Kimberly Sena Moore Ph.D.

Your Musical Self

The Evolution of Music: A Bonding Effect?

New research explores music, synchrony, and social cohesion.

Posted Dec 09, 2015

Krista N. Mericle/Wikimedia
Source: Krista N. Mericle/Wikimedia

I’ve performed in many ensembles over the years—band, orchestra, choir, and chamber groups—and have yet to find a music group as socially and emotionally connected as the marching band. Not to say I haven’t felt connected to my fellow choral, orchestra, and wind ensemble peers, but there’s something about the marching band that facilitates a deep, strong, long-lasting connection.

That “something” may involve the connection between music and social cohesion, a phenomenon explored recently by researchers in the UK. Theorists have long thought that music—particularly singing—evolved in part to facilitate group bonding. Human survival is dependent on the ability to form and maintain social relationships, and it’s been proposed that group singing accelerates this formation and maintenance. But is this effect unique to singing? Or can any group activity facilitate social cohesion?

Researchers Pearce, Launay, and Dunbar examined these questions recently. They recruited adult participants to join an adult education class, either a singing group or non-singing one (creative crafts and creative writing). Classes ran regularly for seven months, and participants were assessed three times, at the beginning of the class (month 1), halfway thorough (month 3), and at the end (month 7). At each data collection point participants self-rated their feelings of closeness and positive or negative affect, and participated in a pain tolerance task, a procedure that serves as a proxy for endorphin release.

Study results indicated that (1) adults in the singing group experienced a greater increase in positive affect and self-reported closeness as compared to the non-singing group, though (2) there was no difference between the groups in negative affect and pain threshold. However, what is more interesting is that by the end of the 7 months, though participants in both conditions reached similar levels of closeness, there were distinctly different patterns of bonding emergence—the singers bonded more quickly than the non-singers. In other words, their self-reported ratings of closeness increased sooner, then plateaued while the non-singers self-reported ratings of closeness increased more steadily over time.

What does this mean, then? The researchers proposed that social cohesion may be facilitated by synchronous group behaviors that involve a motor task, two qualities inherent in group singing. If so, it could explain why social bonding still occurred in both groups, but  in different ways. The non-singing group, which engaged in craft and creative writing projects, may have bonded through regular conversations and laughter, whereas the adult singers bonded through a synchronous, motor group activity of group singing.

Same end result…just a different way of getting there.

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Pearce, E., Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2015). The ice-breaker effect: singing mediates fast social bonding. Royal Society Open Science, 2(10), 150221.