Music as Contagion

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The cohesive capacity of song is well exploited by groups of all sorts. In settings religious and secular, familiar melodies are used to consolidate feelings and energies and fuse communal consciousness. This transition from individuals to community owes in part to lyrical content. The words that are sung tend to emphasize the ethos of the collective or some aspect of its convictions or heritage. This is demonstrated whenever a national anthem is performed publically or a generation-defining song is sung at a frat house. But an argument can be made that music, more than message, is what truly brings the group into an experience of itself.

To illustrate this point, it will suffice to describe a typical congregational gathering. As the service time approaches, people—young, old, and in between—file into the sanctuary at irregular intervals and scatter into pews or chairs. Some arrive in families or in small groups; others come alone or with a companion. Most take to chatting; a few sit in quiet contemplation. They have entered a shared space, yet they are, for the moment, a loose assortment of people filling a room. A clergyperson offers perfunctory remarks to quiet the crowd. Some congregants straighten up in their seats. Others reach into their pockets to turn off their cellular phones. The atmosphere slowly begins to change. But it is not until the first syllable is sung that the group really takes shape. Congregants seamlessly join their voices and perk their ears as the song continues. Their attention turns effortlessly to one another. The tones bring them out of their own thoughts and into a mutual moment. They are no longer “I” but “we.”

Some version of this scenario is repeated in other singing communities. Yet, as with all commonplace phenomena, it is easier to acknowledge than to account for. Among the potential explanations is emotional contagion, a concept pulled from the psychological literature.

Broadly defined, emotional contagion is the automatic tendency to mimic and synchronize vocalizations, gestures, postures, facial expressions and movements of another person or persons, thereby generating emotional convergence. In the words of Gerald Schoenewolf, it is “a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behavioral attitudes.”

Unconscious mood transfer is innate to the human species. It can be relatively mild, as with the child who feels happy when she sees someone else smiling. It can also have serious consequences, as when fear and loathing infect a crowd to the point of mob violence. Whether the scale is small or large and whether the outcome is positive or negative, emotional contagion illustrates our susceptibility to the feelings of others.

This process is indicative of communal singing. To a certain extent, lyrics and physical space can stimulate infectious emotions. Language and architecture are known to impact mood and influence demeanor. However, because singing involves a series of movements that can be imitated, the music (apart from text and location) is the primary source of contagion. Most participants intuitively unite in pitch, rhythm, volume, tone quality, swaying, toe tapping, mannerisms and a host of unconsciously coordinated actions.

These infectious elements, combined with music’s inborn emotional qualities, promote solidarity of a visceral and lasting kind. Put succinctly, people merge together when they sing together.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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