Empathy and music may be intertwined, new research suggests

People who can skillfully interpret other people’s emotional states might also be better at assessing the emotions conveyed by music, new research shows.

Humans have been making music throughout recorded history, “but it doesn’t seem to serve any obvious biological function,” said UO musicologist and cognitive scientist Zachary Wallmark. The finding lends support to one explanation for the evolutionary origins of music: that it facilitates social connection, much like empathy does.

Wallmark co-led the study alongside psychologist Benjamin Tabak at Southern Methodist University. The team published their findings April 21 in the journal Emotion.

Rather than ask people to assess their own empathy, Wallmark and Tabak looked at a more objective measure: people’s skill in interpreting others’ feelings.

They showed participants videos of people talking about emotional events in their lives and also played clips of piano music that were specifically composed to convey an emotional narrative. They asked participants to identify the emotions being shared, tracking positive and negative affect over the course of each clip.

Participants’ responses were then compared against the videotaped people’s and musicians’ own responses. People who were better at tracking the emotions in the videos were also more accurate at assessing the emotions conveyed by the music.

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

The study suggests there may be a link. Now, in research sponsored by the Grammy Foundation, he and his team are looking at the brain to see if similar neural circuits are involved. The research could translate into therapeutic and social skills training for people with social-cognitive impairments.