Jacques Launay: Is Music an Evolutionary Adaptation for Social Bonding?

“Without a song or a dance what are we?

So I say thank you for the music

For giving it to me”

-Lyrics by ABBA-

Music and dance exists across all cultures and anthropological evidence makes it clear that musical instruments existed dating back almost 50,000 years. While we all know how meaningful music is in our lives, the existence of it is puzzling because bobbing our heads to the static beats of techno at a nightclub or singing carols together with the family on Christmas day doesn’t seem to directly benefit our survival. Dr Jacques Launay, who is a lecturer at Brunel University and teaches music psychology, presented a talk at Goldsmiths College about his belief that music exists as an adaptation for social bonding.

In his talk, Launay began by introducing some of the theories regarding the existence of music. One of which is Steven Pinker’s view, a cognitive psychologist, that music doesn’t have a purpose but is only a pleasure mechanism, an auditory drug, and a by-product of language (Pinker, 1997). However, knowing the power of music and what it acquires in us is unique, it’s difficult to agree that music is simply a pleasure technology. A popular theory that opposes Pinker is adaptationists’ view that music served a purpose in human evolution. Robin Dunbar (2003), who Launay worked with during his postdoctoral at Oxford University, suggests that for our ancestor tribes, music-making and dancing with other group members would have allowed the group to better socially bond and solve internal conflicts. As a result of these group benefits, the tribes would have grown stronger to outrun other competing tribes or protect against predator animals. Launay pointed out that a number of studies including his own support Dunbar’s theory, where it has been shown that playing or dancing to music as a group elicits social cohesion (Launay, Dean, & Bailes, 2013; Tarr, Launay, & Dunbar, 2014) and self-other likeability.

He continued by suggesting that several elements of music-making are socially bonding. These elements include low-level aspects of music-making, like shared intentionality (Reddish, Fischer, & Bulbulia, 2013), and shared task success (Launay, Dean, & Bailes, 2013). In fact, experimental evidence suggests that even just attending to the same stimulus as another person may be sufficient to encourage social bonding (Wolf, Launay, & Dunbar, 2016). In this experiment, two individuals engaged in a reaction time task. Launay explained that working from the same side of the screen with shared attention equated to higher ratings of social-bonding to their experiment partner. If participants worked individually, on different sides of the screen, the shared motivation test didn’t affect social-bonding (Wolf et al., 2016).

Launay next discussed the role of synchronisation in encouraging social bonding. When participants synchronise, they co-operate and bond socially more than when they are asynchronous (Hove & Risen, 2009; Reddish et al., 2013; Wiltermuth & Heath, 2009). The effect of synchrony on bonding can even be seen when participants synchronise with a fake virtual partner, with higher ratings of likeability and trust after synchronising (Launay et al., 2013; Launay, Dean, & Bailes, 2014).

Perhaps more relevant to music-making, evidence suggests these effects are also found with dance. When dancing to either the same or different music (at differing tempos), participants dancing to the same music show enhanced memory for dancer attributes (Woolhouse, Tidhar, & Cross, 2016). This effect is not just an effect of exertion – Launay mentioned a paper he co-authored, where synchrony and exertion independently raised prosociability (Tarr, Launay, Cohen, & Dunbar, 2015). It is evident that dancing in synchrony, or at least dancing together in time, is linked with social bonding (Tarr, Launay, & Dunbar, 2016; von Zimmermann, Vicary, Sperling, Orgs, & Richardson, 2018).

m2ye-silentdisco.co.uk(Photo: https://m2ye-silentdisco.co.uk, 2018).

Additionally, Launay and colleagues conducted an experiment in Brazil, in which high school students were taught dance moves with varying levels of exertion. The students were then either instructed to dance in full or partial synchrony, depending upon visual and verbal cues given by the researchers. Results of the experiment showed an increase in pro-sociality ratings for both the fully synchronous and the partially synchronous groups (Tarr et al., 2015).

Also, music can affect social bonding over time. Launay explained a 6 month study that examined music and social bonding during three separate time periods, 2, 9, and 21 weeks (Pearce, Launay & Dunbar, 2015). The purpose of the study was to determine whether a singing class created social bonds more quickly than other activities such as crafts or creative writing. The results of the study support the theory that music is socially bonding, as after all three time periods, the musical classmates reported feeling significantly closer after the classes than they felt to them before.

One last experiment described by Launay aimed to determine whether the social bonding effects of music can be experienced on a larger scale. For this study, participants from a community choir that practiced and performed in both small groups, as well as a composite choir, provided self-report measures of social bonding before and after their small (20-80 members) and large-scale (all 232 members) rehearsal (Weinstein, Launay, Pearce, Dunbar & Stewart, 2015). The self-report scores of social bonding between participants went up in both conditions. The increased score for the large choir condition is particularly interesting, as choir members were singing with people they didn’t know, yet felt bonded to after a rehearsal and performance. This supports the hypothesis that the effects of music on social bonding can be also experienced on a larger scale.

PopChoir(Photo: https://popchoir.com/news/cone-and-try-us-out-in-the-autumn-term, 2018).

Launay highlights experimental evidence suggesting that synchronisation can influence social bonding, which is seen to come from low-level aspects like shared attention, intentions and accomplishing a same goal. Other areas show that more exerted movements can also create more impact in social closeness, where likeability rises through dancing with bigger movements and when in synchrony; and is thought to be the most socially bonding (Tarr et al., 2015).

Some caveats for the adaptive purposes of music would be how music is used across cultures. A suggestion Launay makes is that music has evolved as a pre-linguistic form of communication as a primal way of bonding. This can still be seen, for example, through lullabies, in mother/infant relationships, where language isn’t as effective as music in communicating with each other, or in large groups such as festivals or silent discos (Tarr, Launay and Dunbar, 2016).

Musical preference influences people’s perception of how close they are to others and is a predictor of how much more likeable a person will be found based on their musical tastes (for example, if they have the same preference for music, they are more likely to think that they are going to connect better). Launay finishes his talk by saying how shared traits such as coming from the same area or having the same religion have been compared to analyse social bonding, but music is thought to hold a much bigger influence than any of these (Launay and Dunbar, 2015).

This insightful presentation demonstrates how powerful music is; it’s a tool that we use everyday of our lives to communicate with others throughout many cultures across the world. Music really is a unique and adaptive invention that cements our togetherness, allowing us to share moments and build relationships with others.

Quotefancy-2399244-3840x2160(Photo:https://quotefancy.com/quote/878927/Oliver-Sacks-Music-has-a-bonding-power-it-s-primal-social-cement, 2018).

Harin Lee, Dianna Vidas, Heather Thueringer and Kerry Schofield.


Hove, M. J., & Risen, J. L. (2009). It’s All in the Timing: Interpersonal Synchrony Increases Affiliation. Social Cognition, 27(6), 949–960. https://doi.org/10.1521/soco.2009.27.6.949

Launay, J., Dean, R. T., & Bailes, F. (2013). Synchronization can influence trust following virtual interaction. Experimental Psychology, 60(1), 53–63. https://doi.org/10.1027/1618-3169/a000173

Launay, J., Dean, R. T., & Bailes, F. (2013). Synchronization can influence trust following virtual interaction. Experimental Psychology, 60(1), 53–63. https://doi.org/10.1027/1618-3169/a000173

Launay, J., Dean, R. T., & Bailes, F. (2014). Synchronising movements with the sounds of a virtual partner enhances partner likeability. Cognitive Processing, 15(4), 491–501. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10339-014-0618-0

Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2015). Playing with Strangers: Which Shared Traits Attract Us Most to New People? PLoS ONE, 10(6), e0129688. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0129688

Pearce, E., Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. (2015). The ice-breaker effect: singing mediates fast social bonding. Royal Society Open Science, 2(10), 150221. doi:10.1098/rsos.150221

Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York, NY: Norton.

Popchoir. (2018). [photograph ]. Retrieved from https://popchoir.com/news/cone-and-try-us-out-in-the-autumn-term

Quotefancy. (2018). [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://quotefancy.com/quote/878927/Oliver-Sacks-Music-has-a-bonding-power-it-s-primal-social-cement

Reddish, P., Fischer, R., & Bulbulia, J. (2013). Let’s Dance Together: Synchrony, Shared Intentionality and Cooperation. PLoS ONE, 8(8). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0071182

Silentdisco. (2018). [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://m2ye-silentdisco.co.uk

Tarr, B., Launay, J., Cohen, E., & Dunbar, R. (2015). Synchrony and exertion during dance independently raise pain threshold and encourage social bonding. Biology Letters 11, 20150767. https://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2015.0767

Tarr, B., Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2016). Silent disco: dancing in synchrony leads to elevated pain thresholds and social closeness. Evolution and Human Behavior, 37(5), 343–349. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2016.02.004

von Zimmermann, J., Vicary, S., Sperling, M., Orgs, G., & Richardson, D. C. (2018). The Choreography of Group Affiliation. Topics in Cognitive Science, 10, 80–94. https://doi.org/10.1111/tops.12320

Weinstein, D., Launay, J., Pearce, E., Dunbar, R. I., & Stewart, L. (2016). Singing and social bonding: changes in connectivity and pain threshold as a function of group size. Evolution and Human Behavior, 37(2), 152-158. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2015.10.002

Wiltermuth, S. S., & Heath, C. (2009). Synchrony and Cooperation. Psychological Science, 20(1), 1–5.

Wolf, W., Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2016). Joint attention, shared goals, and social bonding. British Journal of Psychology, 107(2), 322–337. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12144

Woolhouse, M. H., Tidhar, D., & Cross, I. (2016). Effects on Inter-Personal Memory of Dancing in Time with Others. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(February), 1–8. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00167

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