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Saturday morning quotes 8.3: Empathy

October 24, 2020

This brief post has a dual purpose: 1) to discuss the quality of empathy and why it is a trait that is essential for musicians, particularly in ensemble, and 2) to address the current state of the English language as a measure of the true decline of civilization.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, empathy is defined as:

“The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”

Or in the context of psychology:

“The quality or power of projecting one’s personality into or mentally identifying oneself with an object of contemplation, and so fully understanding or appreciating it. Now rare.”

Although “now rare” refers to the usage, we agree that the ability to fully understand and appreciate the object of contemplation is indeed now rare. In more practical terms, according to Psychology Today:

“Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person, animal, or fictional character. Developing empathy is crucial for establishing relationships and behaving compassionately. It involves experiencing another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own, and enables prosocial, or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced.”

For musicians, particularly musicians who concentrate on effective interpretation of historical music, empathy is an essential quality. First, one must develop empathy with the historical meaning and purpose of the music in order to comprehend, in a basic sense, just how the music works. Next, one must delve into the cultural context of the music in order to identify, absorb and translate the rhythmic shape of the music and, in the realm of vocal music, the meaning of the words. Thirdly, the interpreter must live with the music over a span of time long enough to actually perform the result of his or her understanding.

The next step applies to ensemble musicians. After having thoroughly embraced the music one is to perform, ensemble musicians must possess the quality of empathy in common with one another to project interpretive ideas that have been agreed upon and rehearsed to the point at which the performance presents to the receptive audience organically as easy and agreeable conversation.

According to Neuroscience News,

“Highly empathic people process familiar music with greater involvement of the brain’s social circuitry, such as the areas activated when feeling empathy for others. They also seem to experience a greater degree of pleasure in listening, as indicated by increased activation of the reward system.”

But here we must mention the difference in usage between “empathic” and “empathetic”. The journalist who penned the above quotation effectively “jargonized” a term in a manner that, while perhaps not exactly wrong, is not nice. The author meant to say “Highly empathetic people…”, which refers to the class of people possessing empathic traits. Or, if you will, a class of people displaying the hallmarks of an empathic condition. The condition is empathic, the people are empathetic.

If we give in to dehumanizing usage and the callous incorporation of jargon into the English language, we have entirely lost our footing and we are careening uncontrollably down the slippery slope upon which our civilization has been teetering for decades, and landing full stop mired in the muck of incomprehension. Now we have come to understand that “irregardless” has entered the lexicon, and we simply cannot stomach non-words shooting from the lips of political commentators who should know better, such as uttering “architected” to describe the act of design in the past tense. This is just too much.

  1. Chris Barker permalink

    Good grief… “architected?” I think I may start hiding in the closet with my old vihuela.

  2. Yes – although if accidental (and often uncomfortable) changes in language never happened, we’d be speaking a much earlier form of English. Linguists might say it’s the natural and inevitable process of languages.

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