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New Study Probes Connections Between Music and Empathy

By Anya Wassenberg on December 12, 2022

Music-making is a fundamental part of human history. The oldest known piece of music dates back 4,000 years, while pipes and flutes made of animal bones have been dated to 40,000 to 60,000 years ago.

And, how long before that did they begin using their voices, clapping, using logs or even the ground as drum surfaces?

Stepping back even farther than that begs another question — what first led our ancient Hominin ancestors to create deliberate sounds by making holes in hollow bones, and then blowing through them, in the first place? Why music, in other words?That’s the essential question behind a newly published study with the imposing title Initial evidence for a relation between behaviourally assessed empathic accuracy and affect sharing for people and music. The study by researchers at the University of Oregon, published in the journal Emotions, looked into the relationship between understanding the emotions of other people and understanding the emotions conveyed by musical expression. In other words, are people who demonstrate empathy also better able to understand and share emotions through music?

And, what does that mean?

The researchers note that some evolutionary theories put music and empathy together, suggesting that music evolved as a way of sharing emotional and social connections.

The study used a group of undergraduate students as well as online participants from across the US. They looked at the reactions of the participants to people sharing personal stories, as well as music. Participants watched a video where subjects talked about an event from their own lives, one that held a lot of emotion for them. They also heard a piece for piano that was composed specifically to convey a certain emotion.

There were “positive associations” between both modes of expression that cut across social groups and musical genres. The people who showed advanced empathetic abilities were also the best able to feel the emotions of the music.

The study’s authors note that more research is needed, with a view towards looking at ways that music can be actively used to help develop the way people think about each other. Perhaps, empathy can be cultivated via music.

Where to next?

The study is part of a path towards understanding the very origins of music itself. Did our Neanderthal ancestors (or perhaps even earlier Hominins) develop music as a way of sharing emotions — a kind of communal expression of feelings?

It’s an intriguing idea, and one that spurred the researchers, led by Zachary Wallmark, musicologist and cognitive scientist. He’s quoted by ZME Science.

“If music evolved to help us navigate our social environment, and music is first and foremost a social behaviour, then we would expect there’d be some sort of shared neural processes underlying both,” Wallmark said.

The Grammy Foundation is funding Wallmark’s further studies, which look to take his assertion to the next step. The research team will use brain scans to measure and compare the activity of neural circuits when subjects are exposed to empathetic situations and music.

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