Empathetic Techniques within a musical setting. | Kalani.


Techniques of Empathy

January 29, 2011

Original Post
Empathy has been described as the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s position, to walk in their shoes, and to imagine what it might be like to be them, to feel what they feel. In his book, A Whole New Mind, author Daniel Pink makes the case that the ability to empathize is not only a skill that helps us comfort those in distress, create stronger business relationships, build-self esteem, and allows a parent bond with their child, he sees it among other much needed ‘high-concept – high-touch’ aptitudes that are essential for professional success and personal fulfillment (Pink, 2006). Because emotions are expressed non-verbally, often through making sounds, moving, and experiencing changes in our vital signs, the medium of music making, with vocal expression, movement, and connection to such vital functions as breathing, makes it a powerful tool for the empathetic process to take place.


Definition: Playing that corresponds to, and is harmonious with, the music.


Matching includes using a similar degree of rhythmic complexity, dynamic intensity, and melodic and harmonic structure as the music you hear. Matching does not need to imitate or echo the music, only ‘fit’ with it. Matching is what we do most commonly during a jam session, playing your own part, but relating it to what you hear. Another term that one could use to describe this technique is “complementing,” also sometimes referred to in musician circles as comping.

Beyond the Music

Friends, partners and peers all match. People who form groups and organizations do so because they have matching interests or traits they share with others. Salespeople use matching techniques, such as mimicking vocal tone, language, and body posture to make connections with potential customers. The next time you’re talking to someone face-to-face, deepen interpersonal connections by matching their general timbre, dynamics, and rhythm.

Experience: Matching

Player 1 initiates musical play. Player 2 listens, then matches the musical qualities, including volume, timbre, rhythmic density and structure (pulse, meter, accents, etc.), tonality, melodic contour, harmonic structuring, etc.

Just for fun: Perform as described above; however, focus on matching only one category (i.e., rhythm) while allowing other aspects of the music to be differentiated.

Mirroring, Synchronizing, Shadowing, Doubling

Definition: Producing a detailed reproduction of the music as it is being played.


This technique is widely differentiated with regards to its name. In the book, Defining Music Therapy(Bruscia 1987), the author defines the act of “synchronizing” as ‘doing what the client is doing at the same time;’ however this can include various levels of synchrony, from all musical elements to just one, such as rhythm. It may also include “cross-modal synchrony” whereby the music of one player is expressed as movement in another, used to support, stabilize or strengthen another’s response.Wigram (2004) uses “mirroring” to include both the music and body language (behavior). The Music for People term is “shadowing,” which is also a common term used in movement activities where someone stands behind someone else and copies their movements, like a shadow. In the world of music arranging, parts that are the same are often called ‘doubled.’ The person using this technique must be ready to anticipate the movements of his partner through visual cues and using his musical intuition. This technique holds strong potential as a tool for creating empathy; however, care is to be taken so as not to appear as if you are mimicking or mocking your partner. Your training and experience will guide you in this regard. Mirroring is an empathetic technique that shows a great degree of synchronicity between players. It is also the foundation for other techniques, such as supporting, amplifying and matching.

Beyond the Music
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes means experiencing the world the way they do, seeing what they see, hearing what they hear, feeling what they feel. When we job-shadow someone, we get to see what their life is like, the ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Companies have people job shadow to train people on their way up, but they also have the ‘higher-ups’ work along side their employees to get a feeling for what it’s like to be them – to gain an empathetic understanding. When we move like someone else, we discover ‘how’ they move, which helps us appreciate how they might experience the world. Psychotherapist and workshop leader, Carolyn Braddock, has her clients move like (mirror) important people in their lives as part of a therapeutic process, to get in touch with and bring out thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Experience: Mirroring

Unimodal: Player 1 initiates music, playing either slowly or with repetition. Player 2 makes his best effort to play exactly what player A plays as he plays it, matching the rhythm, pitch, timbre and dynamics. If this poses a great challenge, reduce the number of elements you are mirroring.

Crossmodal: Player 1 initiates instrumental music and player 2 synchronizes with it using a different modality, such as through speech or movement.

As the number of musical elements to be mirrored increases, this technique becomes more challenging. Dynamics, timbre, and rhythm are generally much easier to manage than melody and harmony. For this reason, you may wish to begin with one player on or both players using un-pitched instruments, such as most percussion instruments.


Definition: Mirroring a portion of the music.


This technique involves momentarily synchronizing (mirroring) with the music you are noticing. It can be thought of as a partial mirroring. While mirroring fuses the music of two or more players, tagging joins them for brief moments at a time. This technique can have an empathetic effect that is similar to that of mirroring. It is not as intense as mirroring and the player has the option of tagging several players in a group, mirroring part of the music played by three different players, for example. Tagging lets someone know that you are hearing them because you are periodically aligning with their music.

Beyond the Music
A group of people who are traveling together represents multiple individuals, even though at times they may be engaged in the same activity. At other times, each individual might be engaged in a somewhat separate activity, such as when a group of tourists leave their bus to explore the local terrain. During this time, it sometimes helps to maintain a sense of connectedness to join different individuals at different times, checking in to let them know you’re there and circulating throughout the group. This type of momentary synchronization allows you to connect with others while still having an individualized experience.

Experience: Tagging

During partner or group play, listen for musical features such as trends and repeating elements. Join with a particular trend or rhythm for a moment, then move to something differentiated. A simple way to do this is to find a rhythmic ostinato, then play only a portion, such as the last two or three. As you tag a pattern, you also amplify it, thereby changing its effect.

Imitating, Echoing, Copying

Definition: Playing the same thing as someone else, after they play it.


In the definition provided by Bruscia (1987), he describes this technique as echoing what someone plays. I prefer the term ‘echoing’ because it clarifies that you are playing after someone else and it is a common term used in music education, i.e., “Won’t you be my echo please?” Some may also use the term ‘copying.’ Echoing can happen within a rhythmic framework (phrases that are separated by a set number of beats) or it could be more free-form.

Beyond the Music

When we repeat what we hear, we are affirming the message. We are showing that we were listening. As we converse, we might repeat key terms and phrases that were spoken by our partner to show that we have heard them. Echoing is one of the primary ways we learn, often repeating things before we have any idea what they mean. When we are echoed, we might feel validated and honored. When done with the right intentions, imitation really is the highest form of flattery.

Experience: Imitating

Player 1 initiates a short phrase. Player 2 imitates it, making an effort to reproduce the music as accurately as possible. Begin with rhythm instruments, then move to simple melodies (2-3 notes), then to more complex melodies. It may be helpful to use musical givens, such as limiting to a few notes, playing stepwise melodies and/or imposing other constraints. As you become better at imitating, lift some of the filters to push out the edges of you musicality.


Definition: Incorporating previously played material, in whole or part.


Quoting is a kind of musical recycling, where bits of your partner’s music (or you own) appear in yours at a later time. These often take the form of melodic ideas, but they might also include specific rhythms, breaks, or expressive elements. In certain idioms, such as Jazz, it is not uncommon for an artist to ‘quote’ the melody of another tune during an improvisation.

Beyond the Music

Like imitation, quoting is a way of honoring someone else. Consider all the quotes in this book, many of them by people who have passed on, and yet their words live on through this text. How would you feel if someone used your words decades or even centuries after you spoke them? When we quote someone, we are saying “I think what you said was incredible! I’m glad to know you!”

Experience: Quoting

Play music with your partner, occasionally quoting something they previously played. A quote may become an ostinato for brief periods. This technique is useful for creating a sense of continuity because musical material is being repeated and recycled. It is also supports empathy because it shows that one player has listened to and remembers what the other player has expressed.

Vignette #1

Identify  the name of the technique associated with the each number.

Brian began experimenting on the woodblock. His rhythms were erratic without any specific patterns or cycles. Charles started playing the shaker in a similar way, experimenting without establishing any specific patterns or structure [1]. Andrea entered on a frame drum, playing what sounded like a rhythmic pattern. Cindy then entered on the cowbell, playing a simple beat under Andrea’s pattern [2]. Brian changed his playing to align with both Andrea and Cindy, playing a pattern that complemented theirs [3]. Brian began playing four-beat phrases, separated by four beats of rest. During the time that Brian was not playing, Charles would repeat whatever Brian had just played [4]. Brian eventually established a repeating four-beat pattern and Andrea mirrored pieces of it [5]. Cindy stopped playing her steady pattern and started playing like Brian did when he began, rather erratic [6]. Eventually everyone abandoned their rhythmic patterns and joined Cindy, playing rhythmic flourishes and eventually ending the same way they had begun [7].