Sing and Dance With Me! Synchronous activities create social bonds

Petra McDougall
11 February 2016

Above: Image © RapidEye,

The members of the gospel choir sing and move in perfect time with one another. Together with the spirited vocals, this immaculate display of synchrony soon has you swaying in time to the music. You start to experience emotional chills: you get goose bumps and your arm and neck hairs stand on end.

Countless people have reported feeling this way in response to stirring music like the gospel-inspired opening song for The Lion King, especially when it is performed live.

Social species

Why does gospel music have such a powerful effect? It turns out that your response might be related to your deep-seated need to connect with others. Humans are social beings. For example, you may have heard that “it takes a village to raise a child”. By working together, friends and family can help parents tremendously by providing childcare, financial assistance, and even emotional support.

Scientists who study other social species, like gorillas and other primates, have found that the more an individual is integrated into its social group, the more successful it is at raising young. Any genes that make parents more social can be passed on to their young, creating children that are also more social.

But what specific behaviours help make people more social? And what does synchronized music have to do social bonding?

Did you know? When two people are attracted to each other, their behaviour becomes more synchronous. For example, they might lift their drinks and take a sip at the same time.

Love, addiction, and euphoria

When you spend time with someone you are bonded to——a friend, a family member, a boyfriend, or a girlfriend——your body produces chemicals that make you feel good. Scientists believe that two of the main chemicals involved in social bonding are oxytocin and opioids. Oxytocin, often called the love hormone, produces feelings of attachment. Opioids relieve pain and provide feelings of euphoria. When used in medication, they can also be very addictive.

In other words, social bonds generate chemicals in your body that cause you to feel love, addiction, and euphoria. No wonder people invest so much time in cultivating personal relationships!

But you don’t experience these feelings with everyone you meet. So let’s look at what determines who bonds with whom.

Bonding through synchronous behavior

Researchers have found a close link between synchronous behaviour and social bonding. Synchronous behaviour connects you with others, makes you feel good, and contributes to the creation of social bonds.

For example, a study of university rowing teams found that synchronized training produced a higher pain tolerance than non-synchronized training. This suggests that synchrony helps trigger the release of opioids. Furthermore, people who take part in synchronous activity together are more likely to have positive interactions as a result. In one study, strangers who tapped their fingers synchronously rated each other as more likable than those who tapped out of sync.

Did you know? Synchronous behaviour is so common that you may not even notice it. In fact, you are more likely to notice behaviour that is not in sync.

Synchronous music fosters togetherness and cooperation

Making music together is another type of synchronous activity that is central to many human cultures. Music is often associated with rituals, courtship, and group identity. You hear it at weddings, sporting events, get-togethers with friends, and various other social situations. And many of these situations also involve dancing or other rhythmic activities.

In particular, researchers have found that music-making and related activities help members of a group to bond and think of themselves as a single unit. As a result, group members are more cooperative and better able to coordinate their activities in general.

Cooperation and coordination are essential for members of a group to accomplish shared goals. For this reason, music and dance have often been part of pre-hunting rituals and military culture. Synchronized movement and group coordination shows outsiders that group members are good at working together. And when groups of soldiers march in step, they strengthen their social bonds and blur the distinction between individuals and the group they belong to. As a result, the group acts more like a single person.

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Other species also rely on synchronous activities to encourage cohesion and cooperation. For example, dolphins express alliances by surfacing and breathing synchronously. Some birds, including grebes, perform synchronized dances that strengthen bonds between the members of a couple.

Whether they involve humans or animals, displays of synchrony can be deeply moving. Participating in synchronous activity with others has an even more powerful effect. It influences your body’s chemistry, as well as your behaviour. Dancing, music-making, and other synchronous activities are not only fun and entertaining, they are an essential part of your humanity.

Learn More!

Scientific publications on synchronous behaviour:

Synchronization can influence trust following virtual interaction (2013)
J. Launay, R. T. Dean & F. Bailes, Experimental Psychology 60
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

Synchrony and the social tuning of compassion (2011)
P. Valdesolo & D. Desteno, Emotion 11
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

Rowers' high: behavioural synchrony is correlated with elevated pain thresholds (2010)
E. E. Cohen, R. Ejsmond-Frey, N. Knight & R. I. Dunbar, Biology Letters 6

It’s all in the timing: interpersonal synchrony increases affiliation (2009)
M. J. Hove & J. L. Risen, Social Cognition 27

Synchrony and cooperation (2009)
S. S. Wiltermuth & C. Heath, Psychological science 20
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

Synchrony, social behaviour and alliance affiliation in Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops aduncus (2006)
R. C. Connor, R. Smolker & L. Bejder, Animal Behaviour 72
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

Disorganized rhythm and synchrony: Early signs of autism and Rett syndrom (2005)
C. Trevarthen & S. Daniel, Brain and Development 27
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

Scientific publications on related aspects of social behaviour:

Cross-cultural perspectives on music and musicality (2015)
S. E. Trehub, J. Becker & I. Morley, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 370

Music and social bonding:“self-other” merging and neurohormonal mechanisms (2014)
B. Tarr, J. Launay & R. I. Dunbar, Frontiers in psychology 5

How do rituals affect cooperation? (2013)
R. Fischer, R. Callander, P. Reddish & J. Bulbulia, Human Nature 24
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

The brain opioid theory of social attachment: a review of the evidence (2011)
A. J. Machin & R. I. Dunbar, Behaviour 148

Social bonds between unrelated females increase reproductive success in feral horses (2009)
E. Z. Cameron, T. H. Setsaas & W. L. Linklater, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

Music and dance as a coalition signaling system (2003)
E. H. Hagen & G. A. Bryant, Human nature 14
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

Social bonds of female baboons enhance infant survival (2003)
J. B. Silk, S. C. Alberts & J. Altmann, Science 302
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

The emotional sources of "chills" induced by music (1995)
J. Panksepp, Music perception 13
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

The pair-formation displays of the western grebe (1982)
G. L. Nuechterlein & R. W. Storer, Condor 84

CurioCity articles on oxytocin:

Puppy love: People, dogs and oxytocin (2015)
Kelly Resmer, CurioCity by Let’s Talk Science

Oxytocin: A messenger of love (2013)
Meredith Hanel, CurioCity by Let’s Talk Science

Petra McDougall

I became interested in science and nature as a young child exploring BC's coastline.  My summers were spent playing in the woods and on the beach; collecting snails, crabs, and interesting rocks.  

My fascination with the natural world led me to volunteer on a baboon project in South Africa for 8 months during my BSc.  I later returned to Africa to work with vervet monkeys for a Master's degree, and am now working with bighorn sheep in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta for my PhD.  
I spend my weekends immersed in nature with my 3 young children - identifying bugs, building campfires, riding horses, and exploring the amazing world around us!

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Avatar  LynSu

Fabulous. loved reading that Pet. You are so amazing. Thank you so much CurioCity for posting. xox