All together now – three evolutionary perks of singing

This article originally appeared in The Conversation, on 24 December 2014. You can view the article in its original format here.

We’re enjoying the one time of year when protests of “I can’t sing!” are laid aside and we sing carols with others. For some this is a once-a-year special event; the rest of the year is left to the professionals to handle the singing (except, perhaps, some alone time in the shower or car).

Music – and singing in particular, as the oldest and only ubiquitous form of music creation – plays a central role in our lives and shared community experiences, and this has been true for every culture for as far back as we can trace our human ancestors.

So does singing in a group provide specific and tangible benefits, or is it merely a curious ability that provides entertainment through creative expression?

This is a question currently of great interest to evolutionary theorists, linguists, psychologists and musicologists. The debate took off when psychologist Steven Pinker stated his opinion that music is a spandrel – a useless evolutionary by-product of another, useful, trait. In this case, he suggested that music is a spandrel of language development, providing no advantage and serving no purpose.

There are strong links between music and language development, although there is no consensus on the actual nature of the relationship. Arguments include theories that:

  • language developed from music
  • music sprang from language
  • they both developed from a proto-language that was musical in nature
  • they developed concurrently.

A strong body of research conducted with choirs indicates that membership has many benefits to individual wellbeing and physical health. It is possible these effects are due to people – the singers – participating in something they enjoy doing. Or, there may be something more elemental taking place.

janwillemsen/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA
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If these findings are viewed through an evolutionary lens, though, there is compelling evidence that music making provided some very specific benefits for our ancestors. Specifically, there are three theories which have been proposed that, if true, may explain these effects while suggesting that group singing is still beneficial to all:

  1. singing creates a shared emotional experience
  2. singing increases social bonding
  3. singing improves cognitive function.

Sing us a song, you’re the hominid

Our hominid ancestors used music to create shared emotional experiences. This would have been particularly important for early hominids struggling to survive, because emotions serve as a kind of “red flag” to our cognitive processing systems, signalling that something critical requires attention.

Emotions prioritise the many options that we may have at any given time, and reduces “data overload” from the bombardment of senses that we experience. Hominids, like many other primates, could have developed very small social groups, or even no social groups.

But the ability for a large group to work cooperatively together was more advantageous than individuals attempting to survive alone. In order to cooperate, individuals needed to subsume their individual priorities for action, and learn to delay gratification so that the good of the group could take precedence (such as forgoing eating or sleeping in order to build a shelter). Group singing likely provided a rewarding, positive activity where emotional empathy could be developed.

Only Boys Aloud at a Britain’s Got Talent audition.

We know that interacting with music today is, for almost everyone, both an emotional and overwhelmingly positive experience. Music is also used to reinforce positive moods and manage negative moods. Adolescents regularly use music as an effective mood regulator.

Others put music to targeted purposes; many athletes use music to put them in a mood state that supports peak performance (and research shows it to be an effective strategy). Music’s ability to change or reinforce a mood relies on the same principle of emotion contagion.

Social significance

Second, music engagement would likely have led to increased pro-social behaviours. This would be supported by a shared emotional state, which relies on empathic skills (empathy) to spread.

But music is also at the centre of where we first learn to be sociable – in the mother-infant bond. Infants are mesmerised by their mothers’ infant-directed singing. It is a communication tool between mother and infant, and is highly companionable in nature.

Mary Helen Leonard/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA
Click to enlarge

Listening to a mother sing has an immediate and profound impact on an infant’s arousal and attention, including physical responses. These musical communications are highly effective despite the infant not understanding the linguistics involved. They are also universal; lullabies are recognisable as such in virtually every culture on Earth.

There are strong indications that group music making and social behaviours are still linked today. Individuals with Williams Syndrome, in addition to profound cognitive deficits, are known for both their love of music and their incredible sociability.

Music therapy has been shown to reliably improve social behaviours in individuals on the autism spectrum. Choir members consistently report that social bonds are one of the primary benefits of choir membership.

More experimental studies indicate that instrumental jazz musicians use the communication centres of their brains when coordinating play, and that guitarists and even audience members experience synchronised brain waves when a duet is played (see video below).

Studies also show that musical interactions increase both empathy and pro-social behaviours in children.

Taken together, the evidence points to a strong link between co-creation of music and improved social bonding.

Getting ahead

Finally, evolutionary theorists argue that it was their musicality that allowed hominids to develop what is known as the “social brain”, while others argue that the complex brain we enjoy today developed to keep track of large social networks. It may have been a bit of both.

By creating a shared emotional experience and increasing members’ pro-social behaviours, group singing supported complex social networks. Tracking and managing complex social networks may have led to the development of the neocortex. This brain region supports the suite of abilities known as executive function, which provide the skills necessary to make and implement long-term plans.

It also supports cognitive flexibility, which is a style of fluid cognition that allows humans to successfully pair concepts that don’t generally go together, resulting in creative, insightful, and elegant ideas and solutions.

We already know that a positive mood state supports cognitive flexibility, while stress and anxiety act as inhibitors. Co-creating music may support improved cognitive skills through other pathways as well, although these links have not been explored.

Of course all theories concerning the use of music by early hominid groups is conjecture, resting on the scant pieces of evidence the fossil record leaves us as well as what we know about our own musicality today. But the questions are important, because it can inform us about our own relationship to music.

If the theories outlined here are correct, it may benefit us both as individuals and as a community to normalise and promote music co-creation. Participating in singing ought to be more than a once-a-year activity.

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Carrots or sticks? How policies stack up to the evidence on motivating behaviour change

This comment was originally a guest blog for The Power to Persuade, published 3 September 2014.  You can see it in its original format here.

The current government’s reform agenda has been analysed from many angles.  In this article Susan Maury, Social Policy Researcher from Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, suggests using the lens of motivational psychology to design effective responses to complex social problems. Policies such as ‘work for the dole’ have not proven nearly as effective as holistic support such as Youth Connections, which had 94% of participants still engaged in employment or education six months after completing the program. There is a wealth of evidence about what motivates people to change their behaviour that does not seem to be part of the current policy debate.


A great deal of public policy is designed to motivate people to do something.  Since the release of the Federal Government’s Budget earlier this year, it is clear that what constitutes effective motivation is hotly contested, and ideologically aligned.  For example, the government says its proposed welfare reforms are needed to galvanize unemployed individuals to look for work.  Public debate has focussed on some hotly contested proposals, including the introduction of a 6-month waiting period before young people can access income support; the requirement for unemployed people to apply for 40 jobs monthly; and the proposed Work for the Dole scheme.

Assistant Employment Minister Luke Hartsuyker is quoted as saying, “The Coalition is committed to making sure that job seekers in receipt of income support meet their mutual obligation requirements to actively look for work.’’  On the other hand, ACOSS has criticised the budget’s reform measures as “one-sided and harsh;” CEO Cassandra Goldie’s comments include this statement: “Simply increasing job search requirements and increasing punishments without added investment will make it tougher for people looking for work.”

Who is correct?  What are the ideal policies to assist unemployed people in finding work?  While there has been much commentary on both sides, missing from the argument has been evidence from psychology.  Organisational psychology in particular has been doggedly persistent in examining what people find motivating, and a large body of evidence has built up over time.  It may be helpful to drop the ideological lens and look at the issue from this perspective.  I am providing an overview only, but the amount of research that has built up over time is quite consistent in its findings.

Proposed policy changes reflect a belief in the efficacy of what researchers call controlled motivation.  This is motivation that is imposed externally on an individual and mediated by external rewards and punishments, exerting pressure on them to think, feel or behave in a certain way; it is coercive in nature.  Controlled motivation used to be common practice in work environments (consider the norms during the industrial revolution), and has been found to result in rigid functioning, reduced wellbeing, and a lack of vitality (download a short review here).  While controlled motivation may lead to some behaviour change, the cost to psychosocial health is very high, and returns are often both low and short-term.

More effective is what is termed autonomous motivation; this is self-directed motivation in which the individual has internalised and values the desired outcome.  Autonomous motivation can be further parsed into intrinsic motivation, in which the individual engages in an activity because it is psychologically rewarding, and pro-social motivation, in which there is a sense that the behaviour is contributing to the good of others, while at the same time is reinforced and supported by a social network.  Autonomous motivation leads to increased psychological health, improved cognitive performance, and persistence – all inputs which create a ‘virtuous cycle’ of increased motivation.

Autonomous motivation is underpinned by three conditions:  Individuals have a sense of competency (that is, they feel capable of achieving the task); individuals have a sense of autonomy (they are able to self-direct their time and energy); individuals have a sense of community, or relatedness (they have a sense of contributing to a social network through their efforts, and being meaningfully supported by others).  All three conditions need to be present.  In fact, these three aspects are so closely aligned with motivation, goal attainment and psychological wellbeing that they are considered by some to be basic human needs.  (Read more here and here.)

What does this mean when formulating public policy?  If we are aware that controlled or coerced motivation is both less effective and highly damaging to individuals, it sounds like common sense to develop policy that will encourage autonomous motivation instead.   Policy should therefore include methods for increasing a sense of competency – through training and practical supports, for example (TAFE programs can play a vital role here).  Individuals should be given autonomy to map a reasonable plan based on their individual needs and requirements.  And finally, individuals should be provided with a nurturing and supportive network; this may include work places that are welcoming (for example, to single mothers, individuals with disability, or those who experience mental illness), an accountability support group to talk through difficulties and challenges, or a mentor who can assist with job-search skills.  It would be an interesting – and I would argue useful – exercise to examine a range of policies using this lens.

It is often the case in public policy debates that individuals are classified as a problem.  This can lead to dehumanising policies that create alienation and – as we have seen – lack of motivation. Policies that are built on the premise that human beings are psychologically and socially complex carry with them a level of respect and empowerment.  There is no simple answer to these issues, but a little understanding can help us get closer to effective responses.