Kimberly Sena Moore Ph.D.

Your Musical Self

"Thank You Mister Speaker": On Music and Social Behaviors

Music helps to bond groups...but how?

Posted May 09, 2013

Think music doesn't matter in our lives? You would be hard-pressed to watch this 2 minute clip and not see how music can change the entire mood of a rather serious group of people:

This footage was taken from the House floor in Indiana in March 2013, where Representative Suzanne Crouch sang her request asking fellow representatives to support an amendment that offers title protection for music therapists in the state. Many people might watch this clip and giggle at the seeming silliness of the proceedings. I watch this clip and notice the following:

  • The Speaker of the House's reaction, which is initial surprise followed by an impulse to join in the "fun" by making a joke about serving cocktails.
  • Laughter from the House floor (which I can only imagine does not happen often. I envision floor proceedings to be rather dry, dull, and sometimes argumentative affairs. Perhaps I'm wrong, though...)
  • A fellow representative and, later, the Speaker of the House again, singing and chanting their verbalizations.
  • A pseudo-sung vote of "aye" to accept the music therapy amendment.

In short, music was used in a quick and efficient way to change the mood and influence the behaviors of a large group of people. But how did it do this? The connections between music, emotions, and social behaviors could help explain this phenomenon.

There has historically been a close tie between emotions and social behaviors. Emotions can prompt people to interact with each other, often working as a communication tool to induce them to an emotional state similar to our own (Oatley, 1992). Furthermore, the exhange of emotions forms the basis of empathy and social interactions (Frijda, 2006). Clinically, it is common for music therapists to group social and emotional domain areas when working with clients. These two concepts seem closely enmeshed with each other, making it hard to separate one from the other.

Music may have an enhancing effect on this connection. It allows for the expression of emotions—especially difficult emotions—both for individuals (Sears, 1964) and for groups (Gaston; 1964; Merriam, 1964; Sears, 1964). Many cultures, including our own, have a history of using music to band together against perceived injustice. These protest songs—like Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," Pink's "Dear Mr. President," and almost any song written by Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan—provide an outlet for a group's expression of hostility and rebellion. The music provides a socially-accepted structure within which the group can share difficult-to-verbalize feelings against a cause or an establishment.

The connection is starting to be understood beyond the realm of history and culture and into that of neuroscience. For example, there is evidence from animal studies that oxytocin and vasopressin are implicated in social behaviors and bonding (Chanda & Levitin, 2013). Furthermore, although little is known about it's link to vasopressin, music is thought to release oxytocin (Chanda & Levitin, 2013; Huron, 2003). Thus it is not a significant leap to consider that one underlying mechanism responsible for the connection between music and group social behaviors is mediated by neurochemicals such as oxytocin. 

So what's the take-away message? For starters, humans across cultures have a long history of using music to promote and enhance group bonding. Can you imagine a sporting event without our national anthem or think of the Civil Rights movement without the song "We Shall Overcome"? And science is helping to explain how this works through our study or brain and behavior function. The evidence is emerging and will continue to grow.

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.


Chanda, M. L. & Levitin, D. J. (2013). The neurochemistry of music. Cell Press, 17(4), 179-193.

Frijda, N. H. (2007). The Laws of Emotion. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gaston, E. T. (1968). Music in Therapy. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Huron, D. (2003). Is music an evolutionary adaptation? In I. Peretz & R. Zatorre (Eds.) The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music (pp. 57-75). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Merriam, A. P. (1964). The Anthropology of Music. Chicago: Northwestern University Press.

Oatley, K. (1992). Best Laid Schemes: The Psychology of Emotions. Paris: Cambridge University Press.

Sears, W. W. (1968). "Processes in music therapy." In E. T. Gaston's (Ed.) Music in Therapy (pgs. 30-46). New York: The Macmillan Company.

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