Musicians and Emotions

Isn’t it a dream of every one of us to have a partner who would pick up the most subtle nuance in a conversation and would understand what we are intending to say but do not want to put into words? I guess you doubt if there is such a person in this world. However, the scientists are optimistic and suggest that you should find a musician! The recent research shows that an early musical training would teach a person to understand every emotional cue in speech. It teaches to hear very precisely every changes of tone and recognize the emotions in sound – very valuable quality in our everyday life!
The daily processing of acoustic tones and especially the efficiency of the processing helps to show incredible results: Richard Ashley, associate professor of music cognition at Northwestern, found that musicians might be able to sense emotions in sound after hearing them for only 50 milliseconds–just 1/20th of a second! Oliver Grewe, a biologist and musicologist, points out that the gift of quickly identifying emotion has implications in all arenas of interpersonal communication. Beside the better language proficiency, a musician would be able to hear your voice in a noisy crowd and might even follow what you are saying… This quality is obvious even for a non-musician if they observe the orchestra where individual voices of instruments intertwine into a beautiful carpet of a whole symphonic work!
But you do not need to be a professional musician to excel in an empathy – an ability to recognize, interpret and respond appropriately to the emotions of others. The scientists from the Cambridge University David M. Greenberg, Peter J. Rentfrow and Simon Baron-Cohen say that listening to music can increase empathy. They raise a whole range of interesting questions like what kind of music can increase empathy, can music decrease empathy, based on musical preferences and thinking styles.
I particularly like a simple exercise that helps to train the empathy that I know from my early musical training: ask yourself what the music makes you feel during listening to a particular piece and try to find one word to describe your feelings. This exercise is not trivial, I tried it with several musicians and even they found it tricky with some pieces but if you do repeatedly, it brings fruits!
A neuroscientist Jens Wöllner (2012) showed that people with higher levels of empathy are able to perceive and identify a musician’s intentions with greater accuracy than those with lower levels. So it is a positive circle: the more empathic you are, the more receptive you are to the performance of a musician who is also empathic and communicates the emotions. It leads to greater enjoyment of musical performance and increases the chance of experiencing chills – strong emotional moments. I like the quotation of Oliver Groewe: “Music is a recreative activity. Even if it is relaxing to listen to, the listener has to recreate its meaning, the feelings it expresses. It is the listener who gives life to the emotions in music.” Another psychological trick – projection – does the rest of the game. A singer Joni Mitchell said in an interview: “The trick is if you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it will probably make you cry and you’ll learn something about yourself and now you’re getting something out of it.”
But how much empathy is healthy? Professional musicians have a reputation of being overtly emotional and highly sensitive – not a necessarily positive quality to put up with in a daily life. Another statistics show high rates of depression among musicians due to too many stimuli and failed filtration. It is very informative to go through internet blogs where there are heated debates if it is true. (I would refer you to Google – just type in “are musicians highly sensitive/emotional?) Musicians work with nuances that would not be possible without high sensitivity. It is a philosophical question if musicians are born with fragile mind to permit the perception of various stimuli or if they develop it during their lifetime. The richness of sensory details that life provides belong to the “virtues” of high sensitivity. I am thinking of more intensity in everything around us: more subtle shades in clothing, more refined taste while eating, the fragrances and smells in nature and surely the sounds in our daily environment. The perception depends not only on higher sensitivity but also on ability to concentrate. Again something, musicians learn in their music training.
Pearl Buck, an American Pulitzer prize novelist, finds the right words for a creative mind of a musician.
“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them…a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.”
What are your thoughts? Do you agree with the stereotype of an emotional musician? Do you think music can teach us to learn about our emotions and recognize them in others? Do you know some interesting exercises for it? Thank you for reading.