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Music and Harmony and Marbles

Music and Harmony and Marbles

Published on June 2, 2017

Music and Harmony and Marbles

Making and listening to music together is commonly seen as linked to higher levels of trust, affiliation, coordination, and cooperation.

I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…

There’s a reason that music is used as a symbol of unity. Music brings us together, both literally and metaphorically. I think back to my first year of undergrad, and one of the first ways that people formed social groups was by musical preferences—the kids into Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, and dance music, the ones into Barenaked Ladies and the Dave Matthews Band, some who liked Busta Rhymes and the Fugees, and that group of kids who were into the eclectic genre of their day! They came together because of music; it became a shared activity and a common ground for developing friendships.

For a long time we’ve had good anecdotal evidence about the pro-social effects of music. Making and listening to music together is commonly seen as linked to higher levels of trust, affiliation, coordination, and cooperation. Scientific studies back up these anecdotes, too. Studies have shown that singing in a choir together can lead to increases in trust and cooperation. Synchronized movements, too, can lead to higher ratings of likeability. Music creates empathy.

There’s now increasing evidence that these same effects happen in children, too. One of my favourite experiments (Kirschner & Tomasello, 2010) looked at this effect in four-year-old children. It’s got twists and turns, and it’s kind of funny, so I’m going to describe it as if it’s a movie trailer (you know the voice!)

In a world where scientists evaluate children’s behaviour…

Unsuspecting four-year-old children were split into two groups.

One group played a musical game together, the other played the same game, but without music [Record scratch effect]

Afterwards, they were given some marbles to carry across the room, so they could play a game by themselves.

But it was a set-up!

Some of the tubes were designed to fail, spilling marbles all over. [Slow motion video of marbles spilling]

Would the kids help each other?

Or would they keep doing their own work, and ignore their erstwhile friends?

Only time… and science… will tell!

OK, I’m done with the gimmick now. But the findings were pretty stark. The children who made music together were much more likely to help each other out, even when it delayed their own fun. They were also more likely to cooperate with each other in other tasks.[1] It seems that music can lead to pro-social behaviour from a very young age.

Recently, some scientists at McMaster have been following up on this, to look for evidence of this type of effect of music at an even younger age. Laura Cirelli, along with Kate Einarson, both recent Ph.D.s from Laurel Trainor’s lab in McMaster, showed that 14-month-old toddlers were more likely to help an adult pick up a dropped pencil when they had been bouncing in synchrony. Moving to music together helps infants decide who to trust and who to help.

From birth onwards, our social lives are imbued with and defined by music, and studies like these help us to understand how musical harmony might just lead to world harmony.


Anshel, A., & Kipper, D. A. (1988). The influence of group singing on trust and cooperation. Journal of Music Therapy, 25(3), 145-155.

Cirelli, L. K., Einarson, K. M., & Trainor, L. J. (2014). Interpersonal synchrony increases prosocial behavior in infants. Developmental Science, 17(6), 1003-1011.

Hove, M. J., & Risen, J. L. (2009). It's all in the timing: Interpersonal synchrony increases affiliation. Social Cognition, 27(6), 949.

Kirschner, S. & Tomasello, M. (2010). Joint music making promotes prosocial behavior in 4-year-old children. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(5), 354-364.

[1] They also found that females were a lot more likely to help out than males. When I’ve taught about this study, this result has surprised exactly nobody. But music did have an effect on both genders.

Sean HutchinsDr. Sean Hutchins is a neuroscientist and the Director of Research at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He received his Ph.D. from McGill University, studying music and the mind. His current work examines the role of musical training and experience on cognitive and linguistic abilities.