Classical music concerts can create a unique harmony not only in sound but also in the heartbeats and movements of the audience, according to new research published in Scientific Reports. This phenomenon, observed in a Berlin concert series, highlights an extraordinary, synchronized connection between music and human physiology.
The quest to understand the deep connection between music and its impact on our minds and bodies is not new. Past research has regularly shown that music can evoke strong emotional reactions and physiological responses, such as chills or an increased heartbeat. Building on this knowledge, researchers from the Experimental Concert Research project aimed to explore this connection further. They were particularly interested in how a live classical music setting could influence the synchronization of physical responses among audience members.
“I was always interested in processes of interpersonal synchronization, specifically in the interaction of therapist and client in psychotherapy,” said study author Wolfgang Tschacher, professor emeritus at the University of Bern. “Synchrony is a candidate for what happens in the therapeutic alliance. Very soon I became aware that this phenomenon may not be the core of therapy only, but may also arise in other interactions. As I had found ways to quantify synchrony, I applied these tools to conversations and discussions among people, and finally also to how much audiences become entrained by collective music-listening.”
The study, conducted in September 2020 at the Radialsystem concert venue in Berlin, was set against the backdrop of COVID-19 safety measures. This unique situation provided an opportunity to observe the effects of music on audiences under socially distanced conditions. A total of 132 volunteers, aged between 18 and 85 years, participated in the study during three public concerts. Each concert featured the same program of chamber music for string quintet, showcasing pieces by Ludwig van Beethoven, Brett Dean, and Johannes Brahms, representing different musical styles.
Upon arrival at the concert venue, participants completed an ‘entrance questionnaire’, providing information about their personality traits, affective states, and demographic details. During the concerts, their physiological responses, such as heart rate, skin conductance (a measure of emotional arousal), and breathing patterns, were measured using non-invasive sensors. Additionally, the researchers captured the audience’s body movements through overhead cameras, enabling a detailed analysis of physical responses to the music.
The researchers found that the heart rate, skin conductance, and respiration rate of audience members showed a significant level of synchrony during the performances. This means that as the audience listened to the music, their heartbeats and physiological responses tended to rise and fall in unison. Interestingly, this synchrony was observed in all the measured responses except for detailed breathing behavior, like the timing of inhales and exhales, which did not synchronize among the audience members.
“Synchrony is a natural phenomenon that dominates social life, starting from private interactions between two persons up to what goes on in groups,” Tschacher told PsyPost. “Synchrony is prominent in ‘body language,’ but also in the physiological activation of the body. Being a concert listener means you become part of a multi-person system, the audience. The more you appreciate and focus on the music, the more you become a part of this system.”
Furthermore, the study revealed a connection between the audience’s movements and the music. Despite being seated and maintaining physical distance due to pandemic restrictions, the audience exhibited synchronized body movements, subtly mirroring each other in response to the musical performance.
“Most studies in music psychology are done in the lab, in experiments with strictly defined recorded music,” Tschacher said. “I was not 100% confident that we would find synchrony ‘in the wild,’ that is in naturalistic contexts of live concerts open to the public. But we did, and current analyses of further concerts with over 700 participants show that these findings can be replicated.”
The study also delved into how individual differences among the audience, such as personality traits, could influence this synchrony. It was found that individuals who scored high on ‘Openness to Experience’ and ‘Agreeableness’ in personality assessments tended to show higher levels of physiological synchrony with the music. Conversely, those with higher ‘Neuroticism’ and ‘Extraversion’ scores were less likely to synchronize with others in the audience. These findings suggest that certain personality types might be more susceptible to the unifying power of music.
However, it’s important to note some limitations of the study. One major challenge was the quality of the physiological data collected, which was compromised to some extent by the need for non-invasive, comfortable sensors for the participants. This was particularly true for the heart rate data, where a significant portion of the data was lost due to technical issues. Additionally, the fact that the study was conducted under unique conditions of a socially distanced concert during the pandemic could influence the generalizability of the findings.
Looking ahead, this study opens new avenues for understanding the collective experience of music. Future research could explore how different musical genres or settings (like outdoor festivals or intimate jazz clubs) impact audience synchrony. There is also a scope to improve the technology for monitoring physiological responses to enhance data quality.
“Concert music moves audiences bodily,” Tschacher said. “Music reaches not just the minds (the cognition and experiences of people), but also their bodies. It is an example of ’embodied cognition,’ which I believe is an important development in psychology and cognitive science.”
The study, “Audience synchronies in live concerts illustrate the embodiment of music experience“, was authored by Wolfgang Tschacher, Steven Greenwood, Sekhar Ramakrishnan, Martin Tröndle, Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann, Christoph Seibert, Christian Weining, and Deborah Meier.