Empathy and Music: Intertwined or Independent?

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Recently, in one of my classes, we were asked to take an empathy quotient survey online. A lot of the questions pertained to social situations and how you react to them, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and many other human nature type questions. I found this survey to be pretty interesting, although it wasn’t until the end that I actually knew what it was for – it was measuring my capacity for empathy. I wondered why my teacher at a music school would want us to take this quotient. What did empathy have to do with music? But after taking the test and really thinking about it, I realized that my professor might have been on the right track. Perhaps empathy has a larger role in music than we realize.

Some of the questions were so hard to answer, because you know that the answer should be strongly agree or strongly disagree, but when you really sit down and think about it, the answer that’s true to you may not be the correct one. At the end of the test, the various scores and their corresponding meaning were listed: the highest range of numbers were an above average level of empathy, the middle numbers the typical level of empathy, and the lowest numbers were below average levels of empathy most commonly found in people with Asperger’s Syndrome and/or mild Autism. I found it quite interesting that people with Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism usually score the lowest, and yet there are so many examples of musicians who suffer from these disorders, such as Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, and they tend to be some of the greatest and most innovative musicians out there. It made me wonder: does being empathetic make you a better musician, as my professor implied?

I am a true believer that being a good person is much more important than being a good musician, and that in order to have the success I seek in music, both are required. I consider myself to be very empathetic (I scored “above average” on the survey) but I never really thought of it in terms of making music. As I filled in the survey, it occurred to me that my affinity for caring for others, being able to assess social situations and emotional states, and anticipating others’ actions certainly would make a difference in the way I play music with other people. I’m a sensitive person, but I always perceived that sensitivity simply as good listening in musical situations. I’m sensitive to people’s feelings and moods, and I believe that it generally makes me someone that my friends feel they can come to.

I hope that this openness creates the same effect with the musicians I play with; that an element of trust is created between us. Saying that I get along very well with other musicians is a general statement that isn’t entirely true, like saying “I get along with other people very well.” I am an agreeable person and generally quite friendly, but there are always people in the world that you don’t get along with. I would like to revise the statement to: I get along very well with the musicians I have chosen to play with in the past, largely because I surround myself with musicians who are good people. It is only now that I am starting to evaluate exactly what “good” means. Is it kindness? Is it open-mindedness? Perhaps it does have a great deal to do with empathy, but it’s hard to say exactly.

When asked by my professor, after taking the survey, in class, “how do you make music at your highest potential when working with others?” my immediate answer was “by playing with people who are better musicians than you.” That’s always been true for me. Playing with musicians who are a level (or more) higher than I am always pushes me to sound my absolute best and it keeps me on my toes. But again, I have to ask myself, what makes these musicians “better” or even just good players? Is it listening? Is it ability to improvise? Is it reading? What is it?! This brings me back to my first point: how can it be empathy when some of my favorite musicians of all time lacked that quality? They communicated through music spectacularly, yet when they weren’t in a musical situation they struggled. I’m therefore quite skeptical to declare “empathy makes you a better musician,” but I feel fairly safe in saying that it can’t hurt.

I absolutely believe that being empathetic is extremely important in this life. In fact, without it, I don’t think relationships could really exist, musical or otherwise. Empathy enables us to put ourselves in another’s shoes, and that is the only way that help can be given to those who need it. Society would be a disaster without empathy, and I believe my empathetic nature makes me a good friend and someone who will give help when it is needed. The question is, does it make me a better musician? I believe it does, but I invite you to take this same quotient and decide for yourself if the questions being asked are applicable to music. You might be surprised!


Link to the Empathy Quotient Survey:

http://glennrowe.net/baroncohen/ empathyquotient/empathyquotient.aspx

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          January 31, 2015