Performing the Sounds of Empathy

This is about performing the sounds of empathy at the Design Thinking Conference in Amsterdam 2019.

On the 10th to 11th of October, the Design Thinking Conference powered by the DesignThinkers Academy Amsterdam was held in the Tobacco Theatre in Amsterdam.

The Conference

Is it possible to see things with different eyes‘ is the central question of the conference with a focus on empathy. And that’s why all actors (there are no ‘speakers’) are bringing very personal perspectives to share with the participants from all over the world. The MC of the two days was Author, educator, speaker, community builder, consultant, comedian and friend Adam Stjohn Lawrence.

Among others, we learned from Esther Thole about slime mould and how these organisms recognize each other’s signals, process them and respond. Stefan Van Der Stigchel talked about the importance of taking breaks and our unwillingness to take time for ourselves without a ‘square device’. That’s why he gave us the opportunity of 20 minutes of mind-wandering. Kalwant Bhopal led us through a provoking journey about empathy, identity, intersectionality and ‘white privilege’. With these perspectives plus a lot of interactions during the lunchtime and the buddy moments, the participants of the conference were off to the breakout sessions.

The Breakout Session

Xenia and I were invited to do a music thinking breakout session. The objective was to engage half of the conference (about 70 people) in a breakout workshop, let them learn and reflect about the things they heard and make a performance all together after the last actor to end the day with a big bang.

We stretched the conference theme with the music thinking interpretation of ‘with different eyes’ to ‘with different ears‘. After two minutes of silence, we let the participants think about what the sounds of empathy could be and engaged them in duos to discuss what empathy really sounds like. Then we asked them to transform this finding in something that they could reproduce with their voice, body percussion or something else.

The duos then shared their sounds in a sextet formation and made a musical score of this pattern. Parallel the prompters were instructed how we would do some kind of conducting theses scores and how we could bring this all together at the end of the day one. Look at the beautiful scores the teams made.

The Scores

Here is an excerpt of the performance, made with a steady ‘backstage camera’.

The Performance

Excerpt of the Performance during the Design Thinking Conference in Amsterdam

After the performance together with the whole conference, there was a lot of energy in the room.

Besides talking about what exactly the sound of empathy might be, there were also discussions about ‘what is a musical score or composition’, ‘what is interpretation’ and ‘what is improvisation’, ‘how can you scale small groups into bigger groups’ and ‘what is the difference between initiating, conducting and prompting’.

The one-hour breakout was organised with the four steps listen, tune, play and perform of the Music Thinking Framework and we touched four of the six cues: EMPATHY, SCORE, AGILITY, and REMIX.

Christof Zürn

Next steps

There are many ways to use Music Thinking for meaningful collaboration in your team or organisation, please contact if you have any questions or a challenge.