Music, Consciousness and Empathy: Have headphones made us emotionally selfish?

Previously, hearing your flat mate play Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind‘, Kool and The Gang’s ‘Celebration‘ or Marvin Gaye’s ‘Lets get it on‘ you’d know whether to grab the tissues, open the champagne or make yourself scarce. However, with headphones stunting music’s ability to convey our mood and emotion to others are we less tuned in to the feelings of others, and more focused on the self?

Music has been used for centuries to communicate emotion, Professor Eric Clarke told this week’s PsyNAppS meeting. From infant directed speech to crowd cooperation, music promotes intersubjectivity and large-scale sociality. With the Six Nations Rugby taking place, you need only watch the crowd stand to sing, in synchrony, their country’s national anthem to understand the power of this effect.

Bigger than understanding an individual, music affords us insight in to history. Professor Clarke quoted Nicholas Cook (1998) who said : “Music is a means of gaining insight into the cultural or historical other…If music can communicate across gender differences, it can do so across other barriers as well.” Whilst it lacks the semantic qualities of language, music’s flow and pitch make it a language interpretable by all. Professor Clarke suggested music to be a pure structure in time than can manipulate our perceptions of time, a feature that lies at the heart of its ability to take over our consciousness. From the micro manipulations that leave people hanging on every note to the macro Wagner operas or all night raves, it’s clear that music is a powerful force.

It is therefore no surprise that we use music as a ‘technology of the self’. Tia DeNora (2000) described the way in which people use music as a kind of self-therapy as “Part of how individuals are involved in constituting themselves as social agents”.

But with the rise of headphones, how has this balance between self-therapy and social communication altered?

It’s no surprise that we appear better able to self-regulate with music given it’s increased availability on mobile devices. Professor Clarke says: “Headphones can encapsulate people and separate them off from the world affording a kind of very private listening. This can be valuable.” However, there are problems: “It does have socially isolating consequences. (The problem is) not black and white. There are great advantages and yet dangers with it as well.” So, as the technology for listening to music develops, we should be mindful of the price we pay for the new found advantages.

Eric Clarke is a Heather Professor of Music at Oxford University. He completed his BA and MA in Music before studying expressive performance of music for a PhD in Psychology. Though never believing he would end up working in music, Eric says he has been very fortunate to benefit from both sides: “Interdisciplinary allows one to be amongst one discipline with perspective of another, which is interesting to others and the self.”

“Psychologists with an interest in music are increasing: it’s a strong and growing area. It is increasingly recognised that music is a very powerful part of people’s lives and is very socially conspicuous. It’s a big industry. Everyone listens to it and has an opinion. Psychologists have a lot to offer as to why music is such a powerful thing in people’s lives.”

For Psychologists interested in this dynamic and growing field, Eric has this advice: “It is important to try to gain a reasonable sophisticated understanding of music itself as musicians will not want to engage with a psychologist who doesn’t appear to understand the language that musicians use and the ideas that they find interesting.”

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