Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

The Role of Music in Friendship:

Self-Other Merging, Group Bonding and Personal Pleasure


Music has, since its conception, served as a powerful tool for expression, communication, creation, and social bonding. Whether it is expressed through the beautiful performance of an ensemble, the careful craft of composition, or through mediums like radio, music has the profound ability to affect people on a deeply emotional level. But outside of its ability to play our heart strings, music also has a profound effect on our ability to socialize, bond, and communicate with others.

On the most basic level, music can be viewed as a universal language, one that transcends race, ethnicity, borders and time. The ability to create and share music is not affected by culture, class, language, or background, making it an accessible and international means of friendship-building and maintenance. In this way, music can be seen as important profoundly important in practically every realm: physically, emotionally, spiritually, physiologically, philosophically, and socially.

As phrased by NCBI (the National Center for Biotechnology Information), “humans are unique among the primates in their ability to form cooperative alliances between groups in the absence of consanguineal ties”. In this way music is framed as a means of serving a “coalition signaling system”, which helps to enhance cooperation and communication between groups of humans who are not family. In this way, we can recognize the very fundamental importance of music as a means of bolstering very real and tangible bonds between people.

Furthermore, recognizing the ways that different mediums of music realize different facets of friendship helps us understand and validate the very real and very important effect of music and friendship and friendship on music. From performance to dance to radio, each of these mediums’ relationships to music embodies powerful notions of friendship and connectivity.


According to Plato, “more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way into the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it”, exemplifying music’s power over humans. He claims that music has the ability to train the soul to feel pleasure and pain in more nuanced ways, ultimately able to “move the soul towards goodness”. Plato also states that music “prepares the young for virtue by familiarizing them with well-ordered emotion” and showing children how to creatively and healthily express emotions from a young age.

Ultimately, Plato posits that there are two overarching reasons that music is pleasurable – and thus, beneficial – to humans. The first reason discussed by Plato is that is natural to “perceive and enjoy rhythm and melody.” This means that on the most carnal, spiritual level, the rhythms and melodies of music provide feelings of joy and enchantment. Secondly, Plato says that each person is attracted to specific rhythms and melodies that, in this case, give them greater joy. This means that within human relationships to music, there are elements of preference and desire. In these ways, music engages in the human desire to collaborate and synchronize, creating an opportunity that promotes listening, engaging, and empathizing, which in turn promote positive social feelings and healthy communications.

Both Plato and Aristotle strongly believe that music is of great importance as a means of education, with Aristotle stating that “art and education fill up the deficiencies of man’s nature, perfecting, completing and fulfilling it.” Aristotle feels passionately about music, calling it one of the most pleasant things, full of sweetness and undeniably beneficial to all. In Aristotle’s mind, music conveys emotion in a tangible, relatable way, making it critical to human communication and expression. Thus, Aristotle “assigns four ends to music: giving pleasure. disposing toward virtue, imitating emotion, and giving intellectual enjoyment.” Music promotes positive feelings (giving pleasure), helps align a person towards well-balanced emotion and virtue (disposing toward virtue), expresses emotion in a universal language (imitating emotion) and inspires new thoughts and perspectives (giving intellectual enjoyment).

Philosopher Andrew Nehemas states that friendship, and thus music, is “a commitment to the future, a sense that there is more to know here, and a promise that what I still don’t know will be worth learning.” In many ways, I believe that the art form of music combines many friendship values and practices. In deciding to make music with another person, one must admit an initial attraction to the other and an intention of relational longevity. Like friendship, a person’s relationship to music is both preferential (on the basis of desire) and partial (a component of a whole).

Plato, Aristotle, and Nehemas all believe that engaging with and enjoying music creates an environment where emotions can be communicated more honestly, effectively, and healthily. Because of this, all three philosophers say that music should be taught from a young age in order to help children become a more well-balanced humans. If music has such a profound effect in the eyes of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, why deny its positive powers by painting it as anything less than incredibly important art and form of communication?


On a physiological level, music can serve as a powerful force that promotes healing and upliftment. In research published by neurologists, it has been discovered that music triggers a release of dopamine and oxytocin, powerful neurotransmitters that are responsible for creating feelings of happiness, joy, and pleasure. Oxytocin, a neurohormone that promotes social bonding, is engaged by sensory overload, physical activity, strong emotional arousal, and social behavior – which are all found in different forms of music and musical performance. Furthermore, both listening to and playing music are seen as “pro-social” behaviors that enforce notions of empathy, group bonding, and social cohesion.

In settings where people synchronize rhythmically and/or harmonically, research shows that those who partake experience a release of these “happy chemicals”, are provided a platform for synchronicity and collaboration, and are part of a process that bolsters listening skills. Some frame this as “self-other merging as a consequence of interpersonal synchrony”. This means that dancing, singing, and playing music all contribute to genuine, scientific happiness.

In work released by Oxford University’s psychology department, researchers claim that “music-making, and movement to music, are activities central to ritual, courtship, identity, and human expression cross-culturally” and that in “all cultures globally, and throughout history, music is a social activity that involves movement to rhythmic sound and plays a significant role both in creating social bonds.” In this way, scientists posit music as an important and necessary function of social bonding, empathy-building, and coalition-strengthening. By engaging in music with one another, we create and maintain bonds that transcend politics.


Acknowledging the emotional, physical, and physiological effects of listening to music, it makes sense that music therapy would emerge as a form of counselling. In this realm, music can be used as a medicinal tool and a method of healing. Using music as a therapeutic tool can be beneficial in a multitude of ways; Research on music therapy shows that it can help process emotions, build communication skills, introduce new forms of social interaction, improve self-esteem, and bolster group cohesion.

Musical therapy studies also find that participating in rhythm-based actions has a tangible positive effect on the nervous system by affecting the amount of cortisol in a person’s body. In work published by Thoma et al., sixty participants proved that even listening to music has a calming effect. In this way, music can be used in therapeutic modalities to induce relaxation, aid in emotional communication, and inspire creative teamwork.


From a cognitive science perspective, music can be seen as a tool of pleasure in its ability to effect dopamine and oxytocin levels, eliciting a powerful, positive physical and emotional response. But on an emotional level, music can also uplift and inspire us. In performing music with others, humans can experience a feeling of togetherness and community, while listening music can drive  desire to dance, encouraging physical and emotional bonding.

There are many ways of building friendship through music. From improvising simple mouth sounds to composing to performing with a group, every form of music can be seen as a way of helping to create and maintain friendship and community. There are countless opportunities to engage with and experience the joy of music: dancing, singing, playing an instrument, purely listening, playing alone, playing in a group, DJing, etc. In this way music is accessible and all-encompassing, promoting friendship through almost every interaction with it.

In my own personal experience, I have developed strong friendships by playing, sharing, and seeing music with other people. By being able to share an emotional experience and engage in creative collaboration, my friendships have grown tenfold and I have learned new things about the world, my friends, and myself.


One of the most tangible forms of friendship in music can be seen through the art of composition. Both instrumentally and lyrically, the composition of a song is where the potential to move and emote is born. Across genres there are thousands of songs addressing friendship, togetherness, connection, and love. Writing music with other people is a vulnerable process that requires trust, compassion, and – ultimately – friendship.

Understanding the innate vulnerability in creating and/or performing music is pivotal in understanding music’s place in relationship to friendship. Like friendship, music requires trust and empathy in order to be successful. To share your music with another is to bare your soul and accept the consequences.

Performance is where music comes to life. While composition can be considered the foundational element of music, performance provides the opportunity to physically and emotionally allow the audience to connect. Performing music creates a sense of community and sanctuary in which both performers and audience members can experience a shared sense of joy, happiness, and interconnectivity. In performance, we can also witness a conversation occurring between the musicians and the audience, feeding off of each other in a beautiful form of symbiosis.


In my time archiving at WOBC (Oberlin’s FM radio station), I have seen friendship reflected in many aspects of my team’s work, as well as within the materials we archived. Through the archival of old radio shows, talks, and records, my team and I have bonded over shared taste in music, stories of friendship, and the documents that have memorialized the friendships of the past.

Throughout the 70 years that WOBC has been running, there are hundreds of shows exemplifying the values of friendship through musical collaboration. Through talk shows, live musical performances, back-to-back DJ mixes, and interviews, the power of friendship is broadcasted beautifully through radio. We have found countless broadcasts (and letters written to the station) discussing the ways that WOBC have positively impacted their lives. Many detail the ways that WOBC created a community in which people could bond over a shared passion for music and a mutual interest in maintaining accessible ways of enjoying it.

My team and I also bonded over the materials we found, sharing our opinions on songs and interviews, DJing the radio all together, and dancing during our breaks. Though music is, in many ways, the core of radio, community is also an important pillar. Without collaboration, teamwork, and love for one another, no radio station could run, let alone thrive.

Radio as a medium provides a unique experiences where listeners can listen alone but feel engaged in a community, knowing they are listening to the same song at the same time as others across the world. In many ways, radio serves as a means to remind the listener of the ways that music keeps us connected as humans.


Music provides a powerful emotion release and a genuine opportunity for honest, unabashed communication and community-building. Through various ways of engaging with music (composition, performance, dance, radio, etc.), friendship is built effortlessly and without the need for words. By understanding music as a means of expressing emotion, music is both a language and the expression of joy. In communicating with others musically, the musicians also communicate with the spirit of creating itself. In this way, the act of playing music is the act of touching souls.

Music forces us to listen in a new, deeper way. In writing, performing, and even listening to music, people are engaging in acts of collaborative imagination, allowing the confines of logic to slip by as sensory pleasure takes over. Music serves us in many ways: as a way of communicating, as a mode of expression, as a means of sharing culture, and as a point of shared interest. The act of music-making itself requires great compassion, communication, mutual desire, and cohesion: many of the most crucial elements of friendship. Additionally, music can be seen as as a mode of communication that transcends language, borders, and politics. In creating music with another person, one must open themselves to a mutually-beneficial relationship that not only serves all parties involved, but uplifts them and pushes them to grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Making music with someone who is a stranger could make them a friend, and making music with a friend can make the friendship stronger.

Ultimately, I have found immense joy and incredibly pure friendships through sharing music. In many ways, music has served as an incredible vessel and catalyst for friendship and love. I hope that music continues to be taken more seriously, not only as an art form, but as a medicine, tool for community-building, and as a therapeutic modality. If given the proper attention and respect, I believe that music has the potential to become even more beneficial in a multitude of ways. For now, it is my hope that people will dance, sing, play, and share music with one another so they can experience first hand the powerful emotional, spiritual, and physiological release that it can provide.

I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code on this assignment.

Works Cited

Ashford University staff. “How Does Music Affect Your Brain?” Ashford University, 7 June 2017,

Hagen, Edward H, and Gregory A Bryant. “Music and Dance as a Coalition Signaling System.” Human Nature (Hawthorne, N.Y.), U.S. National Library of Medicine, 14 Mar. 2003,

Landau, Elizabeth. “Music: It’s in Your Head, Changing Your Brain.” CNN, Cable News Network, 28 May 2012,

Monroe, Jamison. “The Healing Power of Music Therapy.” Newport Academy, Newport Academy, 16 Jan. 2019,

Schoen-Nazzaro, Mary B. “Plato and Aristotle on the Ends of Music.” Laval Theological and Philosophical. Vol. 34, no.3, 1978,

Tarr, Bronwyn, et al. “Music and Social Bonding: ‘Self-Other’ Merging and Neurohormonal Mechanisms.” Frontiers in Psychology, Frontiers, 10 Sept. 2014,

Thoma, Myriam V et al. “The effect of music on the human stress response.” PloS one vol. 8,8e70156. 5 Aug. 2013, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0070156

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