ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2024, Vol. 32 ›› Issue (7): 1179-1194.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2024.01179

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The influence of music on prosocial behaviors and its mechanisms

LI Junpeng, ZHOU Linshu(), JIANG Jun, WANG Danni, JIANG Cunmei   

  1. Music College, Shanghai Normal University, Shanghai 200234, China
  • Received:2023-10-25 Online:2024-07-15 Published:2024-05-09
  • Contact: ZHOU Linshu


The value of music in human evolution may stem from its social function. Recent theories suggest that music plays a pivotal role in fostering social bonds throughout human evolution, thereby explaining the biological and cultural evolution of music. The examination of the relationship between music and human prosocial behavior can offer empirical support for this notion. However, it remains uncertain whether musical activities influence prosocial behavior and the underlying cognitive mechanisms and neurobiological foundations. Hence, we conducted a review of research evidence on the association between music activities (including listening and joint music activities) and prosocial behavior. Additionally, we proposed a multi-pathway theoretical framework to elucidate the intricate relationship between music, prosocial skills, cognitive-behavioral mechanisms, and neurobiological underpinnings.

Prosocial songs or instrumental music with positive emotions both contribute to enhancing prosocial behavior. Compared to conditions with no music or listening to antisocial music, listening to prosocial songs or music with positive emotions can promote voluntary, cooperative, and helpful behaviors, while effectively reducing aggressive behaviors and thoughts. Although most existing studies have not assessed or controlled for acoustic-structural differences between different musical conditions, the related effects may be associated with the acoustic and structural characteristics of music per se and its emotional expressions, interacting with the semantic content of lyrics. Additionally, adults participating in synchronous music activities are more likely to exhibit prosocial behavioral tendencies towards each other compared to those participating in asynchronous music activities or synchronous non-musical activities. These short-term effects may be moderated by factors such as musical complexity, age, familiarity, musical experience, and preferences. Furthermore, there is evidence suggesting that interpersonal music synchronization activities contribute to the prosocial development of infants and children, with the frequency of participation in joint music activities during early childhood positively correlating with prosocial skill performance two to three years later. These findings suggest that joint music activities may promote the development of prosocial skills over a longer time scale, and these long-term effects may benefit from close interpersonal interactions and early exposure to music.

The proposed multi-pathway model suggests that in both music listening and joint music activities, individuals' prosocial behavior can be influenced through two pathways. At the intra-individual level, emotional contagion in music activities can enhance empathy and/or positive emotional experiences, promote attention, prediction, and evaluation of prosocial information, thus shaping prosocial motivations and decisions. This process is primarily facilitated by the stimulation of prosocial hormones and dopamine reward circuits by music. At the inter-individual level, the entrainment effect of music rhythm enhances synchronization between individuals, facilitating self-other integration, supported by coupling mechanisms between auditory and motor cortices. Furthermore, both emotional contagion and rhythm entrainment interact at both intra- and inter-individual levels, jointly encouraging prosocial behavioral tendencies and development through their effects on empathy, positive emotional experiences, and interpersonal synchronization.

We hypothesize that various cognitive-behavioral mechanisms and their neurobiological underpinnings correspond to distinct and overlapping social functions, neural networks, or pathways. Depending on different environmental or prosocial behavioral contexts, these mechanisms may independently or interactively influence specific prosocial skills and their development in mediating the prosocial effects of music. Moreover, given the similarity in social functions and anatomical structures, the interaction between the opioid system and the dopamine reward system could heighten levels of empathy, while the convergence of the oxytocin pathway with dopamine neuron clusters may enhance reward prediction and evaluation. These processes could further bolster predictive and learning abilities related to music. Future research could comprehensively employ various methodologies, including music analysis, behavioral science, neuroimaging, neural modulation, pharmacology, and other interdisciplinary approaches, to investigate the cognitive-behavioral mechanisms and neurobiological basis underlying the influence of music on prosocial behavior, thus providing additional support for the music-social bonding hypothesis.

Key words: musical emotion, rhythmic entrainment, prosocial behaviors, empathy, interpersonal synchrony

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