Strong Experiences with BTS’ Music

“I don’t know what came over me but I cried for hours repeating the song over and over again. I didn’t cry beacuse of the visuals or sound itself. I cried beacuse the song made me feel loved. It was like that song pulled me back to myself.”

anonymous BTS fan

I was a presenter at BTS: A Global Online Interdisciplinary Conference, a virtual event that took place May 1-2, 2021. The conference was hosted by California State University, Northridge.

My presentation was on the topic of Strong Experiences with Music (SEMs). It included preliminary findings from my mixed-methods study of BTS fans (known as ARMY) about their most intense experiences with BTS’ music, and any lasting effects or personal growth outcomes they attribute to those experiences.

Strong Experiences with Music have been defined as “the strongest (most intense, most profound) experience with music” a person has ever had (Gabrielsson, 2011, p. 7) and as “an unforgettable experience with music that stands out from usual experiences because…it is characterized by changed perception, deep feelings, and an intense physical reaction” (Schäfer, Smukalla, & Oelker, 2014, p. 529). Although SEMs are extremely complex and vary by individual and situation, there are also some commonly observed characteristics. For instance, Gabrielsson (2011) found that intense positive emotions during the experience, feeling connected to the music in a special way, and having new insights following the experience were among people’s most common reactions. The field of SEM research is built upon the concept of peak experience (Maslow, 1968; Gabrielsson, Whaley, & Sloboda, 2016). Some SEMs can be self-transcendent, can contribute to psychological well-being by increasing happiness and meaning (Lamont, 2011), and/or cause shifts in perspective that contribute to lasting positive changes in the person’s life (Schäfer, Smukalla, & Oelker, 2014). The field of SEM research is still young. Much of the research to date has primarily used a qualitative approach and (with the exception of Gabrielsson, 2011) relatively small sample sizes.

The well-being effects of engagement with music, generally speaking, are diverse (see, for example, MacDonald, Kreutz, & Mitchell, 2012). And so it is perhaps not very surprising that there is a common narrative among ARMY that BTS’ music has a powerful positive impact on well-being. But there is much to still be studied and understood about this impact, and what role it might have in ARMY becoming one of the largest and most devoted fandoms in the world against many odds. We must also consider that BTS’ music label has always had the mission of promoting “music and artist for healing”; this intentionality potentially contributes to BTS’ well-being effect in a special way. As a specific kind of experience with music which is powerful by definition, it is possible that SEMs are one unique pathway to ARMYs’ increased long-term well-being as a result of engaging with BTS’ art.

In March 2021, ARMYs were anonymously surveyed and asked to describe their most intense experience with BTS’ music in their own words. Additionally, they were asked to respond to multiple-choice items from a scale that measures growth-oriented outcomes attributed to important positive life experiences (Roepke, 2013). To my knowledge, this is the first study in which the Inventory of Growth after Positive Experiences (IGPE) has been used to measure long-term outcomes of music experiences. I presented preliminary findings from this exploratory investigation, and discussed insights into the power of music to transcend language and profoundly impact listeners in various ways.

I also suspect that the act of reflecting upon SEMs through writing itself may have positive benefits, based on research on expressive writing (Burton & King, 2004). That’s why I shared the prompt used in my study on social media, for anyone interested in this subject.

This post will be updated when I am able to share a complete report!

Thank you to my research collaborator Devin Barney!

See also:


Burton, C. M. & King, L. A. (2004). The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences. Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 150-163.

Gabrielsson, A. (2011). Strong experiences with music: Music is much more than just music. Oxford University Press.

Gabrielsson, A., Whaley, J., & Sloboda, J. (2016). Peak experiences in music. In S. Hallam, I. Cross, & M. Thaut (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology (2nd ed., pp. 745-758). Oxford University Press.

Lamont, A. (2011). University students’ strong experiences of music. Musicae Scientiae, 15, 229-249.

MacDonald, R., Kreutz, G., & Mitchell, L. (Eds.). (2012). Music, health, and wellbeing. Oxford University Press.

Maslow, A. H. (1968). Music education and peak experience. Music Educators Journal, 54(6), 72-171.

Roepke, A. (2013). Gains without pains? Growth after positive events. Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 280-291.

Schäfer, T., Smukalla, M., & Oelker, S. (2014). How music changes our lives: A qualitative study of the long-term effects of intense musical experiences. Psychology of Music, 42, 525-544.

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