On trying to understand music

13 Dec 2021

What is the role of empathy in music? That is what musicologist Magdalena Zorn is studying.

As a musicologist, PD Dr. Magdalena Zorn studies the communication processes that occur between composers, musicians, and listeners. Empathy, the ability to feel what others are feeling, plays a key role in this process. In the context of the CAS Research Focus Empathy, she addresses the question of how this feedback process is changing in the age of digital music.

What exactly is empathy?

Magdalena Zorn: Empathy is the ability to feel what others are feeling. Someone who is empathetic tries to share what another person is feeling and thinking in order to understand how they are acting. Empathy is different to sympathy, because sympathy is the attempt to feel another person’s pain, for example, first hand. Unlike sympathy, empathy is a process in which we do not become one with the other person but maintain a certain distance from them.

There seems to be a bit of a media hype around the term at the moment. Why is that?

I think there is so much focus on empathy right now because it is a way to compensate for a widespread type of communication that is happening in the media currently, which consists of people not understanding each other anymore. On social media, people are adopting a stance on a subject so much quicker than they ever did before, and in fact people are constantly drawing new battle lines in their communication. We can see this particularly strikingly in the stances people are taking on the coronavirus pandemic. When actually, it’s so important to make more of an attempt to approach the person we are engaging with empathetically, to try to understand what the other person’s reason for thinking or feeling that way is.

PD Dr. Magdalena Zorn

A word that is very close in meaning to empathy is resonance, a term with a musical connotation. What is the role of empathy or resonance in musicology?

Empathy as a concept of understanding is not something that has played a key role in musicology as a whole to date. However, systematic musicology, which studies the perception of music, is a field that is increasingly working with the concept. When it comes to how I, as a listening individual, make connections with music, empathy is of course essential. After all, music is composed by people for people; there are people behind it with whom we can empathize. In order to communicate on this subjective level, I as a listener might ask myself: What exactly was the composer thinking? In order to understand something in the music, I will ask myself: What emotions or thoughts does the music articulate?


In literary and film studies, empathy is considered a core skill for following a narrative or empathizing with a fictional character. But what about a purely instrumental piece of music?

A neurobiologist could give a definitive answer to this question by observing what happens in the brain when we listen to music. My answer as a musicologist is that what we empathize with when we listen to music is not arbitrary. What we empathize with depends a lot on our theory about what the instrumental music is telling us and who is telling the story. It may be the composer of a piano piece or the pianist who interprets the composition. There is a spectrum of narratives that we can find in music, from the subjects involved to the musical form. Because the form of music is also a kind of narrative that communicates with the listener.

Does culture play a role in this?

Definitely, in the sense that knowledge about a culture gives me a totally different starting point for what I could possibly understand about a piece of music in the first place. We need a certain knowledge base in order to be able to empathize with a piece of music or the people involved in it. Without this knowledge, we cannot understand the context within which the music has been composed, played, or heard. But this also shows clearly that the ability to empathize requires a modicum of study, in the sense of an interest in finding out about something.

In an opera, there is a strong narrative in the conventional sense. So, am I empathizing more with the situation the characters are in or with the narrative of the music?

In opera, besides the acoustic representation of thoughts and feelings, there is also the visual level. When an opera singer like Anna Netrebko plays a terminally ill, desperate lover in Verdi’s La Traviata, we not only hear it, we also see it. Empathy is easier with the eyes than with the ears. The reason for that is that we believe what we hear less than we believe what we see. Hearing is always dominated by the sense of sight, even in our everyday life. While what we hear gives us only an idea of what’s going on, we tend to understand what we see as something tangible that we can find out about, that we can empathize with.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many musicians have taken to livestreaming their concerts via YouTube. What does it do to empathy when musicians and listeners meet in the virtual space? Livestreaming existed long before Covid, of course, but many musicians, such as the pianist Igor Levit with his house concerts, have resorted to this means of communication because of the situation. But for the listener, it poses a big challenge. That’s because when you’re in the virtual space, a kind of media skin intervenes in the intersubjective communication, a digital medium mediates between people. Another instance – the machine – is involved in the communication process, which we conventionally call feedback. So, in a virtual musical performance we have to overcome not one but two barriers in order to experience empathy. This makes it even more of a challenge for us to learn about the other, be it the musician or the music itself.

15 Dec

CAS: Musical empathy in digital space

Read more

The livestreamed house concerts were very well received. So, did people overcome these barriers?

I think there were two sides to the house concerts. What disappeared was the mindset with which people normally go to hear a live concert: They often buy expensive tickets, dress up for the occasion, leave their private surroundings to go and listen to Beethoven sonatas with others in a concert hall. Music lovers go to great lengths to engage with compositions, to immerse themselves in the music. If we simply turn on a YouTube stream at home, these educated middle-class prerequisites disappear and anyone who has an internet connection can participate in the concert. So, more people get access to the music who might not be able to afford to go to a concert under normal circumstances. On the other hand, we tend to stay in our comfort zone when we’re at home; we get distracted and may switch off sooner, so we may not be able to engage with the music from start to finish. We would listen to a live concert right through to the end, but with a livestream that you can stop at any time, being empathetic is significantly more counter-intuitive.

When was the last time you felt empathy while listening to music?

Sitting in my garden in Austria listening to the Italian opera Cavalleria Rusticana on the record player. The environment I could see around me, the alpine landscape, connected in a touching way with what I was hearing. I wondered why the music seemed familiar and strange at the same time, why it sounded Italian, what the air might have smelled like when those bars were composed. I was trying to understand something about the music.

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