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More Music, More Empathy

Could music be an effective way to curb bullying and reduce prejudice?

Tadeu Asevedo on Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Tadeu Asevedo on Flickr Creative Commons

As I’ve written previously, I’m not fond of efforts to boost the value of music in the eyes of the general public by proclaiming how it can be used to improve other skills that are more readily accepted as important. Such efforts include the music education profession’s promotions—past and present—about the benefits of music study to things like math and reading achievement. This website by the National Association for Music Education, a group of which I am a member, is particularly embarrassing to me. I rather doubt that music listening or even music lessons necessarily make children smarter. But I’m quite sure that exposure to and experiences with music make children more musical. And that’s enough for me.

I am, however, quite supportive of the idea that being more musical allows a person to be more human. Being musical, I believe, is not characterized by things like skillfully operating an instrument to produce recognizeable songs. Rather, being musical has to do with being sensitive to and productive with the expressiveness of sound. Sound is music’s medium of expression, but the object of expression is usually some aspect of the human condition.

So the question is: Can music uniquely inform and affect people such that they come to understand and appreciate the perspectives of other humans who are not so self-evidently like them?

Certainly many musicians believe it can. Jazz flutist Paul Horn described music as “a power to bring people together….It is one of the most powerful 'weapons,' if you will, that we have for peace and understanding, and to communicate and begin to connect with each other.” (Boyd, 1992, p. 114)

Racial/cultural bigotry is one of the most troubling results of lack of empathy between people. Some believe music can make an impact even in this way. Drumming great Steve Jordan once said, "Music is very powerful; it crashes down walls….it can knock down barriers quicker than any UN meeting, any NATO meeting. That's why rock and roll has been so powerful. I watched a band from Liverpool change the world. As far as I'm concerned, what else has done that?” (Boyd, 1992, p. 116)

If Paul Horn and Steve Jordan are right, then can music be used to reduce bullying or break down prejudice between disparate cultural groups? Can it help people more kindly consider those who are different from them and lead them to feel for others as human beings? Can music give people greater empathy?

A research study published in the journal Psychology of Music attempted to address this line of questioning directly through an experiment carried out with children aged 7-10. Conducted in the public schools of Porto (Gondomar), Portugal, this study addressed negative racial stereotyping among light-skinned children against dark-skinned children descended from immigrants of Cape Verde, Africa (Sousa, Neto, & Mullet, 2005). The study’s procedure involved introducing Cape Verdean songs as part of the series of regular Portuguese songs learned in school music classes over the course of 4 months. At the beginning of the study, all children showed a moderate level of anti-dark-skinned stereotyping. At it’s conclusion, however, the level of stereotyping among the children exposed to the Cape Verdean songs was significantly reduced; there was no change in negative stereotyping among children in a control group (who did not learn the Cape Verdean songs).

Other research has identified two broad conditions under which people tend to gain greater empathy for others. One is similarity – the more I understand you to be similar to me, the more likely I am to have empathy for you. Related to this, music sociologists have long established that people tend to like the same kind of music as other people with whom they identify. In other words, if we believe we have much in common with a group of people, we will tend to share musical tastes with them. The researchers of the aforementioned Portugese study suggested that something of a reverse effect could account for the increased empathy (i.e., reduced prejudice) found in their study. That is, because the light-skinned children simply liked the Cape Verdean songs they learned, they then felt they had something in common with the dark-skinned children whose heritage was represented by the music. So liking the music became a commonality that allowed the young people to identify with a group that otherwise might seem very different than them. Perhaps songs (i.e., music with lyrics) are especially effective at stimulating empathy. Lyrics can be used to tell a story that listeners can identify with. Or lyrics can present new ideas but over the accompaniment of familiar musical sounds. Both of these approaches capitalize on the principle of similarity.

The other condition under which empathy is often gained is nurturing – if I am a contributor to your care and well-being, then I am more likely to understand and share feelings with you. Music can provide opportunities for people to emotionally invest in one another. For example, within a choir of homeless and other marginalized individuals, group singing was found to offer powerful social benefits, namely a sense of camaraderie and a social support system (Bailey & Davidson, 2005).

For my part, I don’t believe that increased empathy is a primary outcome of most music listening experiences. Certainly some musicians have intended for their music to engender empathy among listeners – and have been successful in doing so – but surely others have effectively used music for much less noble purposes (e.g., music used for political propaganda and by hate groups). Music is about expression, and it can produce in listeners a wide range of human emotion –the good and the bad.

But moving beyond music listening, empathy development may be at the very heart of collaborative music making. A recent article directed at music educators makes this point very well. Interpreting a broad body of research, author Lynda Laird convincingly asserts that empathy is built through processes common to group music making, including “mirroring, imitation, being synchronous, solving musical problems, collaborating, and having a number of shared affective experiences” (Laird, 2015, p. 59). I'm not convinced that just any kind of music involvement – in a school or elsewhere – will boost human capacity for empathy; unfortunately I've observed many a rehearsal in which the musician's role is reduced to simply following the performance instruction of a conductor and the collaboration between ensemble members is limited to sharing a folder or music stand containing the sheet music that they are expected to produce with note-perfect correctness. I greatly prefer experiences that involve musicians in solving musical problems, employing group creative processes, and engaging in performance that's deeply interactive.

So when parents solicit my advice about providing musical enrichment to their children’s lives, of course I always encourage it. But I refrain from presenting music education and musical experience as unfailing means of boosting things like self-discipline, academic achievement, and standardized test scores. I do, however, boast in music’s ability to make young people more human, especially if the experiences are characterized by socially collaborative and emotionally expressive active music making.


Bailey, B. A., & Davidson, J. W. (2005). Effects of group singing and performance for marginalized and middle-class singers. Psychology of Music 33(3), 269-303.

Boyd, J. (1992). The collective unconscious. In Musicians in tune: Seventy-five contemporary musicians discuss the creative process (pp. 109-140). New York: Fireside.

Laird, L. (2015). Empathy in the classroom: Can music bring us more in tune with one another. Music Educators Journal, 101(40), 56-61.

Sousa, M. D. R., Neto, F., & Mullet, E. (2005). Can music change ethnic attitudes among children? Psychology of Music, 33(3), 304-316.

Copyright 2015 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: Tadeu Asevedo on Flickr Creative Commons.

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