Why Madonna was right: Music really does make the people come together

In August 2000, global superstar Madonna released the single “Music” from her soon to be hit album. Other than the brilliant lyrics “Do you like to Boogie woogie”, you might remember that one of the lines in the chorus was “Music makes the people come together.”  In this post, I will discuss the social psychological research, which suggests that she was more right then even she must have thought. 

Music is pretty pervasive in our everyday lives and even if we are not as obsessed with any one band or performer, like Beliebers (Justin Bieber fans), Katy’s cats (Katy Perry fans) or little monsters (Lady Gaga fans) are, we are listening to music while having dinner, partying, exercising, cooking, driving our cars, getting married, etc. etc. Why do we enjoy listening to, or better yet, making music so much?

People engage in music, dance, and collective rituals around the world (Merriam, 1964). One of the reasons for why music is such a big part of our lives is probably because of its effects on social bonding. Research in the social psychological sciences has found that music makes us connect and feel closer to others (Hove & Risen, 2009; Kirschner & Tomasello, 2010). The question of why exactly music makes people feel closer to each other has only recently been studied. Despite this lack of scientific understanding, intuitively it seems reasonable that music plays an important role for organizations that depend on people working together and cooperating, if we are only to look at the pervasive roles of music in institutions such as churches, armies and primitive societies in the form of singing hymns, marching in synchrony, or performing ritualized dances. In these cases, music is intuitively (or intentionally?) used as a tool to create cooperation and group belonging. As scientists, we however seek to understand why marching to a drum in a platoon has the same effect as singing a hymn or even playing violin in a string quartet. 

For a start, what the activities of the Mormon Tabernacle choir, the Chinese army and the Jola people of Southern Senegal have in common is that they make people act in a striking degree of synchrony with each other. Even if we are not quite literally as ‘in step’ with others as in these cases, all kinds of music makes us move our head or even full body at the same frequency as those around us, regardless of whether we’re listing or dancing to rock, pop or classical music. This, as well as singing along quite literally puts us ‘in sync’ with each other. Wiltermuth and Heath (2009) found that even in the absence of music itself, participants who merely walked ‘in step’ with others felt more connected to those others, trusted them more and were even more cooperative in economic games that required trust and cooperation between individual players. The behavioral synchrony that is produced by listening to and engaging in music has been found to be one of the key mechanisms that explain the pro-social effects of music.

Many studies that have studied the social bonding effect of synchronization have however been conducted on synchrony that occurs rather spontaneously when two people are together, for example while walking side-by-side (Van Ulzen, Lamoth, Daffertshofer, Semin & Beek, 2008). In the case of performing music or dancing to it, synchrony is however not just a byproduct. Instead, we intentionally modify the timing of our movement so that it is in line with that of others. Especially in bands, choirs or orchestras, individual players share the common goal of creating a collaborative performance. In psychological terms, having such a collective goal is termed shared intentionality. Reddish, Fischer and Bulbulia (2013) recently uncovered that this is a crucial element that needs to be present in order for music to be able to bring people together. In addition to merely moving in unison, the people who engage in music need to also share the intention that by doing so, they achieve a collective goal, as in the case of playing in a band or string quartet. It is only when synchronous movement is combined with such a higher order goal, that music has its most powerful pro-social effects.  

Basically, Madonna was right. Music in fact brings the people together through synchronization and shared intentionality. However, Madonna didn’t just create a hit record by singing about the pro-social effects of music as such. She even took it one step further. After the line “music makes the people come together”, the song actually goes on to say “Music mix the rebel and the bourgeoisie.” I’ll explore whether or not the social bonding effect of music is strong enough to bring people together who live very different lives, despite listening to the same music, in the next post.  


Hove, M. J. & Risen, J. L. (2009). It's all in the timing: Interpersonal synchrony increases affiliation. Social Cognition, 27 (6), 949-960.

Kirschner, S., & Tomasello, M. (2010). Joint music making promotes prosocial behavior in 4-year-old children. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(5), 354–364. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.04.004

Merriam, A. (1964). The anthropology of music. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Reddish, P., Fischer, R., & Bulbulia, J. (2013). Let’s dance together: synchrony, shared intentionality and cooperation. PloS One, 8(8), e71182. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071182

Van Ulzen, N. R., Lamoth, C. J. C., Daffertshofer, A., Semin, G. R. , & Beek, P. J.  (2008) Characteristics of instructed and uninstructed interpersonal coordination while walking side-by-side. Neuroscience Letters, 432, 88–93. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2007.11.070.

Wiltermuth, S. S., & Heath, C. (2009). Synchrony and cooperation. Psychological Science, 20(1), 1–5. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02253.x