Is Music the Ultimate Exercise in Empathy?

August 25th 2014

Empathy: noun \’em-pə-thē\ : the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else's feelings (Miriam Webster Dictionary)

What happens to us when we listen to music, when a song comes on the radio and we just “get it”? In most cases we’re hearing something that was performed by someone we’ve never even met, sometimes at a time that we weren’t even alive in a place we’ve never even been… but we just “get it.” There are even times when we’re hear a performer pour their heart out about an experience that we’ve never been through, but we completely understand what they’re feeling. How?
I’ve always felt that music transcends time and space; it’s on some other level entirely. I could get into a spiritual discussion about a collective consciousness (and I will later), but we don’t even have to dig that deep. We’re simply being human. I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot lately. I’m certainly not a psychologist, but I listen to music, and I’m a musician, and more importantly a human. Here are a few of my thoughts on the topic.

A Connection

When we listen to music we often choose a song that plays to our current mood. It’s therapeutic to have someone so eloquently describe to us exactly how we feel. They understand us so perfectly, and they’ve felt what we feel. We hear what they have to say about it and suddenly we don’t feel so alone.
When we create music, we want to tell someone how we feel, whether it’s someone sitting in an audience, or in a bean bag chair in their attic with their headphones on. We just want to believe that somewhere out there, someone is listening, and they understand. Suddenly we don’t feel so alone.

“You’re too young to understand that music”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that. I grew up in the 80’s and early 90’s, but my music of choice was always classic rock from the 60’s and 70’s. No, I wasn’t there. I didn’t experience what it was like to live in that time. But isn’t that the point, to show me what it felt like? I can read all about events throughout history, but it’s just news and information until someone puts a soul into it and creates art. I don’t know what it was like to live through the November Uprising in 1830 either, but Chopin’s music still makes me feel. I’ve never left been to the San Francisco Bay, but I can feel what it is to leave your home in Georgia just to sit at the dock of the bay.
I don’t know, but I feel what these artists felt BECAUSE of their music.

The Musician as a Conduit

What happens when the musician didn’t write their own music? Is it still genuine? Absolutely!
The musician chooses what they play for the same reason we choose what we want to listen to. Whether it’s a jazz cover band or a classical pianist, the musician will choose music that speaks to them. The musician is working their empathy muscles on overtime. The real artists you encounter dive into the music to truly understand and feel what the composer/writer is trying to say. Then they go beyond just understanding it; they try to feel it themselves. They feel it enough that they can express it in their own terms, adding their own voice to the mix. They then share that emotional soup to the listeners, whom the musician is also trying to understand and connect to. They thus bridge the gap across miles and generations, even centuries connecting people in a very genuine and unique way. All of us feel what each other has felt.

Music, Empathy, and Autism

Unfortunately there is a common misconception about autism that people with an spectrum disorder lack empathy. Again, I’m certainly not a psychologist, but I have known people with Asperger’s or Autism and I don’t believe for a minute that this is true. Spectrum disorders are hallmarked by a difficulty in reading other people’s emotions and/or expressing your own. However that does NOT mean that they don’t feel those emotions or care that other people are feeling them.
Music is often an alternative outlet to express those things that are difficult to emote and read in social situations. Music therapy is often used to help treat those with autism to improve social-emotional responsiveness and communication, and interaction with peers. In fact, research has shown that individuals with autism show superior abilities in labeling emotions in music.
Personally, I also have always had difficulties reading people, and with expressing myself in social situations. Music, however, is so clear in comparison with words and body language.

What else is going on here?

Maybe there is something deeper going on. Personally, music is tied very closely to my spirituality. I think our spiritual beliefs are very personal, so don’t fret if you disagree with me. –Honestly, it’s rare that I find someone who does ;-)

I feel that music (and many other art forms) touches another piece of our souls that is beyond our thoughts and beyond even our emotions. It hits us on a subconscious level, and connects us to a universal consciousness. I believe that we’re all connected.
- by our actions: Even our seemingly insignificant actions have an effect on each other. (butterfly effect)
- by our thoughts: the sharing of knowledge is very thing that made our species thrive as a civilization.
- by our emotions: We are all capable of feeling everything that has ever been felt. And on a collective level we have felt everything.
- even by the stuff we’re made of: Every atom in our body was created in a long dead star billions of years ago. We’re all made of this same stardust that is recycled over and over throughout time.

We’re made of bits of the universe itself, and the universe itself is alive. We’re a part of it, and it’s a part of us. It does what we do, it thinks what we think, it feels what we feel and it flows through every one of us, connecting every one of us together.

There have been several occasions when I heard a song on the radio that just moved me, even though the singer was telling a story that had no resemblance whatsoever to my own life. I had never experienced it, but I felt like I had. (Sounds like empathy, right?) Sometimes years later… I encounter the song again, and I realize that my current story relates perfectly. Does music speak to us on a level that transcends time? Perhaps we know our story before it’s been told? Perhaps we know everyone’s story, and feel everyone’s joy and pain together on a deeply seeded, but unknown, subconscious level.