The Practice of Empathy

Recently, I came across a claim that listening to music can help people develop empathy. Wow. If true, that gives music a tremendous amount of power to impact lives and society. More and more, we are learning that emotional intelligence is just as important, if not more so, as hard skills in the workplace. In these days of so much division, listening to music may help heal relationships. Can listening to music really do this?

If you read my post, “Is Music Your Job or Your Passion?”, you know that I went through a period when I asked myself about the usefulness of music. In college, I was told that I was selfish for being a musician. I believe many artists have felt that the world communicates to them that their pursuit of beauty and transcendental meaning is frivolous. Artists argue back, “but the arts make us more human!” I agree, but until recently that defense has not been easy to prove. In the last decade, many psychological studies have shown that music, and the arts in general, can help develop empathy. (I will leave you to do your own research; many articles need to be read to get a good picture, and I cannot link to them all.)

I immediately wondered what it was about listening to music that developed empathy? Did listening to any kind of music help? Did the music need to contain lyrics? After reading a few articles and abstracts, one including a study of children listening to music from another culture, I began to make connections. (I am not a psychologist; these are just my own personal musings on what I read.)

Casually listening to music isn’t enough to develop empathy. This is why I have titled my post, “The Practice of Empathy.” Developing empathy takes and practice, and we can help ourselves grow in this area by being purposeful about it. Music, and the other arts, can help us along this path.

If you listen to a piece of music and tune it out after ten seconds, you haven’t listened. You have dismissed it. If you read a chapter of a book or a paragraph of an essay and then toss it aside, you haven’t given the author a chance to speak. If you pass by a painting or sculpture without really looking, you have already decided that artist has nothing to say. It is not possible to listen to, read or view everything. It takes intention to make the time to take in art with an open heart. Not to like it, necessarily, but to hear or see what the artist is trying to say, to make an attempt at understanding.

I don’t like the definition of the word empathy, the ability to feel what another feels. Let’s just be honest. It is not possible for anyone to fully understand what things are like for another person. We are all unique individuals with unique experiences and unique responses. It’s like looking at the sky. We all agree that the sky is blue. But I cannot get inside your head and use your eyes and your brain and see the shade you see, compared to the shade I see. We all may see something different! When you tell me that the sky is a beautiful blue today, I can agree only because I, too, am familiar with a blue sky.

So it is with empathy. We cannot feel what another feels. But what we can do is listen without interruption, hear another person’s perspective, appreciate what we are told, and take it in without judgment. We can come alongside and treat another with dignity. We can give others a place where their voices will be heard and believe their stories. We can have compassion. We can learn and imagine what we might feel if we faced the same situations.

Giving someone pat answers is not empathy. Trying to solve someone’s problems for them is not empathy. Telling someone their problems aren’t that bad or that they are overthinking is not empathy. Telling someone they see the world wrongly is not empathy. Dismissing someone is not empathy.

If I could change the definition a bit, empathy is letting someone speak.

This is why music, and art in general, helps people develop empathy. Whenever we intentionally take in art, we are letting the artist speak. We are practicing giving another our undivided attention. We are submitting ourselves to the artist’s perspective for a while.

Of course, it’s easier to do this when we are familiar with the artist, the genre, or the culture. However, we gain much more from getting out of our comfort zones and taking in that which we don’t know and even that which makes us uncomfortable. We practice letting the other speak about things that we don’t understand; we allow ourselves to sit in confusion. We learn to say “I don’t understand” rather than “this is junk” or “this person is an idiot.” Perhaps upon reflection and processing what we’ve taken in, understanding will come. Even if it continues to evade us, it doesn’t matter. Either way, we have practiced empathy; we have opened ourselves to what the other person has to say. In so doing, we may begin to identify with how they think and feel.

This is what artists do. Their works call, even demand, “Listen to me! Read me! View me! Hear what I have to say!” Art is not a selfish frivolity. It provides an opportunity to practice and develop that which makes us human, that which is the oil lubricating relationships and society. It helps us to grow in empathy.

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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

3 thoughts on “The Practice of Empathy”

  1. In my opinion there’s different levels of listening to music. Some people I know, dont even listen to lyrics?! That blows my mind. How can you not listen to lyrics? I think that helps to build the feeling behind the song, and the feeling is what develops empathy!

    Interesting post, well done 🙂 x

    1. I think you are right – there are many ways of listening. It would be interesting to see if studies could go into more detail about how different types of music and different types of listening all impact empathy. Thanks for popping in!

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