Practicing music, practicing empathy

Every morning, the first thing I do after checking my email is reading Carolyn Hax’s advice column. I love her sharp sense of humor, and her advice is always sound. This week, two letter writers wondered whether there was something lacking in them – they didn’t think they were feeling strongly enough when a friend was having problems. As one of them put it, “there are plenty of situations where a friend calls me about a problem they’re having and, while I’m happy to talk it out or to listen, I don’t feel their pain.” They wondered if that was abnormal and bad.

Carolyn reassured them that it was fine: “there’s a case to be made that not going through the emotions yourself enhances your ability to listen patiently and provide a shoulder. Some of the best caregivers are the ones who maintain enough detachment to keep their heads, and keep listening through what would be, for others, an exhausting level of duress.”

I was reminded of the work done by psychologist Mark Davis, 40 years ago, when he identified four types of empathy. “Empathic concern,” or sympathy, is a tendency to feel compassion and warmth for those going through negative experiences. “Perspective-taking” is a more cognitive process involved in taking others’ point of view. “Empathic distress” refers to feeling discomfort or anxiety when faced with others’ negative feelings. Finally, his fourth type involved being able to enter into the emotional worlds of fictional characters.

Basically, the first two go hand in hand, when you want to be supportive to someone. Sympathy works best when the person makes the effort to understand what it’s like to be in that situation, while making that effort without sympathy can feel cold and clinical. The third type of empathy generally gets in the way; it ends up making it about you, not them.

The fourth type has always seemed like it didn’t really fit with the first three, but later in the day I started to think about that differently.

I was attending a master class with renowned pianist Michelle Cann. michelle_cannThese master classes are a wonderful feature of our local symphony. Whenever the upcoming concert is going to feature a soloist, they invite that person to come a few days early and spend some time working with two or three of our local music students. The events are free and open to the public, although the audiences are generally small – mostly just family and friends of the students and a few others who have discovered how fun it can be to listen. The student performs a piece they’ve been working on, then the guest artist goes through the piece with them, giving advice and listening to what they do with the advice, as their own music teacher would. Sometimes the younger students benefit from feedback at a relatively basic level, but frequently, as in the case with Cann’s master class, the students have already mastered the technical side of the piece, so she helps them discover ways to make their performances more “musical,” which generally means more emotionally expressive.

One of the students had chosen Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s adaptation of “Deep River,” a classic spiritual, part of his “Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, Op.59.” In the original song, the singer tells us that his home is on the other side of the River Jordan, a promised land “where all is peace.” Metaphorically, of course, that other side of the river is both heaven and liberation from slavery. Cann urged the student to imagine his piano-playing as if he were using it both to sing the music and to accompany the singing, and she showed what she meant by singing along with him as he played. The music reaches out again and again in A-minor, then triumphantly repeats the main theme in A-major, as if, in the singer’s imagination, they have finally achieved their home… then returns quietly, again, to the minor key, wistful, because in truth, they are still not there.

In a book I read a few weeks ago, Daniel Berlyne quoted the philosopher Susanne Langer, who questioned whether we really experience emotions when listening to music or experiencing other forms of art. She contends that “music doesn’t normally influence behavior”; its effects on the body are transient. Thus, the effects of music aren’t really emotional. Rather, they’re symbolic of emotion and feel very much like emotion, without actually being emotion.

I don’t think we need to be that restrictive with our definition of emotion. Maybe we have two types of emotions, the ones that arise from being in real-life situations that need our response, and the parallel ones that give us much the same feeling, but with a built-in distance.

When we’re playing music, acting out a role on stage, or even just reading a moving story or watching a film, we’re experiencing real feelings. They may not be precisely the same emotions as if they were the result of events happening to us in real life, but we still get the gist of them. We can still learn from them.

So, back to Mark Davis. I think we’re getting at his fourth form of empathy here. When we’re immersing ourselves in music, or fiction, we’re practicing empathy. I mean that literally, like practicing on the piano – we’re developing the skills in a safe, low-risk way, so they’ll be there for us when we need them.

Yet another reason to support the arts!

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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2 Responses to Practicing music, practicing empathy

  1. Robin Turner says:

    Check out Noel Carroll’s excellent book The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart for a discussion of emotions aroused by (horror) films. You might also enjoy this TED talk:

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