What happens in the brain when people make music together?
For thousands of years – whether it involved banging on homemade drums, strumming a string stretched over an object or blowing through a tube with holes, music has been a tool that has accompanied our evolutionary journey and provided comfort and a connection with others. In fact, music “hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” according to a 17th-century poem, The Mourning Bride, by William Congreve.
New research just published in the journal American Psychologist under the title “ The Social Neuroscience of Music: Understanding the Social Brain Through Human Song” – by Israeli and American social researchers – provides a neuroscientific understanding of the social connection with a new map of the brain when playing music.
A team of social neuroscientists from Bar-Ilan University (BIU) in Ramat Gan (near Tel Aviv) and the University of Chicago introduced a model of the brain that sheds light on the social functions and brain mechanisms that underlie the musical adaptations used for human connection. They said the model is unique because it focuses on what happens in the brain when people make music together, rather than when they listen to music individually.
The research was inspired by creative efforts of people around the world to reproduce music-making together while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. This included people singing songs together from balcony to balcony, group singing on video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and live living room concerts by the likes of Yo Yo Ma, Chris Martin from Coldplay and Norah Jones.
The team combined the latest advances in social neuroscience and the field of music, including evolutionary theory. They synthesized these advances and highlighted five key functions and mechanisms of the brain that contribute to social connection through music.
These are empathy circuits; the secretion of oxytocin, a hormone produced by the brain’s hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland; reward and motivation, including dopamine release; language structures; and cortisol, a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. These five functions and mechanisms involve at least 12 important brain regions and two pathways which are mapped here.
Empathy helps us to tune into how other people are thinking and feeling, and can be improved through interpersonal musical coordination.
Oxytocin is sometimes called the “love hormone” because it contributes to our sense of feeling socially bonded with others. It is secreted when people sing together, even when the singing is improvised. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that produces a sense of pleasure and is released during musical anticipation and expectation, and pivotal for our sense of reward and motivation.
Language structures in the brain are involved in back-and-forth musical dialogue (sometimes referred to as “call” and “response”). Cortisol is a hormone that contributes to stress, but it is decreased in the brain when people sing together and when they listen to music together in groups.
The research provides the groundwork for an emerging field called the “social neuroscience of music,” which builds on the previously established cognitive neuroscience of music that largely focuses on music listening.
The authors say a better understanding of the social neuroscience of music can play an important role for helping to improve social bonding around the world, particularly in cultures that are in conflict. They conclude that music is a powerful tool that can bring individuals together, promote empathy and communication, and heal social divisions. A better scientific understanding of how music provides brain-to-brain social connections helps highlight that music isn’t mere entertainment, but instead is a core feature of human existence with important social implications, they wrote.
BIU’s Dr. David Greenberg, who led the research, is a social neuroscientist, professional musician and a postdoctoral scholar there. “Music connects us to our humanity. Through social neuroscience, we can discover that our sense of social connection isn’t just subjective, but that it is rooted in important brain mechanisms,” Greenberg said.
“Especially in a time when there is so much social division around the world, we need to find new ways to bridge cultures in conflict. Music is one of those ways. We hope our research will lead to more grassroots programs like the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which bring people from different cultures together through music.”
Dr. Ilanit Gordon, an associate professor at the department of psychology and director of the social neuroscience lab at BIU’s Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, added: “Human sociality is rooted in our biological makeup. Through music we can connect and interact with others, and via the scientific exploration of the neurobiological basis of music, we can further our understanding of major issues in social neuroscience.”
Psychology and Psychiatry Prof. Jean Decety of the University of Chicago, commented that “music is a fundamental part of our evolution, allowing for unique expressions of social ties. It can strengthen cohesion and mutual trust between people by signaling shared values. It is quite fascinating to understand the neurobiological mechanisms of music.”
“We conclude that the COVID-19 pandemic could be a starting point for an improved understanding of the relationship between music and the social brain, and we outline goals for future research in the social neuroscience of music. In a time when people across the globe have been unable to meet in person, they have found a way to meet in the music,” the team wrote in the article.
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