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Dana Swarbrick, a singer herself, has studied concerts and social bonding.

Is this the reason why you go to concerts?

Musicologist Dana Swarbrick wondered whether concerts could bind people together. Her research suggests that the answer is yes.

Why does music exist? Some researchers believe that music is so widespread across human cultures because it brings people together. 

The theory is that during evolution, human groups who were musical worked better together, and therefore music may have offered an advantage for survival.

This theory is supported by research that suggests that when people move together, then this makes them like and trust each other more and cooperate better.

Researcher Dana Swarbrick wanted to investigate the topic further. In several studies, she has examined audience experiences and behaviour at concerts. She recently completed a doctoral thesis at the RITMO Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Rhythm, Time and Motion at the University of Oslo.

Dana Swarbrick recently defended her dissertation Being in Concert: Audience Emotion, Motion, and Social Connectedness.

“My research suggests that live concerts are indeed venues for social bonding,” she says.

Measured the experiences of the audience

In a study published in the journal Music & Science, Swarbrick and a colleague examined how the audience experienced a concert by The Danish String Quartet. 91 of the study participants sat in the audience, 32 of them followed the concert as it was streamed live.

After each piece of music, the audience's experiences were measured using short surveys. They were asked whether they felt connected to the musicians and the audience, and about the intensity of their emotions of awe and feeling moved.

The audience had their smartphones hanging on their chests. The phones recorded their movements along the way. 

Movement provided a sense of belonging

Whether they felt moved or in awe when they heard the music was purely about the piece of music being played, not about what people around them were doing or whether they were sitting in the hall or watching the concert livestream.

However, when it came to connectedness, the listening context and behaviour of the other audience members were important:

“We saw that the audience in the auditorium felt more connected to the other audience members than those who followed the concert livestream. However, both groups felt equally connected to the musicians performing the concert,” Swarbrick says. 

Participants sitting in the auditorium expressed a stronger sense of connection with other audience members during the musical pieces where they moved in expected ways to the music. 

This was true regardless of whether they moved a lot, as they did during folk music, or whether they sat very still, as when the Beethoven and Schnittke pieces were performed.

Sitting still is also a response

“Our measurements suggest that classical concert audiences adapt to the music and environment around them, and in fact, sitting very still is how they show that they are engaged. This creates as much cohesion as when you are part of a group that moves a lot,” Swarbrick says. 

The more still the audience sat in response to what was happening in the classical music pieces, the stronger the connection the audience members felt to each other.

“The findings suggest that it is precisely the act of moving as the music suggests, that is, adapting to the genre and cooperating musically, that creates a sense of belonging,” she says.

Digital concerts can also provide a sense of belonging 

Swarbrick started working on her PhD six months before Covid-19 struck. As a result, she also studied concerts that were streamed live on YouTube and Zoom, as well as concerts presented in virtual reality (VR).

Within the new field of ‘pandemusicology’, she examined differences between livestreamed concerts and concerts that were pre-recorded. While live-streamed concerts provided a stronger sense of connection with the outside world than the recorded concerts, there was no difference in how moved the participants were by the music.

In another study, Swarbrick and colleagues found that participants who wore VR headsets reported a stronger sense of being physically present, and more connection with the artist, than those who followed the concert through a regular livestream on YouTube.

Overall, however, artists were able to achieve a good connection with the audience both when the audience were present and when they watched concerts digitally.

Physical presence provides the best musical experience

“Even though we can now attend concerts physically again, there are still streamed concerts. While physical concerts are more likely to provide a sense of connection with the audience, it seems that artists can still use digital concerts to connect with audiences around the world,” Swarbrick says.

Still, concert experiences where you are physically present are in a class of their own, she points out.

“These concerts seem to create the strongest bonds between people. Our studies also suggest that the physical concert experiences more often give us a feeling of absorption in the music, and the best musical experience,” she says.

Swarbrick believes that there is a need for more research in this field.

“Is it the case, for example, that concerts can create a sense of belonging even among people who come from very different backgrounds or walks of life? We do not know yet, and I look forward to investigating this further,” she says. 


Onderdijk et al. Livestream Experiments: The Role of COVID-19, Agency, Presence, and Social Context in Facilitating Social ConnectednessFront. Psychol., vol. 12, 2021. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.647929

Savage et al. 'Music as a coevolved system for social bonding', Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 44, 2021. DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X20000333 (Abstract)

Swarbrick, D. & Vuoskoski, J.K. Collectively Classical: Connectedness, Awe, Feeling Moved, and Motion at a Live and Livestreamed ConcertMusic & Science, 2023. DOI: 10.1177/20592043231207595

Swarbrick et al. Corona Concerts: The Effect of Virtual Concert Characteristics on Social Connection and Kama MutaFront. Psychol., vol. 12, 2021. 

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