Empathy is a valuable ability for us to develop, and I believe making music and empathy are related.
At its most basic empathy is being able to feel what another is feeling. Often, we don’t really have it unless we have experienced the same thing or something close to what another is going through. We might know that a mother whose son was killed in a car accident is distraught, but if we haven’t at least suffered the loss of a loved one, we can’t feel what she is feeling. Through listening to and learning to play and create music, though, I believe we can become more able to empathize, even when we have no personal experience of what another is going through. The reason has to do with something Carlisle Floyd told me once when I was studying with him: “The measure of a great composer is the emotional range of his music.”
What jumps out at me about that is the concept of emotional range. Music is full of ranges. There ranges of pitch (low to high), dynamics (soft to loud), tempo (slow to fast), articulation (rough to smooth), rhythm (simple to complex) and mood (dark to bright). As my descriptions in parentheses suggest, all of these correspond to things we experience in everyday life. Mostly when we think of how music feels, we think of its mood, but all of these aspects are part of how it feels. This is why music is so prominent in movies. It can set the mood, but it can also magnify the drama.
Emotional range is rich and varied, but most of us would describe it as I described mood above, as ranging from dark to bright. What the mother who has lost her son feels is somewhere along that range. As is the warmth felt by a couple in love watching a sunset, or the wonder felt by a child examining the drops of water on a leaf after spring shower, or the astonishment felt by an audience after a profound performance of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. In each case, those emotions are of a particular pitch, so to speak. We may not have had those precise experiences ourselves, but if we have experienced emotions of the same pitch, we can likely recognize what they are feeling.
This for me is the most profound way music is important to human beings; especially music by great artists, regardless of the genre in which they work. Listening to a wide range of music helps us to experience a wide range of emotions. We can become more aware of what we can feel, more capable of feeling and through that, more empathetic of others.
Yet, musical experience and life experience go hand in hand. It is one thing to experience emotion in music, but it is another to connect that emotion to the real stuff of living. Composers who express the full range of emotions have often lived the full range of emotions. They may not have lost a son, but they’ve lost a friend. They may not have watched a sunset with the person they love, but they’ve sat in front of a fire with a cat purring in their lap. They may not have taken time to examine drops of water on a leaf after a spring shower, but they’ve gazed on fireflies as dusk fades into night.
This is important to realize in teaching. I have found one of my most powerful tools in is finding ways to get students to relate the music they are playing to real experiences they’ve had. One of my favorite questions is, “Have you ever…?” Have you ever been ice skating? Have you ever jumped on a trampoline? Have you ever climbed a tree and felt it sway in the wind? Have you ever held a baby? Have you ever been annoyed by your little brother? I love this question so much for two reasons. It is incredibly effective when I find something they’ve experienced that relates to the emotional pitch of the music. And I love coming up with examples! Life is so full of experiences. In a very important way, life IS experience. And in virtually the same way, music is experience as well.
Although studying music is valuable for using more of the brain, learning to study, doing better and school, and learning how to perform, I believe it’s greatest value remains its ability to make us feel. Music has been a part of every culture for thousands of years, and this ability to make us feel is the main reason why.
In making our way, we often don’t have time or opportunity to feel our full range of emotions, to get to know the instruments of feeling. Music can help us do that. It is truly one of the most remarkable things we have. Through the experience and practice of music, we train our brains to work better, expand and sharpen our sensory awareness, learn to feel more fully and deeply, learn to create those feelings in others when we perform and make ourselves more capable of empathy. In a very real way, we find ourselves.
Have you ever found your Self in music?