We have all heard the saying, “Music brings people together,” and it is hard to disagree. When we reflect on past musical experiences—whether it be attending a concert, singing in the school choir, or simply streaming songs on Spotify when seeing friends—we can each identify moments in which we felt a greater sense of connection to the individuals around us through music.
The role of music in creating and strengthening social relationships manifests in more situations than we may think, and its effects are not always obvious. We could engage with music both passively and actively. As someone who enjoys spending time creating music with friends and tutoring others in piano, I am immensely grateful for the relationships I have formed through active music-making and teaching. With that said, I can also identify ways in which more passive or discreet methods of music engagement have strengthened my connection with those around me. Only a few weeks ago, I was catching up with an old friend in a café and we immediately bonded over a song that began to play in the background. The song stirred a nostalgic conversation about the music we had listened to in middle school, which then prompted us to reminisce about memories of moments in grade school.
So music can enhance our ability to connect with others – why does this matter? Social bonding is essential in maintaining both our physical and mental health. From an evolutionary perspective, bonding enhances our likelihood of survival and reproductive success. As humans, we particularly depend on our social connections for emotional support and a sense of inclusion. In essence, social bonding is a fundamental human need that is necessary for healthy development and functioning.
Musical interactions could evoke a range of psychological and behavioural responses that ultimately promote social bonding. For example, group activities involving music performance, such as singing in a choir or playing in a band, have been shown to enhance participants’ positive emotions, their willingness to coordinate, and their feeling of inclusion. In a phenomenon called the “ice-breaker effect”, group music activities, such as singing, are able to promote much faster cohesion between strangers.
How is music able to have such profound impacts? Music can act through various mechanisms—socially, psychologically, and physiologically. At the social level, having similar musical preferences as another individual reflects shared values. In other words, music may serve as an indicator of the similarity of beliefs, which could mediate the process of bonding. Music may also exert its effects psychologically, as it promotes coordination, synchronization, and shared attention.
From a physiological standpoint, there is a strong link between music engagement and elevated levels of specific neuropeptides (signaling molecules in the brain) that are implicated in social bonding. Oxytocin, commonly referred to as the “love hormone”, is released during music-making due to sensory and emotional stimulation. Oxytocin is associated with greater empathy, trust, and generosity, which are crucial in developing relationships. Another molecule, known as β-endorphin, is released during synchronized actions, such as those facilitated by the rhythmic nature of music. It is linked to touch, mother-infant bonding, and romantic connections.
One particular area of interest in current research surrounding music and bonding is the impact of music therapy interventions on parent-infant bonding. During music therapy sessions, parents show increased responsiveness to and synchrony with their children. These musically-facilitated interactions ultimately enhance attachment between the parent(s) and infant, which is essential to both parental wellbeing and healthy child development. Music can be effectively leveraged, as humans are primed to distinguish musical elements, such as rhythm and pitch, and infants in particular are primed to recognize their mother’s voice.
When considering both anecdotal experience and research evidence, we can certainly acknowledge the unique power of music in promoting bonding between individuals—and we can harness this power to enhance health and wellbeing.
Yina Shan is a 3rd year Bachelor of Health Sciences student at McMaster University. She wrote this blog while completing HTH SCI 3H03 at the Room 217 Foundation.