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Humans have danced and sung together in groups throughout history, and one of the main theories about why we do this is the social connections they can encourage with others. In two studies published today, researchers from the Social & Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group explore how these musical behaviours create social ties.

Dance can be both exertive and synchronised, so a team led by Bronwyn Tarr conducted an experiment in Brazil to test the relative effects of these aspects on bonding and endorphin release (chemicals that underpin social relationships in other primates).  They report today in Biology Letters that moving energetically or moving in synchronisation can both make you feel closer to others, and lead to higher pain thresholds (an indirect way of measuring endorphins). However, dance which combined high energy and synchrony had the greatest effects. This might explain why people get such a kick out of highly synchronised and exertive dancing, like in flashmobs.

The second study, led by Eiluned Pearce and conducted in collaboration with the Workers’ Educational Association (a leading adult education charity), looked at whether there is something special about the way that singing bonds people, or whether any regular social interaction can have the same effect. The study followed singing and non-singing (creative writing or crafts) classes over 7 months. Singers felt closer to each other more quickly than the writers and crafters, although the latter groups caught up over time and by the end of 7 months all the participants felt similarly close to their classmates. These findings suggest that singing can break the ice with strangers to create social ties between many individuals simultaneously.

Social cohesion has been imperative for survival throughout our evolutionary history and continues to be vital for our health and well-being today. Together, these studies suggest that dance and singing are behaviours that can play an important role in social bonding.