Young people holding hands, with one person carrying a guitar

Leader of the pack

Music can be a powerful bonding agent

Music is an individual experience. But it also has a striking collective impact, helping to establish bonds that unite individuals around a common identity.

National anthems, enough to reduce sports players to tears, can inspire loyalty to a national cause. Some countries have ‘national’ instruments (the bagpipes in Scotland, the bouzouki in Greece). Several composers have been seen as personifying national values (Chopin and Poland, Wagner and Germany).

Particular musical forms characterise certain ethnic groups (reggae among African Caribbeans, soul music among African Americans) and are often a key part of a population’s cultural heritage.

Social identity theory suggests that we draw upon external influences when developing a sense of who we really are – particularly during adolescence, as we begin to establish identities independent of our families. Musical preferences are a way we can identify similar ‘ingroup’ members and distinguish ourselves from ‘outgroups’. This may lead to the ‘subcultures’ often associated with adolescence – emos, goths, etc.

Why is music so important in this process? It seems to have a ‘special’ role, with characteristics – rhythms, melodies, harmonies, sounds and words – that reflect the lives and states of mind and body of those who belong to the music’s subculture.

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About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Psychology, History
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development