You don’t need to move: Trust me, I’m in time.

Can the relationship between the musical beat and somebody’s movement affect how much you trust them? And what does that say about the relationship between musical characteristics and social relationships?

A new paper has been published which explores such questions. It is by Neta Spiro (our Head of Research) and her collaborators Dr Sarah Knight and Prof. Ian Cross. We asked the authors about the paper and why they think it is relevant to music therapy.

Much music therapy research explores the effects of participation in music. This participation can go from physical activity (dancing, playing, singing) to listening and observing and is often a mix of these. We are interested in how musical activities contribute (or don’t) to our perception of, and engagement with, other people. We began with two observations and one question.

Active music making contributes to social bonding…

People who have participated in some sort of music-related activity together seem to help each other more, cooperate better and even like each other more than those who haven’t. Indeed, several research studies have tested the idea that music has a role to play in examples like these – in prosocial feelings and behaviours.

Several explanations of how this happens have been suggested. One theory (which may accompany others) is to do with timing: when we make music together we synchronise our behaviour and adapt to each other – we “entrain”.

 …Through entrainment  

This process of entrainment may make it more likely that we experience our own and other peoples’ actions and intentions as shared – that is, as reflecting common goals and motivations. In turn, these feelings of “shared intentionality” may foster interpersonal affiliation and prosocial behaviours, including trust.

Do entrainment’s effects on prosociality persist when we are passive observers?

Frequently we experience music as “passive” listeners and/or observers – either throughout a performance (as in the Western concert hall) or temporarily. In these cases, entrainment – which is an automatic neural response – will persist, but is unlikely to involve overt entrained behaviour, or only very limited and non-interactive covert actions (such as toe-tapping).

So, the question in this study was: Does entrainment influence affiliation and prosocial behaviour for listeners/observers?


Although there is no physical action, entrainment in this passive scenario could work towards a more abstract sense of “shared intentionality”. That is, when the observer’s neural entrainment is combined with the sight of a person entrained to the same stimulus, a sense of shared goals and mutual “sameness” could emerge. These effects could in turn promote prosocial behaviour, social bonding and interpersonal affiliation. In short, it may be that internal indicators of synchrony with someone else are enough to induce a perception of shared action and intention, and that this perception – although not reciprocal – is enough to generate prosocial outcomes.

Maybe Not

The passive listener/observer is not engaged in overt physical action and/or interaction. Even if they are performing some hidden form of entrained behaviour such as toe-tapping, the person they are entraining to is unaware of the listener’s action. They cannot negotiate or interact (an orchestra is unlikely to slow down because a listener’s toe taps slow down!). In this case, how would entrainment provide the sense of something “shared” – the crucial feeling of “togetherness” which seems to underlie its affiliative powers?

It is possible that, for a true sense of “togetherness” to emerge, actions and motivations need to be perceived not just as shared but as mutual and reciprocal.

How did we test this? Trust!

Interpersonal trust is important for group cohesion and is linked to prosocial behaviour. Music’s ability to elicit trust is proposed by some researchers as one of the main processes underlying its positive social effects. Therefore, we used trust as our way of assessing prosociality.

Do you trust this person…

44 participants watched videos of a person walking.

 Each video had one of the following soundtracks:

In each video, the person was holding a different prop, and participants chose a description that they thought best explained what the person was doing. In each case, they chose between a “trustworthy” and an “untrustworthy” activity.

…more when they are entrained than when they are not?

The participants more often judged the actor as trustworthy in the entrained condition than the disentrained conditions. The entrained condition was not significantly different to the control condition. In other words, being disentrained reduced trust compared to the entrained and control conditions. These findings indicate that the prosocial outcomes of musical engagement may be more common and have a broader significance than previously suggested.

What are some implications for music therapy?

We think this work has two types of implication:

1. This study is another piece in the puzzle of music and its social effects.

2.  In much music therapy everybody actively participates. But active movement is not always possible or desirable.

This study suggests that even in these cases, musical characteristics may play a role in prosociality.

To find out more go to Knight, S., Spiro, N., & Cross, I. (2016). Look, listen and learn: Exploring effects of passive entrainment on social judgements of observed others. Psychology of Music, 0305735616648008.

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