Empathy and Musical Rhythm: A Literature Review

The emotional and unifying powers of music have long been recognized. Militaries use steady beats to instill a sense of camaraderie in their soldiers; sports players use high-energy pulses to “get angry” before a game; filmmakers use swelling musical works to shape their audiences’ responses to a scene. In all of these instances of emotional influence, a key is the manipulation of the music’s rhythm to elicit the desired feeling in listeners. These compositions are designed to create the same emotional experience across many individuals, relying on shared principles of human cognition in order to do so. Because of these shared principles, it seems likely, therefore, that music can be used to augment empathic responses in its listeners. This paper seeks to review the current literature related to this topic, examining the intersection of empathy and musical rhythm to evaluate possible a possible direction for research into this area. Specifically, I seek to examine whether variations in musical rhythm can influence listeners’ interpretations of others’ emotions and, by extension, their empathic responses to other individuals.

Since ancient times, musicians, audiences, and philosophers have recognized the powerful emotional component of music (Perlovsky, 2010). People regularly describe songs using emotional vocabulary, defining their favorite tunes as “happy,” “upbeat,” “angry,” “sad,” or with a host of other affective terms. In fact, evolutionary psychologists have theorized that music evolved from the same systems as language, diverging from the more concretely semantic process of human language to become a more emotional and semantically abstract artifact of human cognition. Both music and speech rely upon similar ideas of rhythm and pitch to convey messages, though musical sounds can draw upon much wider interpretations of these notions in order to do so. This idea, called superexpressive voice theory, supposes that music holds such power over its listeners because it acts upon the linguistic parts of the brain in a way that is more expressive—that is, more emotional—than normal human language (Perlovsky, 2010). Several psychological mechanisms have been proposed to account for this feature of music, most notably six by researchers Juslin and Västfjäll (2008): brain stem reflexes, evaluative conditioning, emotional contagion, visual imagery, episodic memory, and musical expectancy. While much research is left to be done to confirm that these mechanisms are at fact in play in music cognition, they provide us with a psychological framework which we can use to understand the other literature relevant to this topic.

This notion that music processing is due to universal features of human cognition is further supported by research conducted by Balkwill and Thompson (1999).   These researchers asked American men and women of various age groups (all of whom were unfamiliar with Hindustani music) to listen to several Hindustani melodies and to evaluate the dominant emotions and relative rhythmic complexity of each piece. For control, four experts in Hindustani music were also asked to evaluate each piece on the same bases; each expert also asserted that each recording used was a competent rendition of the piece. The thirty-four participants were found to be in agreement with regards not only to the rhythmic complexity of each piece, but also to the dominant emotion expressed in each melody, regardless of whether they were experts, had only a passing familiarity with the genre, or had never heard that type of music before (Balkwill & Thompson, 1999). Furthermore, the emotions that the participants identified in each piece were found to be in agreement with the emotions intended to be conveyed by each piece, despite the vast differences in cultural backgrounds between the composers of each melody and the participants listening to them (Balkwill & Thompson, 1999). This suggests that emotional responses to music transcend cultural differences and instead draw upon universal psychological features of their listeners.

From the perspective of musical rhythm, this makes sense, especially when one considers the phenomenon of musical entrainment. Clayton et al. (2005) broadly defines entrainment as “a phenomenon in which two or more independent rhythmic processes synchronize with each other.” When listening to music, for example, a walking person will unconsciously fall into step with the beat of the song, entraining the rhythm into their own physicality. Reviewing literature from the field of ethnomusicology, these researchers also found that this propensity for entrainment is found across cultures, again suggesting that a universal psychological process is at play (Clayton et al., 2005). Some research conducted has suggested that this process actually helps listeners to music focus their attention across domains, providing evidence for a possible means by which entrainment could lead to increased empathy (Escoffier et al., 2010). Participants in this study were presented with pictures of faces and houses, then asked to indicate whether each picture was oriented upright or had been inverted. In one condition, participants completed the task in silence; in another condition, a rhythm was played in the background and the images appeared on-beat; and in the third condition, the images appeared off-beat with the rhythm. Participants responded significantly more quickly to pictures presented in the on-beat condition than to those presented off-beat or in the silence condition. That is, the presence of a synchronous musical rhythm was found to facilitate the focusing of attention on visual stimuli (Escoffier et al., 2010).

On an interpersonal level, entrainment is a key component of joint action theory, a psychological theory which attempts to explain how individuals are able to perform complex tasks in conjunction with other people even with incomplete or no communication between the two groups (Knoblich et al., 2011). Knoblich et al. (2011) reviewed the literature in this field, finding that people tend to fall into synchronous patterns with one another even when they try not to, regardless of whether the task in question is dancing to music, walking together, or even just rocking in a chair side-by-side. They propose that this inclination towards interpersonal synchrony is also at play in empathetic responses between individuals.

Indeed, other research has supported the existence of a connection between musical entrainment and prosocial behavior. De Bruyn and colleagues (2008) worked with a group of elementary school children to test the effect of music on their social interaction and the effect of the level of their social interaction on their response to music.   First, they empirically quantified the impact of social interaction on the children’s dancing as they listened to music, investigating the children’s intensity of movement and the amount of synchronization with the beat. This study had two conditions: individual, where the children were separated by screens; and social, where the children danced in a group of their peers. The team of researchers found that the social environment caused a quantifiable increase in both the intensity of the children’s movement and their level of beat-synchronization. Furthermore, the researchers found an effect of the type of music played on the way that the kids embodied it; that is, the genre of music affected how the children danced in both the individual and social conditions (De Bruyn et al., 2008). More recent research has taken this step even farther, suggesting that physical embodiment of music—a phenomenon called “groove”—can actually increase the empathetic responses of those grooving to the music (Sevdalis & Raab, 2013). However, because these experiments were not specifically testing for this effect, more research is warranted before we can draw a firm connection between musical rhythm and empathy.

In testing this connection, research from other areas of cognitive science sheds some light on the feasibility of various methods. While the field of emotion cognition has gone back and forth in recent years on whether or not bodily arousal responses are differentiated enough to allow for direct measurement of emotion, recent research has given credence to supporters of this technique. One possible experiment, therefore, would be to measure participants’ emotional responses to rhythmic stimuli; thus, we could test whether musical rhythms are actually able to elicit similar affective responses across individuals, or whether individuals simply learn through social cues to report certain kinds of emotional states based on the type of rhythm played (Harrison et al., 2010). By seeing whether participants actually experience similar emotional responses or simply report doing so, we can gain further insight into the intersection of music and empathy.

Another possibility, though, is to test how musical rhythm impacts individuals’ ability to accurately identify the emotions that others are experiencing. To this end, researchers could utilize facial emotion recognition tasks, usually used in abnormal psychology to test patients’ abilities to empathize with and understand others. Such tasks present participants with several images of faces coded as one of several emotions and ask that they evaluate the emotion presented. Participants are then scored as to how closely their answers resemble those of the average person (Mueser et al., 1996). Such a test could be useful to measure the effect of mediating factors, such as the presence of a musical rhythm, on the ability of listeners to identify the emotions of others.

With this in mind, the question I seek to test is whether a rhythm can affect individuals’ interpretation of emotions expressed by other people. Specifically, if participants were shown images of faces coded as various emotions as they were played pieces of likewise-coded music, would they be able to more accurately (and reliably) interpret the expressions depicted in the faces?  Or, would their ability to do so be negatively impacted if they were played a piece of music that did not align emotionally with the facial expression shown? By exploring this question, we gain further insight into the psychological links between music, emotion, and empathy.


Works Cited

Balkwill, L., and Thompson, W.F. (1999).  A Cross-Cultural Investigation of the Perception of Emotion in Music: Psychophysical and Cultural Cues.  Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 17(1), pp. 43-64

Clayton, M., Sager, R., and Will, U. (2005). In time with the music: the concept of entrainment and its significance for ethnomusicology. European Meetings in Ethnomusicology, 11, pp. 3–142.

De Bruyn, L., Leman, M., Moelants, D. (2008).  Quantifying Children’s Embodiment of Musical Rhythm in Individual and Group Settings.  Miyazaki, K., Hiraga, Y., Adachi, M., Nakajima, Y., and Tsuzaki, M. (Eds.). Proceedings from ICMPC10: The 10th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition. Sapporo, Japan.

Escoffier, N., Sheng, D. Y. J., and Schirmer, A. (2010).  Unattended musical beats enhance visual processing.  Acta Psychologica, 135(2010), pp. 12–16.

Harrison, N. A., Gray, M.A., Gianaros, P.J., and Critchley, H.D. (2010).  The Embodiment of Emotional Feelings in the Brain.  The Journal of Neuroscience, 30(38), pp. 12878-12884.

Juslin, P.N., & Västfjäll, D. (2008). Emotional responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31(5), pp. 559-­621.

Knoblich, G., Butterfill, S., and Sebanz, N. (2011). Psychological Research on Joint Action: Theory and Data. In B. Ross (Ed.), The Psychology of Learning and Motivation (Vol. 54, pp. 59-101).  Burlington, MA: Academic Press.

Mueser, K. T., Doonan, R., Penn, D.L., Blanchard, J.J., Bellack, A.S., Nishith, P., and DeLeon, J. (1996).  Emotion Recognition and Social Competence in Chronic Schizophrenia.  Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 105, pp. 2,271-275.

Perlovsky, L. (2010). Musical emotions: Functions, origins, evolution. Physics of Life Reviews, 7(1), pp. 2-­27.

Sevdalis, V., & Raab, M. (2013). Empathy in sports, exercise, and the performing arts. Psychology of Sports and Exercise. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2013.10.013.

One thought on “Empathy and Musical Rhythm: A Literature Review

  1. You do a good job of introducing your topic and stating clearly the goals of the lit review (and your research). Here are a few suggestions/comments:

    1. One element that is really useful to the reader (and ultimately to the writer as well), which I did not find in your introduction is plan for the lit review, i.e., how your lit review is organized. It seems at first that you are elaborating an argument, bu then you do review different theories/approaches, at which point it becomes a bit difficult for the reader to map the materials presented.

    2. Although you regularly associate statement with specific sources, make sure that all statements based on on one or more sources are accompanied by parenthetical author-date references. For example, “In fact, evolutionary psychologists have theorized that music evolved from the same systems as language, diverging from the more concretely semantic process of human language to become a more emotional and semantically abstract artifact of human cognition.” (par. 2) Since the use of the plural suggests that this is not limited to Perlovsky (2010) just cited above, you need to include a few additional sample authors witgh the statement.

    3. “This suggests that emotional responses to music transcend cultural differences and instead draw upon universal psychological features of their listeners.” (par. 3) The link to empathy could be strengthen or a least speculated upon.

    4. The De Bruyn & al. (2008) bibliographic citation is missing its page numbers.

    Finally, from the materials you have reviewed so far, it seems that you might proceed by coming up with some specific questions (or phenomenons) of interest to you, and then propose theories based on what has been discovered so far. One of these questions might suggest a specific path of investigation, which would become the basis for your final presentation. For example, it might be a set of observations related to entrainment or groove, which would suggest some experimental path or some ethnographic research. In any case, I think there is several themes that you could fruitfully investigate (but you need only to explore only one for this project!). Rather than focusing on emotional response to music, however, I would suggest that you make sure to include some interpersonal element (social interaction). The phenomenon of moving to music in groups, which may impact how those who move together to music interact with one another, seems especially promising to me.

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