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Why Do We Sing Along?

child-1065633_960_720WHY DO WE SING ALONG?  Study suggests that “Music Evolved as a Tool of Social Living.”

At first glance, music doesn’t make a ton of biological sense.  Many of us enjoy music—but why?  Humans can use music to obtain food—musicians often make music for a living—but the reason that we perceive music as “worth paying for” is still unknown.

The fact that we don’t know why we love music is even more perplexing when you consider that every single known culture includes some form of music.  But a recent article by Chris Loersch and Nathan Arbuckle offers an explanation.

Their hypothesis: Music is a unique form of social cognition that brings us together and that serves as a tool for social living.

The paper gives overviews of seven studies that test Loesch and Arbuckle’s hypothesis.  I found it utterly compelling to read through these studies; Loesch and Arbuckle act as detectives, giving us one clue after another to the mystery of our musical minds.

Are those who are more sensitive to music more likely to be socially motivated?  To test this hypothesis, the scientists measured two things.  First, they measured musical reactivity—that is, how much are you affected by music?  Second, they tested social motivation—that is, how motivated are you to act in ways that support your social group?  The scientists found that those who were more affected by music were more likely to act in ways that supported their social group.  The authors said that “From our perspective, the reason this relationship emerged is because both measures assess core social processes that developed to facilitate group living.  This supports our general theory […] that music is a group process.” 

Next, the authors wondered:  did we get those results just because people who are reactive to music are highly emotional?  So they measured emotional reactivity, musical reactivity, and social motivation—and they found that musical reactivity predicts social motivation independently of general emotional reactivity. 

Loesch and Arbuckle then describe three more studies that explore these findings in greater depth, and conclude that “In all three studies, the extent to which participants felt that they were affected by music allowed us to predict their level of general belongingness motivation, one of the core human motives that helps bring us together into social groups.”  They finish by discussing two studies that found a causal link between musical reactivity and social motivation: when participants felt that their sense of belonging to a group was threatened, they became more musically reactive.  It’s as if our ability to sense and respond to music is enhanced when we feel a desire or need to connect with others.

Why Music Education Might Help Your Child Perform at School and at Work.  The work of Loesch and Arbuckle does not measure the impact of efforts to teach musical reactivity.  However, they do offer some thoughts about how musical reactivity might affect success.  “If music evolved as a tool to communicate appropriate group affect,” they write, “then it may be the case that music increases the efficacy of group performance on tasks that require cooperation or that groups of people chronically high in musical reactivity can outperform those chronically low in musical reactivity on collective tasks.”  This hypothesis suggests that what you do now to help your child appreciate music might serve her well when she needs to make friends, work on a group project, manage a team, or lead her organization.

You can help your child develop an appreciation for music starting at a young age.  Listen to music together.  Sing along, dance, hum, or whistle.  Encourage him to clap along.  As he or she gets older, talk with your child about what you’re hearing and why you enjoy it.  These fun and playful moments will pay dividends later in life.