Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Do-Re-Mi Promotes a Feeling of ‘We’

• July 14, 2010 • 11:21 AM

How do you get a group of 4-year-olds to cooperate? New research suggests the answer may be as simple as a singing lesson.

Singing together appears to inspire spontaneous cooperative and helpful behavior among 4-year-olds. That’s the conclusion of new research that provides support for an intriguing theory regarding the evolutionary origins of music.

Psychologists Sebastian Kirschner and Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig gathered 96 4-year-olds from 16 German day care centers. The youngsters, from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, were broken up into pairs. They then took part in a 20-minute experiment that felt to them like playtime.

Kirschner introduced each pair of kids to a set of nine toy frogs, which could either be used as a simple toy or a musical instrument (by scraping its ridged back with a stick). The youngsters were told the frogs were asleep and needed to be woken up, either by a morning song or exercise.

Half of the young participants (24 seats of youngsters) sang an easy-to-learn song as they walked around the frogs’ “pond” (an oval blanket), synchronizing their steps to the pulse of the music. The other half walked or crawled around the pretend pond without musical accompaniment, having their frogs periodically jump in a nonsynchronized pattern.

Afterward, the children were presented with tubes filled with marbles. “The tube of one child was prepared so that the bottom fell out at the moment both children lifted the tubes,” the researchers write. “All six marbles spilled out onto the floor.” The researchers observed whether the other child helped his partner pick up the rapidly scattering spheres.

The children then played a game in which a task could be accomplished either individually (by walking back and forth from one end of an apparatus to another) or through cooperative action. The researchers observed whether they proceeded separately or coordinated their activities.

Writing in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, Kirschner and Tomasello report that playing music as a group influenced behavior in both of the subsequent scenarios. Children who had sung and marched together were more likely to help one another pick up marbles. They were also more likely to choose the cooperative solution to the task.

Girls were more helpful and more likely to be cooperative than boys, whether they were in the singing group or not. But like the boys, their level of cooperation and helpfulness increased if they had participated in the music-making.

The researchers conclude that engaging in the “shared goal of vocalizing and moving together in time” strengthened the children’s “sense of acting together as a unit.” Their results support the hypothesis that music — at least in part — evolved as a way of fostering group cohesion, by “generating an intuitive feeling of community and bonding among the performers.”

Researchers from Singapore, who worked with college students as opposed to preschoolers, recently reached a similar conclusion.

“It is unlikely that children at the age of 4 made any rational choice like ‘because we just played music together, I will help you now.’ More likely, the children in our study made an intuitive decision to help the other child because they felt immediate empathetic concern with the peer’s misfortune the moment they saw the accident happening and felt committed to give support somehow,” Kirschner and Tomasello write.

“Understanding music as a collectively intended activity – with specially designed features that satisfy this human desire to share emotions, experiences and activities with others – might explain why the children in our study felt a stronger commitment after joint music-making, and so spontaneously helped or cooperated with one another.”

Kirschner cautions that the origins of music are most likely multiple and complex. He acknowledges it may also have developed as a means of sexual display or attraction, or of mother-infant bonding (think of lullabys).

But if the concept of music as a force for group solidarity seems distant in this era of earbuds and iPods, remember that it still used as a bonding tool “at many public occasions, such as sporting events, worship and weddings,” as Kirschner and Tomasello write. Not to mention military parades and funeral processions.

Their study not only provides some useful tips for preschool instructors; it also gives some strong clues regarding the role music has played in human history. Harmonizing, it seems, tends to breed harmony.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

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


September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


Follow us


Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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