There is no doubt that music plays a role in our wellbeing. But researchers now suggest that music also plays a significant role in strengthening social bonds. In a 2013 review of the research on music, music psychologist Stefan Koelsch described several ways music impacts our ability to connect with one another—by affecting systems involved in empathy, trust, and cooperation.
Although music can certainly be played and listened to alone, when used within a music therapy context it can also help improve feelings of social bonding.
A landmark survey from the 1980s showed that lack of social connectedness predicts vulnerability to disease and death, above more well-known risk factors such as smoking, blood pressure, and physical activity. Yet, several years later, it seems that opportunities for societal social bonding are shrinking not growing.
Here are some ways music and music therapy can strengthen social bonds and hopefully get us back on track:
1. Music increases contact, coordination, and cooperation with others
According to researchers, when we try to synch with others musically we tend to feel more connected and uplifted towards those people. Coordinating movement, such as beating a drum, shaking percussion instruments, or even just tapping our toes with another person releases endorphins in the brain that trigger warm and positive feelings. Music therapy sessions require no training or prerequisites. Activities are structured to allow all participants to experience these critical moments of connection.
2. Music gives us an oxytocin boost
Researchers have also found that listening to music releases oxytocin – but not just any music. It seems it is your preferred music that soothes you the most. In one study, patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery were asked to listen to researcher-selected ‘soothing’ music for 30 minutes one day after surgery. When tested later, those who’d listened to music had higher levels of oxytocin compared to those who were assigned to bed-rest alone. Music therapists are constantly assessing and responding to their clients’ most subtle of indicators, taking time to find the best music to fit the client’s criteria and needs. If a client has difficulty choosing, or is non-verbal, the therapist uses a variety of strategies to guide them towards the right music for their desired outcome.
3. Music strengthens our “theory of mind” and empathy
Time and time again music has been shown to activate many areas of the brain, including the areas that help us understand what others are thinking and feeling, and to predict how they might behave. This is a social skill scientists call “theory of mind,” linked to empathy. This is a proficiency music therapists have strengthened through their education and practice. For the client, increased empathy towards others is another by-product of individual or group sessions where creating music together — weaving lyrics, tone, tempo and dynamics — forms opportunities for natural relationships.
4. Music increases cultural cohesion
Group music making can certainly enhance feelings of connection and social creativity, both of which are important for ensuring workplace resilience and cultural sensitively. However, music can be a “double-edged sword” due to its emotional power that can trigger a less desirable outcome – strengthening prejudice, highlighting contradictory world views, and squashing creativity. The music therapist is sensitive to each of these possible negative outcomes and uses techniques to foster the ultimate goal – group cohesion regardless of age, ability, affluence or cultural background, leading to feelings of increased connection.
Spending time with a music therapist can provide many of the things we crave as humans – challenges, validation, recognition, and an opportunity to express freely. We all know that it feels good to feel connected to other people – I hope that is how you feel when you read through our blog posts. Although music therapy isn’t the only answer it is definitely one pathway to feeling more connected to self and others.