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article imageOp-Ed: Empathy vs System — Cambridge music study opens up can of ‘Huh?’

By Paul Wallis     Jul 25, 2015 in Health
Sydney - The theory that you can predict people’s thinking by their musical tastes isn’t exactly new. Cambridge researcher David Greenberg has come up with a strangely broad analysis of empathy and systematic thinking based on musical preferences.
This story went around the world like a shopping bag, in multiple forms, usually quoting the same basic text, but without much actual comment.
The study, which includes a lot of metrics, uses these two basic classifiers to delineate between empathic people and systemisers. The empathic thinkers prefer mellow music; the systemisers prefer heavy, intense music.
The issue isn’t so much the fact that people with different mental modes prefer different types of music, but the philosophy of the research:
Why use these particular classifiers?
Why use “empathy” as a subject of research in a world where practical empathy (understanding/ sympathy/ compassion) is virtually non-existent, considered impractical, not usually an expectation, and hardly the basis of daily life?
Why use “systemising” to describe heavy metal? There is a driving force in that type of music, including notably repetitive, high energy music. It is systemic and highly organised music; but where else does that idea go, apart from delineating between this and empathic music?
Readers please excuse the following almost kindergarten level of discussion of such an important subject:
Another way of looking at it, almost equally basic, is that music is the language of the mind, as well as the soul. Music is as much a mental environment as architecture and relationships.
It’s also a big part of lifestyle. Humans manipulate their environments to suit their preferences. Does a preference for empathy indicate a need for a more empathic environment? It might. So might a need for systemisation.
The empathic music is basically emotional music. It can be used as a personal soundtrack; in fact, that’s pretty much what this type of music is all about. It can be very personal, as well as aesthetic.
“System” music is energetic, thrilling, and stimulating. A person who’s bored out of their mind may consider it a major plus in a dull environment.
How you relate to music is as much about you as the music. Personal tastes can, and should, reflect personal opinions and above all, personal choices.
Apparently “soft rock” is for the empathisers. I’ve always despised soft rock. I find it trivial, musically ignorant, and basically useless, for plodders. Ditto for hip-hop. Can’t begin to get interested in that slop at all, unless there’s no rap and some actual musical content.
Soul music is also said to be for empathisers. So is R&B, apparently. I can love soul music, but it’s not necessarily laid back. The harmonic ranges are quite different, and high power soul is hardly ballad stuff. To call hip-hop R&B is to misclassify it entirely. R&B can be very high dynamic music, too.
Mellow, “unpretentious” jazz (there’s always some moron using expressions like that about jazz; play it, clowns, and see where pretension has any sort of relevance) is for empathisers, whereas avant garde jazz is for systemisers. Top of the line avant garde jazz can also be mellow, very subtle, and highly aesthetic. Musically, it’s also quite systematic and very well organised.
Vivaldi, interestingly, is for the systemisers. Vivaldi is a true explorer, a sort of musical Magellan, with a lot of variety, aesthetics, and real poise. According to this study, Vivaldi and the Sex Pistols have the same basic effect on people.
OK, so there are plenty of grounds for argument. Let’s talk about mental environments. I love Vivaldi, and can take or leave the Sex Pistols. I certainly don’t think of them as aesthetically synonymous. It’s a bit hard to see the same “systems” applying when listening to them, let alone similar environments.
This study deserves a “Huh?” for raising the subjects. To give some credit, it has produced some major, unpredictable contrasts. It’s not so much off target as very under-evolved in its arguments. It looks like this work is in its early infancy and at least in musical terms needs to grow up a lot before it can start really addressing core issues.
That said — the relationship between people and music is hardly trivial. It’s a built-in mental function. People actually have what’s called a musical sense, and hearing, another always-on perception, is tuned to pitches. Music is very much a part of everyone’s mental and physical reality.
One issue which must be winched in here — psychoanalysis tends to study the sick, rather than the healthy. Music as a “health asset” is a long-debated and staggeringly ineffectually studied subject. More froth than substance has been the usual product of research.
Maybe this perspective on music, when it develops, can be a working methodology, can be used to “tune” people with mental issues in to functional states? Interesting thought, isn’t it? Maybe a whole world?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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