The evolution of music: how our understanding of music’s origins in group bonding may benefit us in our age of loneliness

We are told we are entering the “age of loneliness” (Monbiot, 2014). This term is utilised here to describe our apparent human social decline, caused by a combination of factors including the breakdown of communities, our ever-increasing population and most recently, the rise of social media. Huge numbers of people are reporting that they feel lonely, both young and old, with the negative effects of loneliness on our health becoming upsettingly clear (Perry, 2015).

Scientists have shown links between an absence of social relationships and deterioration in mental and physical health (Lim & Young, 2006), with recent studies suggesting that social isolation may have an impact comparable to the effects of high blood pressure, obesity and smoking (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008). Public awareness is increasing too, as reflected in the Christmas 2015 advertising campaign led by John Lewis and Age UK, which highlighted elderly loneliness with the slogan: “show someone that they are loved this Christmas”.

John Lewis

A still from the 2015 John Lewis & Age UK Christmas Advertising Campaign. Watch the advert here.

Given the effect of loneliness on our health and wellbeing, it is important for us to understand the most effective ways to combat it. Increasing our ability for ‘social bonding’ is key, which is our perceived sense of closeness or connectedness to others. It has been well documented that the ability of music can impact positively on our subjective well-being (Denora, 2015; Hodges & Sebald, 2011; Sacks, 2010). It now appears that musical activity and in particular group singing may provide an effective solution to loneliness. To understand why, we look to the work of Dr Jacques Launay, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Oxford, whose work aims to create a model comprising of research into the many aspects of music as an evolutionary tool for facilitating social bonding.

In contrast to other evolutionary theories of music, such as music and sexual selection (Miller, 2000), or music as a by-product of existing evolved traits such as language development (Honing & Ploeger, 2012; Patel, 2008; Pinker, 1997), Dr Jacques Launay suggests that music developed into an evolved ‘technology’ for social bonding. Launay points to experimental evidence that many facets of group music making, including shared attention and synchronisation, combined together are powerful tools for social bonding. In evolutionary terms, our ability to bond with others holds clear benefits in mutual cooperation, and may have been particularly important as we evolved from living in smaller groups to larger complex societies (Richerson & Boyd, 2001).


Social bonding in action with Popchoir

Research has shown that engaging in exertive rhythmic activities, such as musical interaction through synchronised movements releases endorphins: hormones associated with social behaviour, demonstrated in laughter and synchronised sports. Endorphin release encourages social bonding, a feeling of connectivity, and positive affect – all factors that are important for health and happiness in humans. Self-other merging through synchronising dance moves with others also functions as a mechanism that encourages social bonding (Tarr et al., 2014).

Group singing, in particular, has shown to enhance social closeness. In Pearce’s (2015) study with singing, craft and creative writing groups, all activities increased the closeness that individuals felt to ‘strangers’ within their group. Interestingly, the singing group established much quicker social bonds than the non-singing activities, suggesting that singing works as an ‘ice-breaker effect’. Weinstein and colleagues (2015) focused on social bonding within choirs, indicating that larger choirs achieved greater group closeness with one another compared to smaller choirs. These findings suggest that communal singing in larger groups causes greater social closeness, as singing may bypass the need for personal knowledge concerning other individuals, which would be required in more intimate relationships. This research supports evolutionary ideas of music in establishing social bonds, and that evidently the larger the group size the larger the social network was for survival, hence why group bonding scales up (Dunbar, 2003).


The ice-breaker effect

However, achieving social bonding is not as simple as merely singing and dancing together. Although classified as ‘low-level components’, research has shown that the interaction of joint attention, shared goals and success – all involved in music making – are particularly important (Wolf et al., 2015). As shared intentions create common psychological ground, as well as enabling collaborative activities and cooperative communication (Tomasello & Carpenter 2007).

Overall, research has been suggestive in showing music facilitating social bonding. However, the exact mechanisms behind which aspects of singing encourage group bonding, and in particular, faster group bonding in the ‘ice-breaker effect’ are not yet known. In the ice-breaker study, the singing activities shared a common goal of creating a musical piece together, whereas the craft and creative writing activities worked on individual projects. Therefore, shared success, attention and goals need to be explored to understand their effects on how quickly social bonding occurs in different activities. Also, the synchronicity and the somewhat exertive behaviour of the singing group differed greatly from the other activities, thus, activities that also incorporate these behaviours should be compared (Pearce et al., 2015).


Shared goals and shared intentions impact positively on social bonding

Though it is a compelling proposition, given the multi-faceted nature of Dr Jacques Launay’s theory of music’s evolution for social bonding, the experimental evidence to support its many aspects is currently limited. Despite this, much of the supporting research highlights the benefits of music for social bonding and this, in turn, can be used to raise public awareness, fund charity work and guide future implementation into health applications.

We may have entered the age of loneliness, but such research in music psychology may provide an avenue to escape it. Breaking the ice through group singing with shared attention, goals and success with others can provide a means to improve our social bonds.

As with many other activities that can benefit closeness, including sports and dance (Mueller, Agamanolis & Picard, 2003), what is key to Launay’s research is that the origins of group music making may mean singing helps create bonds much quicker than other activities. This is a promising step in the research field and if one were to create a perfect tool for social bonding, music might be it.

If you or someone you know is suffering from loneliness, then it may be worth investigating what opportunities exist locally for group singing. There is a growing culture of community choirs and charities – including the Popchoir featured in some of Launay’s research, and the National Association of Choirs.

Blog by Saoirse Finn, Marie Raae, Thomas Baker

This blog was written following Dr Jacques Launay’s presentation to Goldsmiths’ Music, Mind and Brain students on 6th December 2015 as part of the ‘Invited Speaker’ series.

For more details on the Music, Mind and Brain MSc, please visit:



Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. WW Norton & Company.

DeNora, T. (2015). Music Asylums: Wellbeing through music in everyday life. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd..

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Hodges, D. A., & Sebald, D. C. (2011). Music in the human experience: An introduction to music psychology (pp. 178-190). New York: Routledge.

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Weinstein, D., Launay, J., Pearce, E., Dunbar, R. I., & Stewart, L. (2015). Singing and social bonding: changes in connectivity and pain threshold as a function of group size. Evolution and Human Behavior.

Wolf, W., Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. (2015). Joint attention, shared goals, and social bonding. British Journal of Psychology.

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