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Phys Life Rev. 2015 Dec;15:61-88. doi: 10.1016/j.plrev.2015.09.001. Epub 2015 Sep 7.

Music, empathy and cultural understanding.

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Faculty of Music, University of Oxford, St. Aldate's, Oxford OX1 1DB, UK. Electronic address:
Sociology, Philosophy & Anthropology (SPA), Exeter University, EX4 4RJ, UK. Electronic address:
Faculty of Music, University of Oxford, St. Aldate's, Oxford OX1 1DB, UK. Electronic address:


In the age of the Internet and with the dramatic proliferation of mobile listening technologies, music has unprecedented global distribution and embeddedness in people's lives. It is a source of intense experiences of both the most intimate and solitary, and public and collective, kinds - from an individual with their smartphone and headphones, to large-scale live events and global simulcasts; and it increasingly brings together a huge range of cultures and histories, through developments in world music, sampling, the re-issue of historical recordings, and the explosion of informal and home music-making that circulates via YouTube. For many people, involvement with music can be among the most powerful and potentially transforming experiences in their lives. At the same time, there has been increasing interest in music's communicative and affective capacities, and its potential to act as an agent of social bonding and affiliation. This review critically discusses a considerable body of research and scholarship, across disciplines ranging from the neuroscience and psychology of music to cultural musicology and the sociology and anthropology of music, that provides evidence for music's capacity to promote empathy and social/cultural understanding through powerful affective, cognitive and social factors; and explores ways in which to connect and make sense of this disparate evidence (and counter-evidence). It reports the outcome of an empirical study that tests one aspect of those claims, demonstrating that 'passive' listening to the music of an unfamiliar culture can significantly change the cultural attitudes of listeners with high dispositional empathy; presents a model that brings together the primary components of the music and empathy research into a single framework; and considers both some of the applications, and some of the shortcomings and problems, of understanding music from the perspective of empathy.


Alterity; Cultural understanding; Empathy; Intersubjectivity; Music; Resonance

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