Has a decline in empathy led to a disinterest in making music together? Not exactly.

On Christine Crowshaw’s blog the pianist asks whether chamber music a casualty of our digital age. Specifically, has the decline of empathy led to a disinterest in making music together?

It’s an interesting question to reflect on.

Christine points to research about the way in which increased use of social media rewires our brains, and how this will have a direct impact on levels of empathy.

If empathy is low, then so the desire to engage in participatory music making and, specifically, chamber music.

I’m not sure I entirely agree.

First off, social media always gets a bad press largely because its negative aspects –  flame wars, spats, and reductive discourse – amplify division, partisan views and binary arguments. This in part because it isn’t a suitable space for debate or argument, dependent as it is on our the way we function as human beings: react emotionally first, and think rationally second. 

Importantly for me, social media has enabled and maintained many new relationships of mine over the past ten years. It’s prompted investigations into a whole range of new subject areas for me – works by obscure composers, travels to far off lands, new technology and professional development – that I don’t buy the wholesale trashing of the communication tool. If you want to see negativity you’ll find it (as human beings we have a negative bias anyway). Use it with an open and curious mind – approach it with empathy and you’ll give empathy out. 

The negativity we see on social media existed long before the emergency of Facebook, Twitter or Instagram too. People forget that.

Years ago, the classical music trolls congregated on Radio 3’s messageboard causing all manner of heartache for moderators, presenters and performers alike whose efforts were all picked over by armchair critics who sought to make everyone’s lives hell including their own by spouting the vile crap they often did. When Radio 3 shut down its messageboard in the late 2000s, the trolls moved elsewhere. Some of them frequent Lebrecht’s blog now. 

So for me, look before social media and you’ll see the same behaviour on messageboards. The difference today is that smartphones have hastened the pace and increased reach, bringing the previously monitor-based internet into our hands and creating a habitual dependence on all manner of functions, not only communication. 

But lastly and most important for me, is the impact of living an ‘on-demand life’ – beyond social media, but in terms of music, speech, reading or video. In a world where gratification is by and large instant, any remaining time available suddenly contracts. The prospect of engaging in anything comparatively long-form presents itself as demanding and unsatisfying. Procrastination quickly creeps in and pushes us towards anything within reach of our fingertips instead. 

It’s too easy to blame social media. Social media is not something that is done to us. We actively engage in it and allow ourselves to be sucked into it. The intent we adopt when we use it is what is important. That is what is within our control. And adopting a mindful intent requires a certain awareness, curiosity and even empathy itself.

Chamber music and participatory music-making can provide an escape from the world we live in. Increasingly it’s presenting itself as a haven for discovery and delight. Statistically that’s got to be the same for a certain percentage of people out there. I don’t imagine it will suffer. I don’t imagine it will. I don’t think we’re doomed. 

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