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Four Ways Music Strengthens Social Interactions

Human-music interaction.

Key points

  • Rhythmic interaction binds individuals together into cooperative communities.
  • Rhythmic sound synchronizes our brain waves.
  • Every simple synchronized action, such as walking in step with others, can increase social bonding.

One of the most common human responses to music is to move to it. Our bodies respond to music in conscious and unconscious ways. The urge to move to music is universal among humans. Listeners react to the music's pulse, tempo, and rhythmic patterns. Such movements tend to become faster when the musical tempo is faster and are often accompanied by smiling as an indication of pleasure in synchronization (Clayton, 2012).

The concept of synchronization (or coordinated rhythmic movement) is usually paired with the term entrainment. Entrainment occurs when our bodily movements lock in to synchronize with music. Music can induce relaxation through entrainment effects to slow breathing and heartbeat. Music can also boost our energy, such as marching bands as a warm-up for football games.

Music also plays an important social role, as it can coordinate actions and enhance cooperation and communication. Rhythm facilitates our interpersonal interactions in terms of not only how we move but how we talk and think (Lesaffre, 2017).

1. Cooperation

Entrainment is fundamental to coordinating with others (talking, applauding, walking, or running together). For example, the rhythmic coordination of hand clapping in an audience, or foot-tapping to the beat of a song, is a very common experience (Thaut, 2015). Similarly, when we walk with someone, we coordinate our footsteps with theirs.

2. Empathy

Entrainment could also be interpreted as a form of empathy. For example, when individuals interact socially in conversations, the rhythms of their actions tend to become entrained. In this way, rhythm synchronization plays a role in generating empathic feelings. The experience of empathy (or shared understanding) is reached through emotional contagion. For example, participants adopt similar postures, facial expressions, and hand gestures in conversation.

3. Social bond

Synchronization is considered a potential means by which humans can become more socially bonded with one another. There is perhaps no stronger behavior to unite humans than coordinated rhythmic movement, such as singing, dancing, chanting, walking, or talking together. These activities can increase social bonding.

When people come together to move in time with music, not only do their motor outputs become synchronized, but also their emotional experiences, such as trust and cohesion, become more homogeneous. Moreover, synchronizing with a group of people is generally regarded as a very pleasant experience.

4. Groupthink

Rhythm eases people's interactions by synchronizing brain waves (Escoffier, 2015). Rhythmic sound not only coordinates the behavior of people in a group but also coordinates their thinking. That is, music can create a feeling of group cohesion and agreement.

People are more likely to perceive the world in synchrony when they move in synchrony. When people do things together, they are more likely to agree with each other too. This leads to something called groupthink. For example, music is used in politics to create enthusiasm for particular points of view and promote solidarity around candidates and platforms.

In sum, people tend to spontaneously synchronize their movements with others, which can happen spontaneously. In everyday interactions such as conversations, we are motivated to synchronize and match many features of our actions (body posture, facial expressions, and speech rate).

And rhythmic interaction is pleasurable. The act of synchronization implies that other people’s actions shape our behaviors. This process is dynamic and leads to emergent behavior that cannot be achieved by isolated individuals and can be unpredictable.


Clayton, M. R. (2012). What is entrainment? Definition and applications in musical research. Empirical Musicology Review, 7(1–2), 49–56.

Escoffier, N., Herrmann, C. S., and Schirmer, A. (2015). Auditory rhythms entrain visual processes in the human brain: evidence from evoked oscillations and event-related potentials. Neuroimage 111, 267–276.

Lesaffre, M., Maes, P. J., & Leman, M. (Eds.). (2017). The Routledge companion to embodied music interaction. Routledge.

Thaut, M. H., McIntosh, G. C., & Hoemberg, V. (2015). Neurobiological foundations of neurologic music therapy: Rhythmic entrainment and the motor system. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1–6.

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