Holding hands and singing “Kumbaya” might sound like a hackneyed way of making friends, but if you’re doing it to get more comfortable with members of a new group, it might just work. A new study reveals that people taking part in a weekly singing class became closer to each other faster than adults taking other courses in art and creative writing. The findings could shed light on the role group singing played in ancient human societies, and they suggest ways to encourage group bonding today.
The study “is an exciting addition to the research” on social bonding, says music researcher David Huron of Ohio State University, Columbus, who was not involved in the new work.
Previous studies have shown that music can lower aggression, improve mood, and make people more cooperative, whether they’re creating it or just listening. In the course of this past work, researchers had also observed that people tend to make friends through music, says evolutionary neuroscientist Eiluned Pearce of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. But because the studies weren’t designed to look at social bonding, researchers couldn’t come to any conclusions.
So Pearce and her colleagues teamed up with the Workers’ Educational Association to follow more than 100 participants in weekly, 2-hour singing, art, and creative writing classes at community centers in the United Kingdom. After 1, 3, and 7 months, the team asked them to rate how close they felt to their classmates on a scale of one to seven both before a single class session and after. Singers 1 month in reported being nearly two points closer to their classmates after 2 hours of class, whereas those in art or writing classes were only about half a point closer than they had been at the beginning of class. By the time the 7-month course was done, however, participants in all classes had a smaller, and more similar, difference in closeness before and after class sessions, the researchers report online today in Royal Society Open Science. “Singing seems to break the ice so you have this big upfront kick start to the process of social bonding,” Pearce says.
Normally, Pearce says, group bonding in humans requires one-on-one interactions. But singing, she hypothesizes, bonds the group as a whole without requiring those individual interactions. Group music involves a shared group goal and synchronous activity, she says. It has also previously been shown to trigger the release of chemicals in the brain that might facilitate bonding.
“If you think about our evolutionary ancestors, you could imagine some kind of singing ritual to bond groups together very quickly so they could then take part in some sort of collective activity like hunting,” Pearce says.
But other activities could be just as good for social bonding as singing, Huron speculates. “I’m not sure that creative writing and crafts were the most challenging controls,” he says, pointing out that classes in acting or sports—which also require group efforts rather than individual projects—might have led to results similar to singing. But the overall idea of singing as an ice-breaker is still valid, he says. “Singing might prove more effective than speaking as a means for building social alliances,” Huron says. “In conversation, four people is roughly the upper limit … However, singing can allow bonding of a much bigger group.” Dancing may have similar effects, he says, and—like singing—is thought to have been an important part of early human societies.
The finding could also help researchers design programs to combat loneliness and encourage community bonding, Pearce adds. “This might suggest that what we should be doing at the beginning of the school year or before a business meeting is getting groups to sing together to grease the way for better social relationships,” she says. “Of course, we’d have to collect more data to see if that actually works.”