Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


social-music

(PHOTO: ANTONIOGRAVANTE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The Sounds That Bind: Why We Evolved to Love Music

• August 05, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: ANTONIOGRAVANTE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Two researchers provide evidence that music developed as a way to cement social bonds.

The question of why humans invented music—and continue to be enthralled by it—has long puzzled scholars. While some, including Charles Darwin, have guessed it grew out of a courtship ritual, recent research has focused on its ability to strengthen bonds within a community. Think military marches, or fight songs at a football game.

A newly published paper presents intriguing evidence supporting that hypothesis. Chris Loersch of the University of Colorado and Nathan Arbuckle of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology argue that music developed “as a form of social communication, a tool to pass information about the group’s shared mental state to a number of individuals at once.”

“As it became increasingly adaptive for humans to live in social groups, various biological and psychological mechanisms evolved in order to maintain a group structure,” they write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “We hypothesize that human musicality is one of those mechanisms.”

Such a theory is not actually provable, of course, but one can find clues. The researchers describe seven studies in which they demonstrate a connection between the need to belong and the tendency to experience a deep emotional reaction to music.

Singing together appears to inspire spontaneous cooperative and helpful behavior among four-year-olds.

In one study, 112 adults recruited online filled out a series of surveys. One measured their “need to belong,” asking them to agree or disagree with such statements as “If other people don’t seem to accept me, I don’t let it bother me.” A second measured their emotional reactivity by assessing their agreement with such statements as “I get upset easily.”

A third survey measured their emotional and physical reactions to music. They revealed the extent to which they agreed with such statements as “When I listen to music, I can feel it affect my mood” and “When I hear music, my foot starts tapping along with the beat.”

The researchers found their response to music has a “unique predictor” of the need to belong, above and beyond their general emotionality. In short, those who reported a greater need to belong also tended to have more intense involvement with music.

In another experiment, the researchers “threatened, or affirmed, participants’ sense of belonging in an important group.” Participants were 98 University of Missouri students who were manipulated to believe that, compared with their peers, they were either a lackluster or an enthusiastic member of the university community.

After receiving their scores, they took a separate test designed to measure their response to music. The results: “When participants’ sense of belonging was threatened and they became motivated to reestablish social ties, they became more affected by the music they heard.” The same pattern was found in a follow-up study featuring 138 adults recruited online.

The researchers concede that this is hardly definitive evidence. But it does dovetail nicely with some other recent research, which has found singing together appears to inspire spontaneous cooperative and helpful behavior among four-year-olds, and playing music in a group helps older kids develop empathy.

Think about it: Until the invention of the Walkman, music was, by definition, a social experience. Even today, people sing hymns to affirm their commitment to their church, and sing national anthems to demonstrate their love of country. Outcasts find their own communities through outsider genres such as Goth.

In all of those cases, music doesn’t simply entertain or uplift. It binds us together.

As Loersch and Arbuckle put it: “The powerful psychological pull of music in modern life may derive from its innate ability to connect us to others.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.