Is music a form of phatic communication?

Human communication is complex.  It is commonly understood that non-verbal communication is just as important if not more so than spoken language.  But communication can also be parsed into its function.

Malinowski (1923:315) proposed that there are two types of human communication. The first is transactional, and is intended to give specific information.  The second is phatic, which is used to create and reinforce social bonds.  Malinowski says that this type of talk is more common, which can be “talk about nothing” but which is nonetheless important and rewarding in and of itself.

It could be that a much wider range of communication processes fit into this dichotomy.  For example, Ian Cross borrows this idea and applies it to music.  Could it be that music has persisted throughout time and across every known culture because it provides a very specific benefit related to social bonding?

We know that the emotional messaging of music seems to be its primary function.  For example, when the lyrics of a song are sad but the melody is happy, most listeners report positive emotions associated with listening.  One of the primary reasons given for listening to music is to regulate emotions – that is, to reinforce a mood or to attempt to shift it. Research indicates music engagement is a successful method to do so.

This emotional messaging of music is, for most people, a very powerful experience, which can result in physical responses such as chills, dilated pupils or increased heart rate.  Emotions are contagious, transferring from individuals and groups- but also through music (e.g., from performer to listener).  People who have amusia – that is, an inability to decode musical phrases – also demonstrate deficits in decoding emotional content communicated in spoken language through tone of voice used.

It is because music so effectively communicates emotional content that identifying it as a form of phatic communication may be a helpful construct.  Shared emotional experiences enhances social bonding;  and the converse is also true – social bonding enhances shared emotions, even amongst strangers.  Shared music experiences facilitate a shared emotional experience, which in turn reinforces social bonds.


2 thoughts on “Is music a form of phatic communication?

  1. Hi, I am a Th.D. from Harvard, with a Calvin Institute of Worship grant, developing “tool kits” of songs with small, faith-based groups, that build on their collective religious experience and traditions. Interested in possible research aspects of this project as it gets going. One thing I would suggest — move past regarding “emotion” as simply a non-cognitive “feeling.” Look at Israel Scheffler, “In Praise of the Cognitive Emotions.” (1977).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Joanne, for your insights. I will follow up on the Scheffler paper you mention. I am quite interested in emotions as a cognitive processing tool, critical in decision-making processes – an angle I explore more in my literature review. Let’s keep in touch!


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