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Science-Based Madonna: Music Makes the People Come Together

Music and rhythm create interpersonal synchrony that shapes our social brains.

This post is in response to
Dance Songs Dissolve Differences That Divide Us
goa novi/Shutterstock
Source: goa novi/Shutterstock

Listening to live musical performances synchronizes the brain rhythms of concertgoers on a neural level, according to new research presented at the 25th annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in Boston (March 24-27, 2018). The lecture by Molly Henry of the University of Western Ontario, “Live Music Increases Intersubject Synchronization of Audience Members’ Brain Rhythms,” was part of a symposium chaired by her research colleague Jessica Grahn, director of the Music and Neuroscience Lab.

Henry and Grahn used the LIVELab at McMaster University as part of a portable electroencephalography (EEG) experiment that measured brain rhythm synchronization among a large group of concertgoers watching live performances on a stage in comparison to a smaller group and dyads watching a recorded version of the same live performance on a movie screen. The researchers found that when a live performer was physically present and performing on stage, audience members' brain waves became much more synchronized with one other than if they watched a recording of the same live performance either in a group or with another person.

In a statement, Henry said, "I was extremely excited to see that across the live audience, brain rhythms were synchronized in exactly the frequency range that corresponds to the 'beat' of the music, so it looks as if the beat is driving audience brain rhythms. That may seem common sense, but it's really something. These are novel findings in the context of live music listening that are providing insights into the more social side of music listening."

Grahn added, "We are seeing relationships between rhythm and language abilities, attention, development, hearing acuity, and even social interactions. Every sensation we have or action we make on the world unfolds over time, and we are now beginning to understand why humans are sensitive to certain types of patterns in time, but not others."

Lullabies and Musical Rhythm Harmonize Mother-Infant Psychophysiology

Another lecture in this symposium by Laura Cirelli of the University of Toronto Mississauga focused on the psychophysiology of maternal singing and lullabies to create interpersonal synchrony between mothers and babies. Cirelli and colleagues found that mothers intuitively adjust their infant-directed singing to be more soothing or playful depending on the circumstances.

Using skin conductance to gauge physiological arousal levels of a mother and her baby Cirelli et al. found that the singing style of a lullaby ("Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star") created symbiotic psychophysiological responses in mother-child dyads. As would be expected, during playful singing, both moms’ and babies’ arousal and positive emotional valence levels were higher than during soothing, slower-tempo vocalizations of this lullaby.

Notably, as soothing lullaby singing progressed, physiological arousal levels of mother and child decreased in tandem. This clinical research corroborates what most parents and caregivers have figured out about lullaby singing through trial-and-error and reaffirms the universality of lullabies, which have been passed down from generation-to-generation for millennia.

Interestingly, a January 2018 study, "Form and Function in Human Song," by researchers at Harvard University found that lullabies and rhythmic dance songs are the most universally identifiable form-function types of music.

Other research on music and rhythm has shown that when people move their bodies together in synchrony (e.g., on a dance floor) that the 'disco beat' (approximately 120 BPM) facilitates feelings of social closeness and a sense of coalition that makes us more likely to cooperate with one another. Along this same line, in a statement about her recent presentation at the CNS symposium, Cirelli said, "Music is a tool that we can use to bring people together, and this starts in infancy."

We all know the power of live musical performance to make us feel interconnected and to bring audience members together. Now, we have empirical, science-based evidence to back up our common life experiences. Coincidentally, Cirelli’s closing statement clearly echoes the lyrics of Madonna’s chart-topping, smash hit “Music” and reflects the Queen of Pop's ethos as a performer.

Music Makes the People Come Together

In a September 2000 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Madonna explained the inspiration behind her lyrics to “Music.” As the story goes, when Madonna was attending a 1999 Sting concert at the Beacon Theatre in New York City during his Brand New Day tour, she noticed that while he was performing the new, unfamiliar tracks from his latest solo album, the audience was engaged but subdued. Then, suddenly, when Sting began playing some classic older songs which struck a deeper emotional chord, the increased ‘intersubject synchronization of audience members’ brain rhythms’ appeared to kick in. As Madonna described in Rolling Stone:

“When he did the old Police songs — and it was just him and a guitar, and the lights came down — somehow the energy in the room changed. It ignited the room, and it brought everybody closer to the stage. And suddenly, people lost their inhibition and their politeness, and everyone was singing the songs and practically holding hands. It really moved me. And I thought, "That's what music does to people." It really does bring people together, and it erases so much. And so that's how I came to the hook of that song.”

Over the decades, I’ve seen Madonna perform live countless times. In 1983, before she was famous, I was lucky enough to see Madonna perform live in a small gay nightclub on Lansdowne Street in Boston called “The Metro.” The audience was a diverse mix of concertgoers that transcended stereotypes. Anecdotally, my experience at this performance corroborates the clinical research of Molly Henry et al. on the power of live music to put audience members from all walks of life on the same neural “wavelength.”

© Keith Haring Foundation
"IGNORANCE = FEAR / SILENCE = DEATH" by Keith Haring (1989)
Source: © Keith Haring Foundation

This palpable feeling of "brain wave synchronization" with fellow concertgoers happened again when I saw Madonna perform the Blond Ambition tour as a benefit for amfAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research) soon after the tragic death of her close friend, legendary artist, Keith Haring (1958-1990). During this live benefit concert, Madonna said, “AIDS does not know if we are gay or if we are straight. It has no sexual preference. And, we should not be judged for our sexual preference.”

At a time in the late 1980s and early '90s when fear of the AIDS pandemic was fueling rampant homophobia and tearing people apart, Madonna was a Top-40 superstar at the zenith of her popularity. Thankfully, she had the courage to use her Blond Ambition world tour and the power of live musical performance to bring people "from every nation" together during a time of divisiveness. The latest 21st-century neuroscientific research shows us that the contagious feeling of camaraderie and cooperation felt amongst concertgoers appears to be driven by synchronized brain waves.

Although the latest EEG research found that watching live music on a screen doesn’t create brain synchronization nearly as well as being part of a concert-going audience, I believe the next best thing is concert footage that makes us feel like we’re part of an audience. Therefore, I’ve curated a 'top five' list of live Madonna performances with audible and visible audience participation. Hopefully, the exuberance of the concertgoers and audience members during these live performances will help you imagine that you're at a live performance and help "dissolve the differences that divide us" via dance music.

Whether you're watching these live performances in front of your computer screen or with earbuds on your smartphone; Remember: Music makes the people come together. So, get up on the dance floor!

Top Five "Intersubject Synchronization of Audience Members’ Brain Rhythms" Live Performances by Madonna

Like a Prayer (Blond Ambition World Tour)

Express Yourself (1989 MTV Video Music Awards)

Vogue (1990 MTV Video Music Awards)

Future Lovers / I Feel Love (Confessions on a Dance Floor World Tour)

Holiday (1984 American Bandstand)


“Live music increases intersubject synchronization of audience members’ brain rhythms” and "Musical rhythms in infancy: Social and emotional effects" were presented in a symposium chaired by Jessica Grahn, "What makes musical rhythm special: cross–species, developmental, and social perspectives," on March 27, 2018, at the 25th meeting for the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in Boston.

Samuel A. Mehr, Manvir Singh, Hunter York, Luke Glowacki, Max M. Krasnow. “Form and Function in Human Song.” Current Biology (Published: January 25, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.12.042

Edward H. Hagen and Gregory A. Bryant. "Music and Dance As a Coalition Signaling System." Human Nature (2003) DOI: 10.1007/s12110-003-1015-z

Bronwyn Tarr, Jacques Launay, and Robin IM Dunbar. "Silent Disco: Dancing in Synchrony Leads to Elevated Pain Thresholds and Social Closeness." Evolution and Human Behavior (2016) DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2016.02.004