The results of a new study suggest a link between a person’s level of empathy and the way they respond to music. Empathy can be generally defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others; in psychology empathy is often divided into two categories, with the ability to understand other people’s feelings described as “cognitive empathy” whilst the ability to share those emotions is described as “emotional empathy”.

A study carried out by researchers at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas and  UCLA found that high-empathy and low-empathy people responded to music very differently on a neurological level. Participants underwent an MRI scan whilst listening to music that they were familiar with and unfamiliar with, as well as music that they liked and disliked, and were subsequently made to answer empathy-based questions to ascertain how easily they could pick up on the feelings of others and whether they could relate to them.

 Analyses of the MRI scans showed that all participants predictably showed activity in areas of the brain linked to auditory and sensory processing; however, those with higher levels of empathy also showed an increase in activity in the dorsal striatum (involved in the brain’s reward system) when a song they knew was played, as well as in areas of the brain associated with social interaction and interpreting the behaviour of others. This suggests not only that listening to recognisable music is more enjoyable for high-empathy people, but also that the brains of such people process music in similar ways to social interaction—relating to music on a neurological level almost as if it were another person. They suggest that these results could have helpful real-life implications; “If music can function something like a virtual ‘other,’ then it might be capable of altering listeners’ views of real others.”

Applicants for Music may wish to think about the implications of this research for both the study and the writing of music, bearing in mind that Psychology of Music is part of the undergraduate course at some universities (including Oxford). In what way, if any, can music be said to resemble social interaction? How can sounds produce emotion? Applicants for Psychology may want to consider whether such studies can be useful for understanding empathy and triggering it in those not predisposed to it.

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