Musical engagement as a duet of tight synchrony and loose interpretability

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Joint engagement in music often facilitates positive social interaction, effectively shifting participants' perspective from the individual to the collective. The result is tight coordination and uniformity between participants, but at the same time, also remarkable flexibility and creativity. How does music achieve such a fine balance between the strict alignment necessary for coordination, and the substantial latitude necessary for experimentation? To address this question, I propose to analyze joint music engagement within the tight-loose theoretical framework broadly used in the social sciences. Tight-loose theory was originally developed for distinguishing between two archetypical cultural tendencies. On the one hand, tightness, which denotes stringent adherence to social norms, and on the other hand, looseness, which refers to a more flexible and less restrictive attitude towards norms. I posit that the flexible form of collaboration characteristic of musical interaction is due to a coexistence of tightness and looseness within joint engagement in music. I argue that the tight aspects of music can be attributed to its rhythmic structure, which requires continuous and precise temporal alignment between participants. Indeed, when experienced on its own, outside of a musical context, interpersonal synchrony has been repeatedly shown to enhance diverse positive social capacities such as bonding, collaboration and affiliation between interacting individuals, but at the expense of increasing conformity, blind obedience and even hostility towards non-group members. These effects are consistent with synchrony driving a tight interaction, inducing a sense of common group membership (CGM), which can endow music with necessary rigor and order. In contrast, the loose side of music may pertain to the ambiguity in meaning and intention expressed by music, which leaves ample room for interpretation and improvisation. I thus propose that the combined tight-loose nature of music, can simultaneously enhance positive social behaviors and reduce negative ones, leading to a tolerant form of group membership (TGM).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)122-136
Number of pages15
JournalPhysics of Life Reviews
StatePublished - Mar 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Elsevier B.V.


  • Children
  • Interpersonal synchrony
  • Musical interaction
  • Social interaction
  • Tight-loose theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • Artificial Intelligence


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