Music as Fuel for Empathic Connection

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  • by Jessup Smith

Like the experience of art, music is an emotional process and one that has always meant connection to me. Empathy is front and center at SEEK - our goal in any work we do is to share an emotional connection with the people we’re learning from. And in some projects, music and empathy go hand-in-hand, allowing us to build a deeper, more meaningful relationship through sharing in their emotional experiences, using music as a tool to heighten the connection.

With my role at SEEK, music can particularly come in handy when trying to understand the emotional states of the people we interview for our research. I love to invite the opportunity in studies for respondents to give us songs that they feel best represent different aspects of their lives, their relationships and aspirations. Oftentimes that even winds up being our team’s playlist as we traverse cities around the globe to meet them in person. During research, our playlists are also shared out with the client teams to help them remember those people we’ve met in field when we’ve completed the research.

As a music lover, I’ve found that I have certain songs for any feel or occasion. I’ve got my summer driving tunes, a shared “Weep-a-thon” playlist with a friend, songs for the gym, ones for being generally contemplative - but the most meaningful ones are those attached to my most significant memories. These are memories of special times, both good and bad, with the people I care most for. My connective experience with music has led me to seek out new and familiar bands at every opportunity and to see them live. So with the winter thaw and fast-approaching festival season, my curiosity has piqued again and plans are in the works to see some of my new favorite artists with friends and continue exploring new ones.

(Unfortunately, there’s no private island Fyre plans, but there will definitely be a camping trip to Bonnaroo as well as potential for others I’ve always wanted to go to Lollapalooza, Electric Forest, Hangout, and Outside Lands - just to name a few. We shall see!)

According to recent findings from a joint study between SMU and UCLA, the neurological activity when listening to music mirrors the same systems at work when having a social experience. Music as a proxy to social interaction is more intense depending on the empathic level of the person listening to the music. This means that those who are already prone to putting themselves in the shoes of others and taking a bit of their walk are stimulated by music in a way in which their brain mimics the rewards and electrical activity of a social experience, just like it would if you were meeting and chatting with someone new.

This confluence of music within my personal, social and professional lives struck me as I planned my first excursion. Music is deeply ingrained in my experience with others and I knew others around me felt the same way, so I interviewed a fellow SEEKer and dove into some recent research in the space of music and empathy. What I heard and read was both reaffirming and illustrative.

That study gave me a good framework of understanding for my conversations with that SEEKer/ fellow music lover. In one, I learned about the loss of a grandmother - “a drive in through the fall foliage and sunshine up and around mountains for the funeral” as well as the warmth of their relationship. As she recounted the story, I felt the longing she felt to see her grandmother again, the remembrance of happy times, and the wrenching gut pains of loss. For her, a song encapsulated this entire experience. It became integral to the memory of her grandmother. For me, the song now feels like a bridge to understanding their connection without having ever met her grandmother.

She also spoke to music as being an invaluable means of retrospection. Songs could take her back to the person she had been previously at different points of growth in the past. She said music allowed her to look at her past self like it was an entirely separate being from who she’s grown to be today. I resonated with this, both because I have similar experiences with it, and because I’ve been reading perspectives around music’s ability to act as a social connection.

More likely than not, we all have a few songs that we love that simply make us reminisce and truly feel something; a memory, the presence of a person we’ve loved or lost , or even emotions we weren’t aware needed processing. As we hear these tunes come on, we get chills. Our minds take us back to that particular moment in time and we feel something that is anything but loneliness, all encapsulated in a rhythmic array of catchy notes and meaningful lyrics. It’s this feeling that makes music a tangibly empathic experience. Ultimately, music is more than a rewarding creative experience. It’s a source of social proxy that fuels empathic connection.