation, you don’t first plan which words to utter and then voice them. Rather, in an engaged conversation you ideally respond to your conversation partner immediately without planning for too long in advance what to say in order to sound clever.

What does Csikszentmihalyi mean by “self”, when referring to the “loss of self-consciousness”? He labels it as a “content of consciousness” (Csikszentmihalyi 2008, 34) although not like most other contents

The self is no ordinary piece of information, however. In fact, it contains everything else that has passed through consciousness: all the memories, actions, desires, pleasures, and pains are included in it. And more than anything else, the self represents the hierarchy of goals that we have built up, bit by bit, over the years. (ibid.)

Here, Csikszentmihalyi is essentially describing a narrative self (Schectman 1997), consisting of the stories we have told about ourselves and about where we are heading. When in flow, we purportedly take a break from this ongoing narration and self-representation

So loss of self-consciousness does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self. What slips below the threshold of awareness is the concept of self, the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are. (Csikszentmihalyi 2008, 64)

Flow does not entail any loss neither of consciousness, nor of self, but rather a momentary break from or oblivion of that peculiar content in which the narrative self consists. The above is confusing, however because the self, comprising our memories, actions, desires, and plans, appears to be the same as the concept of self, “the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are”. Put differently, according to Csikszentmihalyi “who we are” (the self) is the totality of our memories, actions, desires, and plans, i.e., the narrative self. This totality is none other than “the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are” (the concept of self), effectively rendering the self and the concept of the self identical. If identical, however, they cannot be lost and retained at the same time. This is a logical contradiction and I will not venture into the many possible interpretations one could make to solve it. Rather, I will point to two further obstacles to Csikszentmihalyi’s account of self and flow. Firstly, the narrative self might not exist in as universal a form as Csikszentmihalyi holds. Galen Strawson argues “against narrativity” that

Self-understanding does not have to take a narrative form, even implicitly. I’m a product of my past, including my very early past, in many profoundly important respects. But it simply does not follow that self-understanding… must take a narrative form, or indeed a historical form. (Strawson 2004, 448–9)

If there are people without a narrative self, then they surely cannot lose their awareness of it. Would that entail that they are always in a state of flow (as they have no awareness of what Csikszentmihalyi defines as a self), or would it entail that they are never in a state of flow (because flow consists in the felt “loss” of the self rather than in its inexistence)? Even if one dismisses Strawson’s position as extreme, a mainstream phenomenological take on the self will reveal substantial “limits to narrative understanding” (Zahavi 2007) because it is impossible “to explain how first-personal givenness could be brought about by narrative structures” (Zahavi 2007, 200). In other words, in order to know that the contents in Csikszentmihalyi’s self are one’s own, a non-reflective self-acquaintance is necessary. A theory of self-awareness that does not take this into consideration is surely limited and lacks grounding.

The second obstacle is a risk of triviality. If flow is instantiated whenever we are not narratively aware of ourselves, whenever we do not “represent to ourselves who we are” (Csikszentmihalyi 2008, 34), then shouldn’t we experience flow most of the time? As I am writing these sentences I am not thinking about my emotions, memories, or aspirations, nor am I wondering how my readers will receive this chapter on flow. In this respect, I think Dreyfus is correct in stating that our ability to step back and reflect on life is “intermittent” (Dreyfus 2007c, 354). In normal life, we mostly go through our daily routines without narrating about or reflecting on ourselves. On the one hand, these routines are nothing extraordinary, certainly not a “total involvement with life” (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, xi), but, on the other hand, they fulfill Csikszentmihalyi’s criterion of proceeding without narrative self-awareness. The question of whether daily, nonnarrative, and pre-reflective self-awareness instantiates flow or not, again leads us to question the logic and conceptual coherence in Csikszentmihalyi’s overall proposal.

I have provided a brief overview of some of his criteria for flow, such as “merging of action and awareness”, “loss of self-consciousness”, and its “autotelic nature”. Are the various criteria necessary conditions, are they jointly necessary, or are they sufficient? As a psychologist, Csikszentmihalyi is neither dealing with phenomenology and its nuanced descriptions and distinction nor more “analytic”-style philosophy of providing such necessary and sufficient conditions. For his purposes that might be acceptable, but it makes it difficult to get a clear philosophical grasp on the contours of flow.

In The Art of Seeing, Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson claim that flow is actually the same as aesthetic experience

philosophers describing aesthetic experience and psychologists describing flow are talking about essentially the same state of mind…When this heightened state of consciousness occurs in response to music, painting, and so on, we call it an aesthetic experience. In other contexts, such as sports, hobbies, challenging work, and social interactions, the heightened state of consciousness is called a flow experience. (Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson 1990, 8–9)

The basis of this claim comes from a juxtaposition of the aesthetician Beardsley’s criteria for aesthetic experience with Csikszentmihalyi’s of flow. I will not go into the details of Beardsley’s work, but Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson’s comparative treatment needs only three pages (pp. 7–9) to establish that aesthetic experience and flow are essentially identical. Last chapter’s treatment of Dufrenne’s notion of aesthetic experience should make us suspicious of such a hasty comparison. For Dufrenne, aesthetic experience is contingent upon a mutually constraining relation between many processes, namely bodily presence, feeling, imagination, and different forms of reflection. In fact, it entails a fundamental shift of attitude from critical scrutiny to adherent receptivity. Does closing a business deal or programming a computer entail such a transformation as well? I find that implausible. Rather, what is at stake in Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson’s treatment is that both flow and aesthetic experience are lifted to such a level of generality that they can’t but be identical. But such a take risks putting more or less all experiences on par, perhaps under the sole qualification that they’re pleasant. This prevents us from grasping the specificity and complexity of such experiences. Even if the conclusion of the last chapter, namely that musical absorption instantiates aesthetic experience, seems general as well, it should be remembered firstly that this equivocation only pertains to some of the many kinds of absorption and secondly that the qualification as aesthetic does not exhaust the phenomena of for instance standard playing and ex-static absorption.

Let me give an example of what happens to the general flow theory and its comparative potential with musical absorption, when becoming focused and critical. Csikszentmihalyi’s notion rests on a certain relation between skill and challenge. If the challenge of a situation outdoes one’s skill, one will become anxious, which prevents flow. Inversely if one’s skills are much superior to the challenge at hand, one will be bored and unengaged (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 74). How does this play out in the DSQ context?

Especially from Rune, we know that some instances of intense absorption occur when something exceptional is at stake, such as when he was performing to finish his conservatory degree. The challenge was high, after all it is an exam situation, and he had chosen pieces that would be challenging to perform such that he could showcase his skills. The situation matches the desired skill–challenge relation. Rune’s resulting experience, however, was one of absorbed not-being-there. Is that a flow-state by Csikszentmihalyi’s definition? I’m not sure. At least his statement that: “The violinist must be extremely aware of every movement of her fingers” (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 64), which Rune certainly isn’t when undergoing absorbed not-being-there, seems to suggest not. In other words, we have reason to doubt that musical absorption can be contained in the desired skill–challenge relation, and hence to doubt that flow instantiates absorption.

How about the inverse situation, when the desired skill–challenge relation is not met. Then we would expect not flow, but either anxiety or boredom. Over the past years, the DSQ has begun finishing their programme with encores of traditional Danish hymns or chorals, especially those of the national composer par excellence, Carl Nielsen. The DSQ never rehearses them in advance, they perform them by heart or by ear and consider them relievingly simple and pleasant. Here is Asbjørn’s description

Partially it is super easy to play, partially it is something we have grown up with. It is our musical language. It comes in the very end, so all pressure is off. The audience is wide open, it is a room that is free from everything, you have already won if you play an encore, so you kind of already have the audience with you, so all of this “game” is off, you are almost finished so there are no physical obstacles. It is always these encores. It is absolutely certain, that there is a higher ratio of “hive mind” there, than in the rest of the concert.

To follow up, I asked him to imagine the perfect program for experiencing “being in the zone” and the aforementioned “hive-mind”, and he immediately replied that playing ten chorals like this would be his best bet. Asbjørn’s description instantiates the phenomenal properties of flow. It is highly pleasant, fully engaged, not self-examining. On the topography of musical absorption, it would be located as standard absorption, in Asbjørn’s case perhaps tending toward the ex-static. But it doesn’t meet Csikszentmihalyi’s skill–challenge relation. Asbjørn is exactly not challenged what so ever. But he is also not bored. He is just enjoying playing something simple. Another example is Fredrik’s most elaborate description of absorbed not-being-there, which came from rehearsing a Bach cello suite on his own. Given his skill, is it not technically that demanding and again, being on his own rehearsing, provides very little psychological challenge unlike Rune’s conservatory graduate performance. As for Rune’s absorbed not-being-there, we cannot say for sure if Fredrik’s absorbed not-being-there would instantiate flow. But from Asbjørn’s example, we have the phenomenal properties of flow without the requisite formal requirements.

In other words, when looking more closely at the experiences of DSQ absorption, we have both an absence of flow-experience under the putatively right flow inducing circumstances, namely the right skill–challenge relation, and a presence of flow experience, under putative non-flow inducing circumstances. An argumentative way out for Csikszentmihalyi and other flow-theorists is to either water down the definitions of skills and challenge, and for instance say that actually, Asbjørn by the mere fact of performing for an audience, was challenged in the situation. They could relativize the very skill–challenge relation and say that it is neither a necessary, nor a sufficient condition, but merely a relation that traces most instances of flow. Both of these responses could accommodate my criticism, but they would also weaken flow-theory further by making it even more general. Another defense flow-theory could enlist, would be the claim that it pertains to “optimal experience” rather than “optimal performance”. Montero has made this suggestion after arguing how much effort it takes to perform in a way that looks effortless (Montero 2017). While I agree that the impression of expert’s effortlessness is often deceiving, I find it strange to categorically separate the domain of expert performance from that of everyday experience, even if there certainly are differences. Furthermore, Csikszentmihalyi does work with high-level performance, rock-climbing for instance (Csikszentmihalyi 2008, 40).

To conclude, on acceptable scientific standards, flow cannot be said to instantiate musical absorption and it is philosophically vacuous and innocuous to claim that musical absorption is a kind of flow experience. The concepts used in the theory are so vague, and sometimes contradictory, that nearly any pleasant experience could instantiate flow. Further, its predictions following from the skill–challenge relation, do not hold for the DSQ. Do I believe that flow is a completely useless term? No, I am only claiming that due to its vagueness and generality it has little scientific value (it is hardly falsifiable) and that it does not give us any essential insight into the nature of musical absorption, especially not as compared to the other options taken up in the previous chapters. A consequence hereof, is that we should be skeptical of scientific work on flow theory.2 For instance, the psychologists Engeser and Schiepe-Tiska claim that “there is a high level of agreement on the definition of flow itself” (Engeser and Schiepe-Tiska 2012, 2) to which another psychologist Moneta replies that there is a lack of agreement on the appropriate measurement of flow and asks: “How is it possible to have agreement on a concept and disagreement on how to go about measuring it?” (Moneta 2012, 24). Based on the conceptual analysis offered in this chapter, it comes as no surprise that there is disagreement on how to measure flow. What does come as a surprise, however, is that anyone would claim that there is a high level of agreement on a definition of such an underdetermined concept. I suggest that the most conducive reading of Csikszentmihalyi’s work is that it is mostly intended for a general audience with a normative intention of telling people how they can improve their quality of living, “finding flow” (1997). This is a noble intent that I applaud. But it is not appropriate for understanding musical absorption.


  1. 1.

    Montero also criticizes Csikszentmihalyi and is generally “against flow” (2017) much in the same way that she is against Dreyfus’ “coping”.

  2. 2.

    For instance Experiencing Flow in Jazz Performance (Hytönen-Ng 2013) and “Group Flow” (Cochrane 2017).

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Simon Høffding
    • 1
  1. 1.University of OsloOsloNorway

Personalised recommendations