February 12, 2018

Music Strengthens Our Social Bonds


There are several mechanisms described through which music impacts our ability to connect with one another by impacting brain circuits involved in empathy, trust and cooperation.

A music concert is one of the few places when we will gather together with thousands of other people to engage in a shared activity. There is something about listening to music, or playing it with other people, that brings about a social bond, making you feel connected to those around you.

Here are some ways that music strengthens social bonds:

Performing Music

Performing music involves coordinating of our efforts. When we try to synch with others musically, keeping the beat or harmonizing - we tend to feel positive social feelings towards those with whom we’re synchronizing, even if that person is not in the same room. Coordinating movement with another person is linked to the release of pleasure chemicals (endorphins) in the brain, which may explain why we get those positive, warm feelings when we make music together.

Oxytocin Boost

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide and is known to play an important role in increasing bonding and trust between people. Now researchers are discovering that music may affect oxytocin levels in the body.

In one study, patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery were asked to listen to experimenter-selected ‘soothing’ music for 30 minutes one day after surgery. When tested later, those who’d listened to music had higher levels of serum oxytocin compared to those who were assigned to bed-rest alone. Music directly impacts oxytocin levels, which, in turn, affect our ability to trust and act generously toward others and increase our social connection.

Strengthens Empathy

Music has been shown to activate many areas of the brain, including the circuit that helps us to understand what others are thinking and feeling, and to predict how they might behave which social skill scientists call “theory of mind,” which is linked to empathy.

In one study, a group of primary-school-aged children were exposed to musical games with other children for one hour a week over the course of an academic year, while two control groups of same-aged children received either no games or games with the same purpose, but involving drama or storytelling instead of music. All of the children were given various empathy measures at the beginning and end of the year; but only the music group significantly increased their empathy scores, suggesting that music may have played an essential role in their empathy development.

Culture and Social Cohesion

Recall a favorite lullaby or children’s song passed down through the generations, or of crowds listening to the national anthem at a sports game. Music is one way to communicate belonging.

Studies have discovered that social cohesion is higher within families and among peer groups when young people listen to music with their family members or peers. In fact, music works a lot like language does. In this way, music, like language, can be passed on from generation to generation, creating a sense of continuity and loyalty to one’s tribe. Music has the potential to make us feel connected to all of humanity.