Can You Be Too Passionate About Music?

“Why some performers’ attitudes may hurt them.”

Photo by Danil Kalinin

Photo by Danil Kalinin (

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.

Someone with a “harmonious” passion for an activity engages in that activity freely, without internal or external pressure.

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.

An “obsessive” passion, in contrast, results in an uncontainable desire to engage in a particular activity.

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.



Jeanette Bicknell

Jeanette Bicknell

Jeanette Bicknell, Ph.D is the author of Why Music Moves Us. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from York University, and has taught in universities in the U.S. and Canada. She is the author of academic articles on the philosophy of music, aesthetics, ethics, and the history of philosophy, and is currently working on a book about singing. She also works as a mediator and business consultant.

Connect with Jeanette
Why Music Moves Us


Books by Jeanette Bicknell, Ph.D:

Why Music Moves Us

Why Music Moves Us

Why Music Moves Us

by Jeanette Bicknell, Ph.D
Buy now


Please join the discussion below

4 thoughts on “Can You Be Too Passionate About Music?

  1. This is a fascinating essay, and also hits a little close to home. I spent ten years in my youth as a serious classical singer, and at times entertained thoughts of pursuing it professionally. But in the last couple of years of that pursuit I felt I hit a wall; I simply wasn’t improving, wasn’t getting to where I wanted to be. So I stopped singing at all. A friend of mine sings in a prominent choir here in DC, and he and others over the years have persuaded me to join it or some other local audition choirs. But I still resist, although now that is joined by the fact that I know I would put a lot of time and effort into rehearsal and practice and I’m using my spare time now for another creative pursuit — writing.

    I’ll say this, for me at least, about writing vs. singing: I don’t feel as a creative writer I’ve ever come close to hitting my wall, and even as I see my writing improve, I remain confident that I will always continue to improve, but I also know I’ll never reach where I’d like to be. And this time that’s okay, because it’s the pursuit that matters, not whether the goal is reached. I don’t know if that difference is my own maturity now relative to then, or if it’s a reflection of the medium. But you’ve got me reflecting on it, which is welcome.

  2. Interesting distinction, and one I can really relate to, being an introverted compulsive creative! I wonder how many writers find it easier to let an artform speak for us than to just be ourselves?
    Like Patrick above I’ve been through obsessive phases – funnily enough also with singing. Another obsession was dressage. But I didn’t enjoy them until I stopped racing against others and decided to enjoy the journey.
    I didn’t know about the Somerset Maugham story – I’ll certainly be checking that out.
    How funny that you should home in on this subject. My novel features a musician who is trapped in a destructive relationship with her art – and has it ripped away from her. This post is my novel in x-ray.

    • Wow, dressage, how about that. That’s great that you were able to find a way to enjoy the journey and move away from the competitive obsession.

      My other obsession, FYI, was darts; I aspired for awhile to be a professional darts player (you get to drink beer while competing, now that’s a sport).

  3. What an insightful article. I can relate to the danger of passions becoming obsessive, but perhaps the clearest comparison for me is in writing. Few creatives I think, create entirely for themselves, there is an underlying need to communicate. And when that happens, and one’s work becomes public (which these days means global and largely uncontrollable), one is vulnerable because it’s a very competitive world out there.The appreciation of creativity, music, art, writing,sculpture, performance etc is very personal – who can truly judge. So financial values are used instead. It is important to me, as a writer, to remember that so much of the financial and numerical scales are measuring only saleability – which is something quite different to creative achievement. A creative person knows themselves when they have achieved a creative goal, as opposed to an externally set goal, and that is what we have to keep a hold on if we want to maintain our integrity and our creativity. I’ve only just caught up with this post so my thoughts are still raw, but it touches a nerve about why we do what we do, and I understand why some writers never read reviews or look at Amazon ratings!

Leave a Reply