photographer reflection
On Empathy
IMAGE: Kaleb Nimz

On Empathy

The crimes and misdemeanors language perpetrates against music are many and various, but one offense is more insidious than most, simply for being so insignificant. It’s a preposition. In English, invariably, we listen to a piece of music. Never with a piece of music.

That little rut of syntax conceals a speed bump on what seemingly should be a musical express lane: the generation of empathy. Empathy is something music can and ought to steadily, even effortlessly create. Performing music, particularly in any sort of ensemble, large or small, exercises the muscles of empathy like no other. But even just listening to it should give empathy a boost, one would think. Name another art form that so regularly launches even its most historically, culturally, and ethnologically distant artifacts into newly immediate vitality, again and again.

Empathy is, perhaps, the most plausible of music’s utopian promises. The universality of musical communication dissolves the barriers of isolated viewpoints. We can gain direct access to perspectives and emotions far from our own experience. Music expands our ability to empathize, to sympathize, to humanize. It’s a great story. It’s a story I’ve told enough times, certainly. And, at those times—now, for instance—when empathy seems to be a dwindlingly scarce societal resource, it’s a story we like to tell with greater insistence, and confidence, and hope.

But what if it’s just that—a story? From another angle: what if there’s no way to listen to a piece of music and with a piece of music at the same time?


For the better part of a century, psychologists and similarly inclined scholars have made a particular distinction between empathy and emotional contagion. The former is defined in the usual way: having the experience of another person’s perception, perspective, emotional reaction. The latter is a little different: experiencing an emotional response simply because everyone around you is experiencing the same emotion. It’s an illusion of empathy, one conjured completely out of one’s own emotional memories.

The distinction is important in the study of musical perception. Here’s a recent explanation of the difference, by scholar Felicity Laurence:

It seems possible that when accounting for feelings of unity arising during shared musical experience, we may be confusing the impression of actually understanding and even feeling sympathetic towards one’s fellow “musickers” with what is in fact the experience of an emotional “wave.” In doing so, we are arguably conflating this “contagious” experience with the distinct and separate phenomenon of empathy. Emotional contagion is not inherently negative, and may indeed lead to, or accompany, empathic response. However, people engaged in musicking may seek specifically to engender, and then celebrate emotional contagion in order to reduce individual sovereignty and dissolve interpersonal boundaries. Even in an apparently benign concert performance, for example, we may be able to discern such manipulative behavior on the part of the performers and the corresponding mass response of their audience.

This description, at least, maintains the optimistic possibility (“may indeed”) that emotional contagion can pull the listener in the direction of true empathy. But others have not been so sure.

flamingo reflection

Photo by Pablo Garcia Saldana

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, for instance, was a skeptic. And he came to doubt because of a now-familiar controversy—the shock of the new. In the early part of the 20th century, Ortega was wrestling with a problem: how to define modern music vis-à-vis the music of previous eras. “The problem was strictly aesthetic,” Ortega wrote, “yet I found the shortest road towards its solution started from a simple sociological phenomenon: the unpopularity of modern music.” Unlike music of the Romantic era, modern music had not met with wide popularity. And the reason for that was profound and inherent: “It is not a matter of the majority of the public not liking the new work and the minority liking it,” Ortega went on. “What happens is that the majority, the mass of the people, does not understand it.” After a century of Romanticism’s mass appeal, modernism was a rude awakening:

If the new art is not intelligible to everybody, this implies that its resources are not those generically human. It is not an art for men in general, but for a very particular class of men, who may not be of more worth than the others, but who are apparently distinct.

Hence the title of the essay: “La deshumanización del arte,” the dehumanization of art. And, like Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?” (which, in some respects, Ortega anticipated by thirty years), Ortega isn’t out to demonize that dehumanization. It is what it is. And a lot of what it is has to do with how art—and music specifically—does and doesn’t engender empathy.

Romanticism, to Ortega, was popular because “people like a work of art that succeeds in involving them in the human destinies it propounds.” In the case of music, the destiny propounded was that of the composer: “Art was more or less confession.” Wagner, the adulterer, writes Tristan und Isolde, an opera about adultery, “and leaves us with no other remedy, if we wish to enjoy his work, than to become vaguely adulterous for a couple of hours.”

This seems like an empathetic response. But, upon closer examination, the music of Beethoven and Wagner is “melodrama,” and our response to it just “a contagion of feelings”:

What has the beauty of music to do with the melting mood it may engender in me? Instead of delighting in the artist’s work, we delight in our own emotions; the work has merely been the cause, the alcohol, of our pleasure… they move us to a sentimental participation which prevents our contemplating them objectively.

“[T]he perception of living reality and the perception of artistic form are, in principle, incompatible since they require a different adjustment of our vision,” Ortega insists. “An art that tries to make us see both ways at once will be a cross-eyed art.” The clarity of empathy is hopelessly blurred by reflexive emotional response: “It is no good confusing the effect of tickling with the experience of gladness.”


Ortega’s analysis is subjective, speculative criticism, but some of the ideas he turns over—especially regarding genre and empathy—have, however tentatively, been put to scientific test. In one provocative study, Shannon Clark and S. Giac Giacomantonio compared that match between subjects in late adolescence and early adulthood—across the age boundary when the psychological development of empathy is thought to settle into a mature level. Clark and Giacomantonio quizzed their subjects as to their listening preferences, classifying them according to a Musical Preference Factor Scale (MPFS) developed by Peter J. Rentfrow and Samuel D. Gosling:

Factor 1, “reflective & complex” (e.g., classical, jazz, folk, blues)

Factor 2, “intense & rebellious” (e.g., rock, alternative, heavy metal)

Factor 3, “upbeat & conventional” (e.g., country, pop, soundtracks, religious)

Factor 4, “energetic & rhythmic” (e.g., rap, soul, dance, electronica)

The result?

[I]t was shown that music genres encompassed by MPF-1 and MPF-2 are stronger in their associations with empathy than are those encompassed by MPF-3 and MPF-4. In fact, MPF-3 was negatively associated with empathy, indicating that those who have greater preferences for these genres may be lower in empathic concern. Additionally, MPF-4 was shown to have very little influence on empathy, positively or negatively, indicating that these genres of music contain little to no emotive messaging influencing empathic concern[.]

What’s more, the study hinted that “music preferences are more relevantly associated with cognitive aspects of development than affective ones.” In other words, the path to increased empathy is through thinking, not feeling. To be sure, the framework fairly smacks of unexamined stereotypes (I can think of plenty of rap music that is “reflective & complex,” and plenty of classical music that is “upbeat & conventional”). To any even slightly versatile musician, the MPFS categories (even in expanded form) can feel excessively, well, categorical. And, as with all studies of music and empathy so far, the study is far more suggestive than conclusive—the sample size is small, the data noisy. But squint your eyes, and you can just make out Ortega’s line between “objective” and “sentimental” music.

Still, Ortega’s business was philosophy, not psychology. His conception of the empathy-emotional contagion distinction was phenomenological, echoing ideas of empathy and intersubjectivity explored by Edmund Husserl and, especially, Husserl’s student Edith Stein, a fascinating thinker whose life was cut short at Auschwitz. (The philosophical consideration of empathy goes back to the Enlightenment, but it was Stein’s thesis, written at the absolute tail end of the Romantic era, that most influentially distinguished between empathy and emotional contagion.) And Ortega, it should be noted, had an ulterior motive. At the core of his analysis is his mistrust of utility. His famous Decartes-like statement of individual existence—“Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia,” I am I and my circumstances—posits existence as a contest between the self and the decisions into which the self is pushed by those circumstances. On some level, Ortega regards Romanticism as more circumstantial, more useful, than he might prefer. (Ortega’s anti-utilitarianism most shows its seams when stretched. In Ortega’s Meditations on Hunting, for example, he ends up elevating the “exemplary moral spirit” of hunting for sport over hunting for food.)

But how do you measure the utility of music, anyway? Earlier this year, I moderated a discussion panel for one of the concerts in a two-season survey of Anton Webern’s complete music, mounted by Trinity Wall Street in New York City. For a prompt, I offered a quotation from the rather contentious 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime” by the rather notorious Viennese architect Adolf Loos:

The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects.

The target of Loos’s ire was Art Nouveau and its penchant for putting decadent, decorative swirls on everything from wallpaper and furniture to ashtrays and breadboxes. But Loos was Webern’s contemporary; and it feels like this quote should have something to do with Webern’s famously stripped-down rhetoric. But what, exactly, that connection is, I’m not sure.

What was it that, perhaps, Webern considered utilitarian about music, and that previous generations had excessively ornamented? Was it the utility of musical form, and how it had been ever-more-grandly ornamented with tonal harmony? Webern’s works are formal—often scrupulously so—but without the tonal indicators of form, without the harmonic mile markers and exit signs everyone had grown accustomed to over the past three centuries. At the very least, this answer hints at how Webern’s music can be so wildly expressive while, compared to tonal music, doing so little. A piece of music isn’t expressive because it adheres to sonata form, say; sonata form is useful because it gives the nebulous quality of musical expression something to which to adhere.

But, with Ortega’s essay swimming in my head, here’s another idea. Maybe the utility of music is its communication—not what it communicates, which nobody can ever agree on, anyway, but just that it communicates with such power and directness. And the ornament? Emotional contagion.

I might like this answer even better, because it dissolves so many of the paradoxes of Webern’s reception—why it’s judged cool and inscrutable, when it’s anything but; why it’s judged austere and meager, when it’s anything but; why it’s judged impersonal and inhuman, when it’s anything but. Maybe the real resistance to Webern’s music (and a lot that followed) is that, in and of itself, it refuses to let the audience off the hook. To engage with it is to experience empathy without the cushion of emotional contagion. Real empathy, the experience of a world-view other than yours, is a far different and far less comfortable thing than a safe memory of your own emotional experience.

mirror reflection

Photo by Ali Syaaban


The whole landscape of this discussion is, admittedly, esoteric. Webern’s music is extreme. Ortega’s endpoint is a bit extreme. Academic studies of music and empathy, by nature, inhabit at least somewhat abstract spaces. (A number of investigations, for instance, have studied responses to music by autistic listeners in order to make observable effects more readily obvious.) Most of us—composers, performers, listeners—don’t live at these kind of extremes. We roam across Rentfrow and Gosling’s Music Preference Factors, mixing and matching, picking and choosing, sometimes amplifying a mood, sometimes challenging it, sometimes throwing different approaches into the blender just to see what happens. We all, at least some of the time, like to be transported into a new perspective; at the same time, we like to be guided to that place with a sense of being met halfway.

The question is whether the distance is the only thing being halved. The implication of Ortega, and Webern, and the tentative attempts to quantify such things is that, maybe, empathy and emotional contagion, rather than working hand-in-hand, as we might assume, are instead in a mutually exclusive tug-of-war. It is both a profoundly counter-intuitive idea and one that causes a surprising amount of music history to fall into logical place. And I find that just considering the idea reduces a lot of the foundation of how I think about music to sand. How would that change how we make music? What would that music sound like? How would we perform it?

Here’s another question: would we even be able to hear it?


In the introduction to the second, 1966 edition of his study Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan took the opportunity to try and clarify a tricky point: how, when a medium is superseded, the old medium becomes the “content” of the new. For example, “the ‘content’ of TV is the movie. TV is environmental and imperceptible, like all environments. We are aware only of the ‘content’ or the old environment.” Our entire historical relation to the world around us is simply an ongoing two-step between content and media:

Each new technology creates an environment that is itself regarded as corrupt and degrading. Yet the new one turns its predecessor into an art form.

The argument that atonal modernism “chased away” the audience for classical music/concert music/art music (choose your favorite flawed terminology) is practically a cliché at this point. But the bigger shift was technological. At the same time as the advent of atonality, our relationship with music was undergoing the greatest sea change in history: live performances were displaced by recorded, broadcast, or otherwise electrically and electronically mediated performances. And one can interpret McLuhan’s framework so that the primary feature of Romantic music—its flair for creating the illusion of startlingly immediate emotions—became the “content” of music once its dominant mode of consumption became electronically mediated. In other words, the phonograph, the radio, the recording studio made the emotional contagion of music the end, not the means. Considering McLuhan’s framework leads us to another counter-intuitive possibility: that, for a hundred years, the intended meaning of any piece of music has been lost in translation, its technological mediation filtering out everything but the emotional contagion.

It’s an esoteric interpretation. But it would explain a lot. It would explain why one of music history’s most zealous projects, the post-World War II determination to dismantle the legacy of Romanticism, foundered so completely. It would explain why some of the most thrilling and fascinating music of the past one hundred years, music that still can generate an electric response in the concert hall, found no traction on record or radio. And, more to the point, it would go a long way toward explaining why two generations and counting of conscious efforts to “reconnect” with audiences, of composers and performers producing music conceived in tonality and dedicated to the proposition that accessibility and clarity are fundamental to musical practice, have failed to forestall yet another political and historical moment in which our capacity for empathy has been ruthlessly and thoroughly crowded out by emotional contagion. But the notion also implies a dilemma: the music best able to engineer empathy might be that which is the hardest sell to a listener—because it is the most at odds with the way we have come to listen to music.

Like most dilemmas, it’s older than we think. The ancient Greeks were already worrying about it, forever theorizing how to channel music’s capacity for moral improvement, forever peppering those theories with observations that so much of the music that surrounded them eschewed morality for an easy emotional response. Aristotle, like so many after him, tried to square the circle with crude class distinctions, contrasting “the vulgar class composed of mechanics and laborers and other such persons” with “freemen and educated people,” resigned to the necessity of appealing to the former with “active and passionate” harmonies—since “people of each sort receive pleasure from what is naturally suited to them”—but insisting that, for education, “the ethical class of melodies and of harmonies must be employed.” (Not incidentally, this discussion takes place in the eighth and final book of Aristotle’s Politics.) But somehow I think that even Aristotle’s educated people were just as susceptible to emotional contagion as his mechanicals.

It’s not a class trait, or a national trait, or an aesthetic trait; it’s a human one. Emotion is easy; empathy is hard. We prefer listening to over listening with, a preference reinforced, perhaps, by the inescapable electronic web we’ve woven around ourselves. We keep believing that the one can lead to the other. But is that, in actuality, anything more than a feeling?

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Matthew Guerrieri is a musician and writer whose work explores a wide range of music—classical, jazz, pop, avant-garde and early music, opera and music for dance—in search of surprising connections not just between disparate genres of music, but between music and currents of thought in history, politics, philosophy, and science. He regularly has written about music for the Boston Globe and NewMusicBox, and his articles have also appeared in Vanity Fair, The American Scholar, Playbill, Musical America, and Slate. He is the author of The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination (Alfred A.... Read more »


NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

One thought on “On Empathy

  1. Jon Corelis

    Here is the best poem I know about listening to music. It may be objected that the poem’s viewpoint discards a group audience in favor of a solitary listener, but I think that just means that a single person is enough to be an audience, just as a single musician is enough to make music. The poem’s thoroughly Romantic sensibility (and admittedly rather creaky archaic diction) may disguise today how fine and profound a poem about music it is. What it says, to me, is that if a piece of music is successful, you never stop listening to it. It changes you, because it permanently replaces some of the silence.

    The Solitary Reaper

    Behold her, single in the field,
    Yon solitary Highland Lass!
    Reaping and singing by herself;
    Stop here, or gently pass!
    Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
    And sings a melancholy strain;
    O listen! for the Vale profound
    Is overflowing with the sound.

    No Nightingale did ever chaunt
    More welcome notes to weary bands
    Of travellers in some shady haunt,
    Among Arabian sands:
    A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard
    In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
    Breaking the silence of the seas
    Among the farthest Hebrides.

    Will no one tell me what she sings?—
    Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
    For old, unhappy, far-off things,
    And battles long ago: 20
    Or is it some more humble lay,
    Familiar matter of to-day?
    Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
    That has been, and may be again?

    Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
    As if her song could have no ending;
    I saw her singing at her work,
    And o’er the sickle bending;—
    I listen’d, motionless and still;
    And, as I mounted up the hill,
    The music in my heart I bore,
    Long after it was heard no more.

    –William Wordsworth

    Reply

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