The Role of Music in Promoting Our Empathic Reactions
How to cultivate empathy.
Posted March 23, 2023 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- Empathy is putting oneself in other people’s shoes and feeling what one thinks others are feeling.
- Music encourages individuals to engage in social interactions.
- Activities involving music are useful therapeutic tools for children with empathy deficits.
Empathy is the ability to imagine how others are feeling. It draws us into the life of another’s mind. Empathy allows an individual to share the same emotions observed in another person. Empathy helps us reenact in our brain the intentions of other people (‘mind reading’), giving us a deep understanding of their mental states.
Music powerfully provides opportunities for these kinds of cooperative and emphatic engagements. Music playing and synchronization can promote the development and maintenance of empathy. In fact, it is argued that music evolved as a way of sharing emotional and social connections (Savage 2020). For example, music plays important role in synchronizing (or harmonizing) the moods, emotions, and actions of two or more individuals.
Empathy is a valuable human resource (Baron-Cohen, 2001). It is an important factor in developing social relationships, and a loss of empathy has the most serious consequences for individual social health. When an individual can experience others’ feelings and adopt their perspectives, he or she is unlikely to engage in aggressive acts. For example, people who unconsciously mimic one another’s posture and facial expression experience enhanced social interactions.
Empathy is built through processes like those involved in music playing, including sharing feelings, imitation, and collaborating (Haung, 2020). When people engage in musical activities, such as listening and dancing, they often connect to their emotions, as well as to the feelings of others. Moving, tapping, or playing music in synchrony with others encourages group cohesion, increased cooperation, feelings of closeness, and increased perceived similarity. Playing music promotes contact with others and acts as a vehicle for social interaction.
A survey of music students (Cho, 2019) showed that those who had ample experience in practicing synchronization in music groups in childhood reported higher levels of trait empathy in early adulthood. Another study found a strong association between mother-infant synchrony in the first decade of a child’s life and empathy in responding to others’ distress (Levy & Feldman 2019). Adults singing in regular group sessions developed feelings of social closeness toward the group members more quickly than people engaged in other (non-musical) group activities (Clarke, 2015).
People who demonstrate empathy can better interpret emotions conveyed through music (Tabak, 2022). They tend to be more accurate in understanding what musicians are intending to convey through music. Evidence has shown that highly empathic people experience more intense sadness after listening to sad instrumental music (Clarke 2015). And highly empathic people find listening to music more pleasurable than people low in empathy. Empathy also affects the ability to synchronize with others (Tzanaki, 2022).
Even listening to music could help us be more empathic toward others. For instance, listening to love songs enhance our romantic feelings, and marching bands intensify our fellow feeling for the home team. For some people, music can represent a virtual person with whom to empathize. For example, we listen to sad music when we feel sad. We experience the music as empathizing with our feelings and making us feel less alone.
Although empathy can be considered a trait, some people tend to experience empathy more easily than others. The evidence clearly suggests the possibility that empathy can be cultivated via music. One way to achieve this is through musical training in childhood. Evidence has shown that long-term musical training (rhythmic coordination) has a positive influence on children’s empathy and social competence. For instance, musically trained children tend to be more sensitive to emotions expressed in music, and adults with professional musical training have heightened sensitivity to emotions in speech compared to non-musicians (Juslin 2019).
Baron-Cohen, S. (2001). Theory of mind and autism: A review. International Review of Mental Retardation, 23, 1–35.
Cho E. (2019). The relationship between small music ensemble experience and empathy skill: A survey study. Psychology of Music, 49(3), 600–614.
Clarke E, DeNora T, Vuoskoski J. (2015). Music, empathy and cultural understanding. Phys Life Rev; 15:61–88.
Huang H., Liu Y., Su Y. (2020). What is the relationship between empathy and mental health in preschool teachers: The role of teaching experience, Frontiers in Psychology,11, p. 1366.
Juslin, P. N. (2019). Musical emotions explained: Unlocking the secrets of musical affect. Oxford University Press
Levy J., Feldman R. (2019). Synchronous interactions foster empathy. Journal of Experimental Neuroscience, 13, 2–3.
Savage, P., Loui, P., Tarr, B., Schachner, A., Glowacki, L., Mithen, S., & Fitch, W. (2020). Music as a coevolved system for social bonding. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-36.
Tabak, B. A., Wallmark, Z., Nghiem, L. H., Alvi, T., Sunahara, C. S., Lee, J., & Cao, J. (2023). Initial evidence for a relation between behaviorally assessed empathic accuracy and affect sharing for people and music. Emotion, 23(2), 437–449.
Tzanaki, P. (2022) The positive feedback loop of empathy and interpersonal synchronisation: discussing a theoretical model and its implications for musical and social development. Music & Science, 5. ISSN 2059-2043
Wu X., Lu X. (2021). Musical training in the development of empathy and prosocial behaviors. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 1662.