Psychopaths and Narcissist, can they play with emotion?

Edited: November 9, 2017, 5:42 AM ·
One of the main character traits of psychopaths and narcissist is a lack of empathy. So is playing an instrument, other than for showing off, something they are good at? Are some of the top musicians psychopaths or narcissist, because of the attention and power, but wouldn't their music be unemotional? Do you know of any top musicians that are successful that would fit into this category? More show off than emotion to their art.
I can think of a few, but it is hard to tell.

Paganini comes to mind.

Replies (52)

November 9, 2017, 5:29 AM · The key is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you got it made...
November 9, 2017, 5:42 AM · Psychopaths can become very good at faking it and putting on a performance socially. I could imagine them studying the typical ways each emotion sounds and copying the requisite movements on violin, facial expressions, and body language.
November 9, 2017, 6:00 AM · "Emotion" in violin playing is mostly just a bag of technical tricks that you learn to apply in various contexts. One might argue that a genuine emotional basis enables the performer to make better (more convincing? more tasteful?) choices among these tools, but the outcome is produced by technique.

November 9, 2017, 6:09 AM · Psychopaths and narcissists need not be in the same category. Expression of musical thought and sensibility is not equivalent to emotion.
November 9, 2017, 6:33 AM · Any group of human beings if large enough will include some wonderful people, some awful people, and some in between.

I agree that expressing emotion is a bag of technical tricks which can be learned. If there is a difference between genuine and simulated emotion in a performance, I doubt very much there is an audience in the world that could pick up on that distinction.

Edited: November 9, 2017, 7:21 AM · Psychopathy (and sociopathy) also present with features of superficial charm and cunning manipulation. Perhaps these characteristics would make them more convincing, not less.

Narcissism is present in nearly any group of musicians, so that should be an easy one to figure out...

Agree with the above -- presenting the illusion of emotion is just the correct application of specific techniques.

November 9, 2017, 6:52 AM · Eh I'm not good with this but this is an interesting idea
November 9, 2017, 7:30 AM · Musicianship and artistry doesn't corner the market on sensitivity. Even in the worst of people I've met, they still held their skills, what ever it may be, and some at professional levels.

Look around, there are more people acting out than you may want to admit to. Take off the rose colored glasses.

However, and it is a BIG however, there are a bunch of beautiful people in the world. A good number are musicians.

November 9, 2017, 8:29 AM · A lot of pop musicians are pure narcissists.
We learn from each other how to act on stage--that's why it's called "an act."

In fact, the sign of a true professional is that they can put on "an act" regardless of how they feel or what the circumstances are. Perhaps Charle's assumption that musicians (of any kind) are always performing with real emotion may not be true...

Edited: November 9, 2017, 8:42 AM · Who do you detect playing without emotion?

Beginners are learning technique yet they can still be playing the music with emotion. The music may sound unemotional to the listener.

Advanced players can play well and at the same time might not be feeling the music.

Which would convey the emotion?

The latter only because they are likely making a better representation of a composer's ideas. It isn't their emotion being conveyed, it is the emotion of the composer.

A narcissist does things for only one reason. If they play well the reasons don't tend to matter so much to the audience. Both the narcissist and the humble person will receive accolades. It's what they do with them that makes them who they are.

There are a few well known TV personalities that I know enough about to make the call they are fakes as human beings. Yet week after week they get standing ovations and are showered with compliments. As soon as they go off stage they are insulting and rude.

As Jim says, there are good ones out there, but they aren't as easily found because they aren't tooting their horns for attention.

November 9, 2017, 9:13 AM · Heifetz once remarked that he had "to be Heifetz every day", presumably no matter how he felt.
Edited: November 9, 2017, 9:30 AM · I would imagine that narcissism could be an advantage in the area of stage fright. Same for psychopaths, since fear is diminished. Narcissists would probably think that they are so good that they couldn't possibly mess up, but I would hope that they could notice mistakes while practicing. They probably would have zero nerves!
Edited: November 9, 2017, 10:02 AM · Sometimes, I get so caught up in my mirror that I forget to practice.

The words psychopath, sociopath and narcissist get thrown around so much that whatever you guys are talking about probably reflects what you've seen in TV and movies more than anything based in real life.

You ever read articles about narcissism in say, Psychology Today or other sort of poppy-psychology websites? There are usually comments about people being punished by the terrible narcissists they know. I always think to myself, "I wonder who the narcissist in that relationship is?"

November 9, 2017, 9:54 AM · LOL
November 9, 2017, 10:11 AM · I agree that appearing "emotional" is mostly a matter of technical prowess, but some highly skilled players can sound a bit too detached and "clinical", for lack of a better term (relative to their peers-they usually sound "emotional" to an extent because they generally do play at the highest technical level.)

I disagree that Paganini was a mere narcissist and empty showman. He took advantage of his era and his unique bag of tricks, but I have much more respect of him, the person, than many living "narcissists" of our era (musicians or otherwise.) Don't know why he is often used as a "symbol" of what's wrong in music, or musically. It was just the Devil's influence (and yes, I am joking, and mocking the many who believed such things.)

Many new players are very emotive. It's up to the teacher to help them get towards that level in which they can express their hidden potential.

Had to add, there are "emotional braggarts" out there, that seem to excuse technical deficiencies with statements such as: "but I play with more emotion!" Play with your Heart, but give it all the tools it needs to express itself. Technique is never detrimental to "emotion", but rather a tool towards a musical-and "emotional"-end.

November 9, 2017, 11:29 AM · Eugene Fodor.
November 9, 2017, 11:43 AM · Perhaps the term "narcissism" is not being used correctly here. I think the OP meant some kind of pathological condition. Just having enough self-assuredness to believe that you belong on stage (or in front of a classroom of chemistry students) ... I don't think that's narcissism.
November 9, 2017, 12:53 PM · I don't think naming names is appropriate.
November 9, 2017, 12:58 PM · Christian touches on the truth I think - these are convenient fashionable terms that do seem to have some relevance in describing the behavioural characteristics of certain individuals, but do they have any relevance when applied to musicians?

I vaguely remember that when factor analysis of personality questionnaires was in vogue to identify character traits, Hans Eysenck (or it may have been someone else - it's Eysenck's lecture I remember) came up with the name "psychoticism" to identify one apparent factor that surfaced frequently amongst criminals. Unfortunately it was also a common factor amongst visual artists. Maybe they should have given it a less emotive name?

November 9, 2017, 2:06 PM · Conductors are the more relevant group, if you're talking about clinical narcissism.
November 9, 2017, 3:36 PM · If you Google "narcissism" and "manipulation" you'll find that they go together. If manipulation is itself a kind of act, then it's not surprising that narcissists can be very skilled at the kind of stagecraft they think will be perceived as musical expression.

I must say that most of the great classical musicians I've met have been very humble and generous people. Classical stars occupy a totally different universe than pop stars.

November 9, 2017, 7:28 PM · In both narcissists and psychopaths, emotions are felt - they simply lack the ability to relate to the emotions of other people. They still feel sadness, happiness, anger, etc.... Just only relating to themselves.
November 10, 2017, 2:45 AM ·

Erik I was just about to post that, but you got there first. They seem to have a lack of empathy towards people they love, which is ironic,and like everything else, there are different levels and we usually only hear about the extreme causes. Emotions are different than feelings and that is probably were I got confused. Empathy, sympathy, sensitivity and apathy are not in the same category or use the same parts of the brain as angry, sad , happy and fear. I find it a bit confusing, but I think I'm catching on.

It does seem that a narcissist would excel in the entertainment field; I can't see them making good teachers, that disconnect would be there. We sometime hear about teachers that insult, run down, blame, emotionally attack, make comparisons etc... to their students. This topic is shining some light on the mentality of that type of teacher.

I guess we can stick to naming those that have past away or that are in jail.

November 10, 2017, 2:46 AM · Since there has yet to be identified a gene (or a microbe) that underlies and completely predicts either of these traits I think they should be regarded merely as words used to describe certain people's behaviour under certain circumstances. These days the fashion is to put everyone in a box with a one-word label - dyslexic, autistic, paedophile etc - and think that describes the whole individual. There is no reason to suppose that "narcissistic" people play the violin, walk the dog, eat their cornflakes "narcissistically".
November 10, 2017, 3:56 AM · Well, Hillary Hahn is certainly unemotional. But not because she’s a psychopath/narcissist, Hillary can’t be those since she’s a robot!

On a more serious note, I disagree with those who say that emotion is merely a byproduct of technique. In violin playing, emotion certainly cannot be created without a sufficient technique, but technique is merely means to an end-with the end being music-not the end itself.

The whole Galamian school of thought claims that one should associate every single musical idea with a certain set of movements, so that just making the movements alone would result in producing that musical idea, even if one is not ‘feeling it’, or not ‘in the mood’.
But that’s nothing short of being robots: knowing the end result, the emotion you want to evoke, and then just making the movements needed to convey that emotion, without feeling the emotion itself.

Now there’s the other extreme, the players that play ‘emotionally’ for the sake of playing ‘emotionally’. The problem with that kind of playing is that it is not genuine, or congruent with the music. Anyone could go and play ‘with a lot of feelings’, but that would have nothing to do with what the composer intended to express, and would instead be a mascarade, where ignorance and lack of understanding of the score are covered with ‘emotivity’.

I myself believe that technique is key in giving performances that can really penetrate the soul of the listener, but that one should not think about it when playing.
In practice, there will definitely be some places that won’t sound how you want right away, and when encountering such places one should think about seeing what to add efficiency to one’s movements, but in general, if you have to ‘think’ about your movements when you play, it means your technique has not reached a good enough level to become subconscious.

That’s the essence of it: letting the music play you.
You are not thinking about the music, you are not trying to control the movements you make.
You are just playing effortlessly, and with results that go beyond what you could ever imagine.

But of course your technique has to be on point for that to ever happen!

Edited: November 10, 2017, 5:09 AM · Here's another half-remembered nugget from my neuropsychology reading! Prof Antonio Damasio (who I once met in Iowa City) is credited with the idea that "micro-emotions" underlie all our conscious decisions, however apparently trivial. How do we ever decide whether to turn left or right except by imagining both options and doing what at some level "feels better"? That principle can easily be applied to musical performance. As long as spontaneous conscious decision-making plays a part, emotions small or large are involved in every movement of the bow and can be detected by an empathic listener. However, when performance becomes highly automated (such that control is largely delegated from the cerebral cortex to the cerebellum, as is commonly speculated) the player's emotions are relatively unengaged and listener may be left cold. So I'm in a certain disagreement with Roman about this!
November 10, 2017, 5:09 AM · I quite agree that naming names is not appropriate here. So I'll just ask if anyone knows whether the President of the United States plays a musical instrument? Somehow I suspect the attention span might not be up to it.
November 10, 2017, 5:28 AM · HH is not a robot. She just doesnt waste her energy or mental bandwidth on gyrations or histrionics. I respect that. We have a nice variety of violinists to hear and watch.
November 10, 2017, 6:14 AM · Well I think your rewasoning is incomplete:

In conversation with someone, you only use words you know/have heard. When you want to add some expression to the things you say, you don’t think about how high or low you make your voice go, how much you slow down or accelerate the pace of the phrase, how loud or soft you speak or where and how you do all of that, you just do it, without consciously controlling all of it. You still guide the expression, but more in an instinctive way.
It doesn’t mean your expression is automated.

What happens when you delegate most of the technical movements to the cerebellum is your awareness radius increases. And where before you had to think about a shift to nail it in tune, once the mechanics of the movement have been delegated to your cerebellum and you can consistently nail the shift in tune, you can now focus on the emotional quality you want to convey through that shift, without worrying about hitting the right note.

Edited: November 10, 2017, 8:02 AM · Yes, they(Place the name of the ruler of your country here) were a conductor for a time.
He can play an instrument, but not very well.
His main goal was to make music great again.
He always practiced conducting in a mirror.
He tells us the orchestra members loved him.
Things he never said: I'm sorry, you deserve a pay raise, you are important to this orchestra, we need you, your intonation is perfect, you are getting it just a bit more work, the goal is to be in the top 3 but winning isn't important, thank you so much for doing this for me I really appreciate it.
Things he would always say: why are you always out of tune, you will never get it, give up you are wasting my time, I am forced to tell you that you were good that time but I can't see you doing it twice, once I find someone better you're gone.
Woman wanted to be with him, and the man wanted to be him.
He always blamed the orchestra for being out of time.
He loved publicly criticizing, and singling out members.
He used a big baton
He tells us HIS orchestra was the best in the country, and HE won all their competitions. Anyone that says differently is fake news.
He displays all the trophies on his facebook page to his millions of FB friends that he has never met.
He had several charities for the 'out of tune' and the self taught. You haven't heard that? Don't worry he will be the first to tell you. The charity cases are sometimes mixed in with the orchestra, but not given an instrument to play, or they are brought up on stage during an applause.

November 10, 2017, 6:33 AM · I tend to agree with the view that there is probably too much generalization involved when classifying people.It can be difficult to say, " Ah Ha!, he's a narcissist".

Everyone is occasionally unfeeling toward others. Empathy can be difficult to determine from the outside. A narcissist could look like a saint contributing to humanitarian efforts, but might have other motives.

Some classical music can sound very mechanical to my ears. Some of it takes you through different emotions or attempts to do that.As a genre, it is probably one of the more rigid forms in my opinion as compared to others. This is maybe a stereotype on my part.

I believe anyone can kill certain tendencies over time including the tendency to feel deeply.That doesn't mean they can't still respect others. Just because you don't feel something the same way doesn't mean you don't treat others with respect. We know at some level what is bad for our fellow man.

I think playing music can revive feeling if the music is speaking to us.
We are all wired differently. I don't tend to feel much emotion in most classical music. Occasionally a piece will say something to me. Not often.Maybe playing it would give different results as opposed to listening to it. I usually listen more for technique and am analyzing what's happening in the music.

Having some background on it helps, like knowing why it was written and in what context.

November 10, 2017, 6:35 AM · Everything a bowed-string musician does to make sound involves the movements of both hands. That's it! That's all there is!

Everything a composer does/did to describe sound is indicated in the music manuscripts(eventually printed pages). There is enough there for future "readers" to get the messages and to add a bit of they own interpretations.

The emotion has to be in the mind of the listeners. The performing musician is an "actor" who creates the message the audience interprets. The musicians learn how to create the "emotion" of of the listener from their teachers until they become their own teachers.

I'm convinced that's all there is too it. A musician can turn the "Virgin" Mary (a la, Ave Maria) into an romantic character with a couple of technical tricks, or turn the Accolay concerto into an "opera." It's all theater!

November 10, 2017, 7:18 AM · On occasions we've all been bored by highly competent performances given by technically accomplished players who seem emotionally disengaged, "on autopilot". They can get away with it (occasionally) because we're never quite sure if the problem is with them or with us. On another occasion the same player might find inspiration and emotionally involve the entire audience. I certainly wouldn't suggest that the possession of an immaculate technique is in any way an obstacle to the communication of emotion, but the player must be constantly aware that something more is needed. Roman believes that "technique is the key", but I think he could agree with me that technique is just the beginning. And that some of the most communicative players have not been the most technically accomplished.
November 10, 2017, 7:51 AM · If music is only a product of technique made to look like emotion, then what originated music in the first place?

I think music is an expression of the inner man in the purest sense. It has been paraded as something else in the end result.

The seed of music begins in the heart.

The end result is sometimes different. In the 1700's an aristocrat in a powdered wig could commission an orchestra to play a piece written by a composer. The composer certainly felt his efforts were more than organized notes on paper. After the commissioning though, it was up to the musicians to give it life. That part is up to them.

November 10, 2017, 8:01 AM · Steve,

I certainly do not believe that ‘technique is the key’. In fact I agree with everything you said. Nowadays, rare are the performances that truly ‘touch’ me emotionally. Too often, players focus only on technique, and fail to convey the emotional quality of the piece they perform therefore leaving us, the audience, unsatisfied.

But I do believe that technique is a pre-requisite to truly awe-inducing performances. I believe all the emotions music gives us arise from the sound we hear, and the emotional quality that sound carries.
Things such as poor intonation, or superficial bowing are all factors that will affect the sound, and therefore the degree of emotional impact on the audience.

The inverse is true, you can be in perfect technical shape and still fail to emote the listener, as it happens too often these days.
In her article on slow practice that one can find on her website, Hillary Hahn describes her practice regimen, which involves deciding how she wants the music to sound, defining which movements she needs to make in order to produce that sound, and then fixing those movements and making them automatic through practice, which allows her to play automatically.

If you read some of the replies above, you’ll notice that quite a few members of this forum subscribe to Hillary’s way of doing things.
But I find that this process has a fundamental flaw: because she doesn’t feel the emotions when she plays (she merely has do to the gestures), I cannot feel it either, and her performances leave me dry. That opens up a bigger question: ‘Does the player need to feel the emotions of the music he plays for the audience to feel those emotions too?’.

I believe that the answer is yes. And when I said that technique is key, I meant that one should practice so as to be able to play the notes automatically, but not practice the interpretation itself, unlike Hillary Hahn for instance. That way the music-making stays flexible and spontaneous, and you actually feel the emotions when you play.

Because for me, being able to be musical and feel the emotions when you play is a skill that can be acquired.

November 10, 2017, 10:02 AM ·
On a discussion about achieving emotion in ones playing, I've never seen anyone write that it is a series of tricks that one can act out. Good actors need to go deep into emotion, but have an instinct to not over act.

Edited: November 10, 2017, 11:09 AM · The acting analogy cropped up in an earlier thread and I think it was mostly agreed that musical performance is indeed to a large degree analogous to acting. A professional soloist or actor doesn't often get the choice of what they want to play or when they want to play it. I suspect therefore their emotions are often present only in a sublimated form which can then be expressed by technical means, tricks if you like.

However, alone at home I play exactly what I want and have the luxury of indulging emotions appropriate to the music (some of my feelings are less appropriate, due to technical frustration). This side of playing has always been far more important to me than the acquisition of technical expertise and has gone on increasing while my technique has stagnated. So I'd say definitely yes to Roman's last paragraph; only substitute "must" for "can"!

November 10, 2017, 11:18 AM · Charles, I'm saying exactly that. One possibility is that a particular combination of technical tricks might be more easily stored in your brain as "very very sad" or "jolly and happy" or "totally pissed off" or whatever. But when you "feel" that emotion your brain translates that back into the movements of your hands.
Edited: November 10, 2017, 11:37 AM · I must confess ( or say, or assert, or asseverate, or contend - or something) - that I am very much on the side of those here who think the emotions in a musical performance are very important.
I used to busk, in undergrounds and other places ( a long time ago).
I found people would respond very very quickly to mood and feeling I was putting into my playing - only secondarily to technique. Especially women would respond instinctively, also children - who would sometimes dance around too.
I came across another violin busker once where I wanted to play playing Bachs' chaconne. He was technically far beyond where I was at that time . But he seemed to be making LESS money. He looked a bit piqued too, or puzzled. He plainly knew he was extremely good, and he was extremely good.
I could have told him very simply and concisely why his high level of skill wasn't meeting much coin. There was little real feeling in his playing and little emotional commitment.
I also am often bored by contemporary performances because the emotion is missing .
November 10, 2017, 11:46 AM · In contrast to Hilary Hahns' method of practice my method is to
play like falling into a vat of vodka. I realize I will get many less subscribers to my method than she does to hers, but I still highly recommend it.
November 10, 2017, 11:59 AM · I have heard plenty of contemporary performances that are far from boring. The old school vs new school argument doesn't help music, IMHO, and is ultimately a false dichotomy.

Many of the now gone-but not forgotten-masters had great technique. Many of the modern "technical" players play more musically than they are credited for. Different eras and tendencies. From what I hear, the playing is more balanced than dry nowadays (it used to be a bit more stale and "homogeneous" some decades ago... and even then, every violinist still sounds/sounded like himself/herself.)

If there's a question, I favor both old and new school musicians. No need to make them "fight". They all care/cared about music.

Edited: November 10, 2017, 6:15 PM · One area of music making where there is still a lot of fun, is done purely for enjoyment, and technical accomplishment is not always at the top of the list (although it is respected when it is), is playing in folk music sessions, perhaps in a pub. In the UK this would be Irish, English, Scottish, or Welsh. Recommended. That is how I grew into playing the violin.
November 11, 2017, 12:45 AM · Another one would be jazz improvs!
November 11, 2017, 7:26 PM · Sylvan -- the violinist who was playing Bach -- did you judge them as less musical based on what you heard? Or on what you saw?

Anyway, a busker will always make more playing Czardas.

November 15, 2017, 2:45 PM · You really can't fake emotion in your playing, no matter how many technical tricks. I can't explain it, but skilled musicians can always tell the difference between someone who's faking it and someone who feels it.
November 16, 2017, 7:05 AM · Paul, People always think a busker will make more money playing Czardas. I am not sure that is true, or always true. When I busked a long long time ago, I always wanted some good money for a nice meal and maybe a bit more, but I always thought of the music first , money second. My feeling is I probably made more money that way too.....
This busker - EVERYONE - was not enchanted by him, not just me. And I think the reason is as I stated it. In fact, I would have been one of the few listeners who had much appreciation of how skillful he was.
November 16, 2017, 12:38 PM · Gemma, I have heard some people whom I knew well to be awful people, play beautifully.
Edited: November 16, 2017, 1:25 PM · Everyone I know has (positive or negative) emotions because we are emotional beings. Narcissistic people are no different, only that their emotions are all about themselves. They can be super articulate in words and manipulative in actions. I don't see why such people can't produce emotional artworks.

Being a good person and being able to produce beautiful music require different skill sets. That said, I belong to the school of thoughts that to become a great artist, one must first cultivate one's character. But this is a prescriptive (associated with words like "should", "must", etc.) principle rather than descriptive (factual) one. Not everyone agrees with it.

Edited: November 16, 2017, 5:10 PM · Wonderful music can make you cry- wonderfully played, - Mozart can produce a holy hush- like a penumbra of light. I do not believe however everybody is capable of playing music so as to produce/engender these effects.
I am probably not supposed to say this either ,- but i do believe some of the least musical people can be musicians. Not really so suprising if you think about it.
Deryck Cooke says the same thing in his book :
"The Language of Music".
Hell I may as well go the whole way , and say I agree with Simone Weil, who said the quality needed for really great art is holiness.
November 16, 2017, 5:30 PM · Mary Ellen, so do I, but we're talking about psychopaths here - there's a difference between a bad person and somebody who is seriously incapable of feeling genuine emotion.
Edited: November 16, 2017, 5:49 PM · Psychopaths can feel emotions. They just do not understand or care about other people's emotions. And while I am not qualified to make a diagnosis, I have worked with a few artists about whom I would not be surprised to hear that there was one.

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-g-mattiuzzi/do-psychopaths-genuinely-_b_10287312.html

Edited: November 17, 2017, 4:24 AM ·
From what I've read, psychopaths are mostly born and narcissist are made. A Psychopath may not have some emotions: fear, distress, remorse. A narcissist will have the emotions, but their main personality trait is lack of empathy towards someone close to them whom they are constantly controlling. Narcissist can be created by too much praise by parents towards the child when they do well, and then the child being criticized too harshly or demeaned when the child doesn't meet their expectations, for example, the 'tiger mom', a term for any gender or race. Sadly, it seems Narcissism is often passed to the next generation by the parents.


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