Group behaviours as music

James Saunders, Open Scores Lab, Bath Spa University

This is a draft of a chapter that has been accepted for publication by Oxford University Press in the forthcoming book Together in Music: Participation, Co-Ordination, and Creativity in Ensembles, edited by by Timmers, R., Bailes, F., and Deffern, H., due for publication in 2021.


This chapter sets out a framework for thinking about group behaviours in music as a compositional strategy, drawing on research in social psychology and game studies to explore how different aspects of group behaviours can be explicitly explored in musical compositions. Using Forsyth’s (2014) notion of group dynamics as ‘the influential interpersonal processes that occur in and between groups over time’, the chapter considers how behavioural-musical systems use rules to govern interaction between people, how decisions are enacted through the ways players make choices, and how values are suggested by the outcome of these decisions. Forsyth suggests five processes that influence the behaviour of groups: formative, influence, performance, conflict and contextual processes. These are discussed in relation to some of my recent work and the strategies evident in work by others. 

Keywords: composition, group dynamics, heuristics, rules, values.

Musicians form complex interpersonal relationships both with each other when playing together and with an audience. Such relationships are often by-products of the necessities and conventions of musical performance, for example through the role of non-verbal interaction in string quartet performance (Glowinski, Dardard, Gnecco, Piana, & Camurri, 2015), but they also offer opportunities to control musical material and the interaction between players and audiences. In some recent work, composers are exploring ways to use social behaviour as a compositional strategy, taking a process-driven approach using decision-making, cueing, and negotiation of inter-personal relationships. Such work uses group behaviours to suggest methods for harnessing specific motivations of players, bringing art and life closer together by ‘mapping the two onto each other by using people as a medium’ (Bishop 2012: 127), facilitating ‘the process of engaging with the world and oneself through play’ (Sicart 2014: 84). Models drawn from social psychology, heuristics, and decision theory can be usefully applied to suggest the ways in which composers initiate these processes and how performers respond to them. This has the potential to make direct reference to social processes that are recognisable from daily life, consequently creating tangible points of contact between art and the everyday, projecting values that emerge from the behaviours, and creating the possibility of empathic responses from observers. 

This chapter sets out a framework for thinking about group behaviours in music, drawing on research in social psychology and game studies to explore how different aspects of group behaviours can be explicitly explored in musical compositions. In doing so I trace the approach I have taken in some recent work and consider the strategies evident in work by others. I focus on the agency of participants in realising the work, how practicable decision-making strategies might be developed by participants, and the impact of these considerations on the values translated through the work. 

Group behaviours and decision-making

Social psychology research has investigated group behaviours as complex interpersonal processes, explaining and predicting the relationship between people when interacting in groups (Hogg and Vaughan 2018: 44-7). Social cognition theory in particular characterises some of the drivers of group behaviours. Fiske and Taylor (2017: 16) define the motivated tactician as ‘a fully engaged thinker with multiple cognitive strategies available, who (consciously or unconsciously) chooses among them based on goals, motives, and needs.’ More recently, this characterisation has shifted to that of activated actors who operate in social environments that ‘rapidly cue perceivers’ social concepts, without awareness, and almost inevitably cue associated cognitions, evaluations, affect, motivation, and behaviour.’ (Fiske and Taylor 2017: 16). In particular Fiske and Taylor note that this perspective ‘emphasises fast reactions, variously viewed as implicit, spontaneous, or automatic indicators of responses unconstrained by perceiver volition.’ (2017: 16) In musical performance, such situations suggest an alternative to the ‘presentation of an identity, a musical persona, in a defined social context.’ (Auslander 2006: 119) While any staged activity might be characterised by participants projecting an identity (Auslander 2006), by creating situations where more instinctive actions are required there is the possibility of revealing aspects of the participants’ everyday characters and behaviours. 

This speed of response is significant and lends itself to the use of heuristics, a useful decision-making strategy that ‘ignores part of the information, with the goal of making decisions more quickly, frugally, and/or accurately than more complex methods.’ (Gigerenzer and Gaissmaier 2011: 454) Heuristics are suited to environments where some relevant information is unknown, contrasting the use of rational methods in the bounded laboratory conditions of “small worlds” with the need to find ways to address the complexity of “large worlds” (Binmore, 2007). In contexts where a score communicates a set of rules or constraints on action to create a space where participants can act, group behaviours can be mediated through decision-making framed consciously or intuitively through heuristics.

The implication of embedding heuristics in a basic set of rules, algorithms or instructions is effective in music where a dynamic process enacted by participants takes precedence over more fixed material and structuring, and a more predictable outcome. Broadly, a set of rules creates a decision-space (Saunders, 2015, 2020), the result of which when articulated by participants produces the behavioural-musical result and suggests certain characteristics and values embedded in the rule structure (Flanagan & Nissenbaum, 2014). Such behavioural-musical systems focus on how rules present a framework that governs interaction, how decisions are enacted through the ways players make choices, and how values are suggested by the outcome of these decisions. These systems build on Cook’s notion of music-as-script ‘choreographing a series of real-time, social interactions between players: a series of mutual acts of listening and communal gestures that enact a particular vision of human society.’ (2001: par.15) Rather than enact such a vision however, they present processes through which many different versions of human society may emerge and where the social behaviour of people becomes the material being interrogated by processes within the composition.

Group dynamics and processes

The processes at the heart of group behaviours are driven by group dynamics, which Forsyth (2014: 18) defines as ‘the influential interpersonal processes that occur in and between groups over time’. He proposes five separate processes that influence the behaviour of groups: formative, influence, performance, conflict and contextual processes: 

  • Formative processes are ‘the personal and situational forces that prompt people to join groups or remain apart from them, as well as the part interpersonal attraction plays in creating stable relationships among group members’. (2014: 18) They focus on the transition from individual to collective behaviours and the ways in which group members balance personal and group needs, goals, and identities.
  • Influence processes ‘organize the group’s procedures, interaction patterns, and intermember relations’ (2014: 18) through the wide spectrum of interpersonal forces that operate between group members. They include the balance between conformity and dissent, the role of social influence, the impact of specific roles and leadership, and the way group membership may alter individual opinions and actions.
  • Performance processes ‘facilitate and inhibit people’s performance in groups’ (2014: 19) when undertaking tasks. They focus on the productiveness of a team, as well as individual and collective motivation, and the way groups make decisions. 
  • Conflict processes frame the tensions that ‘undermine the cohesiveness of the group and cause specific relationships within the group to weaken or break altogether.’ (2014: 19) They are driven by aspects of competition, power struggles, resource allocation, disagreement and problematic interpersonal relationships. 
  • Contextual processes consider how the ‘social and environmental context’ (2014: 19) affects the group dynamics, especially where groups operate in terms of the physical location and the situation or purpose for which they are formed. 

It is worth noting the connection between this framework and that presented by Michael Nyman in relation to experimental music. Nyman suggests the significance of behavioural processes in work that does not prescribe ‘a defined time-object’ but rather which outlines ‘a situation in which sounds may occur, a process of generating action (sounding or otherwise), a field delineated by certain compositional ‘rules’.’ (Nyman 1999: 4) In particular, he defines the subsets of these situations that rely on individual and group decision making as people processes and contextual processes. People processes ‘allow the performers to move through given or suggested material, each at his own speed’, while contextual processes ‘are concerned with actions dependent on unpredictable conditions and on variables which arise from within the musical continuity’ (Nyman 1999: 6). Both of these processes are entangled with Forsyth’s framework.

Each of the five processes Forsyth proposes can be used to develop compositional strategies that underpin behavioural-music compositions. Formative and contextual processes may provide a situational influence on the way a piece operates in terms of the preparation and site of a realisation. Influence, performance and conflict processes may operate more directly within a realisation as it occurs. In order to consider group behaviours as a compositional strategy, a means to translate these dynamic processes from social psychology to music is necessary. Using Forsyth’s processes as a framework, the examples below demonstrate ways in which composers have used group dynamics to create behavioural-music pieces. 

Formative processes

Group formation in music is to an extent predetermined by the context of performance. Individuals might come together through organisational structures (e.g. ensembles, crowds, friendship), events (e.g. concerts, rehearsals, protests), and places (e.g. stadiums, public spaces, concert halls). They may have worked together previously, either as a whole or partial group, or have never met. Convention or circumstances might determine the operation of a group, such as through an ensemble’s institutional hierarchies or two soloists working together for the first time. Many pieces do not prescribe these processes, situating them instead within the normal operation of the people realising the piece, or leaving them unspecified. 

Some composers use formative processes to make explicit an attitude to group working however. Alexis Porfiriadis stages a formative process as a fundamental component of all his ensemble pieces. He precedes each piece with a standardised text which sets out a specific approach to formation, stating for example in For four people (2018) that performers 

are invited to make a group realization of the composition using any amount of this material. The order of procedures and their respective timings should be decided collectively prior to the performance. All decisions about how to structure and perform the piece should be made collectively (not by one individual), through a process of conversation and rehearsal. 

In practice, the group must decide how to proceed. This immediately tasks them with determining how the transition from individual to collective behaviours should be managed. By not stating how to achieve this, Porfiriadis sets up a formative process that informs later stages of the realisation. He notes that this ‘decision to let the performers use the material provided to construct collectively their performance relies on social and political reasons’ in order to ‘make a statement of collaboration and collective responsibility between the performers of my scores.’ (Porfiriadis, 2016)

Formative processes can also occur within a piece as it is realised. In my piece everybody do this (2014), players within a large ensemble each give spoken instructions in different categories (such as noises, pitches, devices and recordings) that direct the actions of other players. They do this using a lingua franca that simplifies the kinds of interaction possible, with keywords and numbers cueing specific responses (for example, the cue ‘noise 8’ requires everyone to make the noise they have labelled ‘8’). The players may all give instructions and must respond to instructions given by others as best they can. In realising the piece, individual players have autonomy within these constraints. They have complete freedom as to the type and frequency of instructions they give. This creates agency within a common frame of reference. It generally results in a playful–and occasionally slightly more sinister–interaction between people. It foregrounds sub-group formation. Players form temporary alliances or rivalries where cues are co-ordinated or exchanged in a competitive way, possibly hijacking or steering the wider group depending on personal preferences. These relationships are fluid and transitory, forming and disbanding continuously during the piece.

Formative processes such as these manage the transition from individual to collective behaviours, whether groups are created through a formal process or more dynamically as a result of member decisions. In musical situations, where hierarchies and modes of interaction may be institutionalised or assumed, compositions which address group formation have the potential to comment on the structure of social space.

Influence processes

Many indeterminate pieces use influence processes via the formalisation of procedures and interactions through rules. Such pieces may use social influence, where majority or minority sub-groups exert power on the whole group, questioning how individuals might assert their independence or conform, depending on the strength, immediacy and size of the group (Latané, 1981). Influence might be reciprocal, or weighted towards one or more individuals or sub-groups.

In Laura Steenberge’s Some Folk Songs (2010) for two voices, initially one singer leads by singing an agreed text to any melody that ‘comes off the top of the head’. The second singer tries to sing the same text and melody as close to unison as possible. Designating the first singer as the leader creates a clear influence through a defined procedure. Although the second player may exert a smaller amount of influence, such as through inaccuracies which affect the first player’s subsequent melody, this situation is weighted in terms of the power relationship (albeit in a fairly relaxed and congenial manner). 

A greater degree of reciprocality is present in Charlie Sdraulig’s between (2012-13) for flute and violin, where the two players continuously respond to changes in parameters of each other’s sound. The contingent nature of each player’s actions creates a careful equilibrium that is constantly tested by inflection. Sdraulig comments that the players’ perception shapes the piece in retrospect such that 

A change in a sound or a variable only impacts upon the piece when it is perceived to have occurred. Sonic information is constantly perceived and filtered through the system for interaction before a player responds by making or modifying their sound. One player’s actions then influence the other. The piece is a perpetual loop of perceiving and action in response to what is perceived. The performers are entirely dependent on one another. Almost every element of the piece is contingent on another element. (Sdraulig 2013: 10)

In larger groups of people, social influence might be more nebulous and changeable. John Zorn’s Cobra (1984) presents a pool of cues that the improvisers may request from a prompter, who then articulates these through giving downbeats that initiate the requested change. Players may break free of this situation and temporarily take over the group through ‘guerrilla operations’. The improvising musicians are controlled by the cues they are given, and also able to request cues to give. The prompter selects the cues to give from the available player requests, but is also able to initiate cues directly. The types of cue Zorn uses define relationships between players, time and material. Zorn highlights the importance of decision making by the players and prompter as part of this interaction, and the impact on social behaviour and influence. He notes 

I basically create a small society and everybody finds their own position in that society. It really becomes like a psycho drama. People are given power and it’s very interesting to see which people like to run away from it, who are very docile and just do what they are told, others try very hard to get more control and more power. So it’s very much like the political arena in a certain kind of sense. (Bailey 1993: 78)

Influence processes in particular mediate the power relationships between group members. In compositions which use these processes, rules may determine the group’s procedures and consequently shape their interaction patterns and intermember relations.

Performance processes

Where activities are focused more on reaching goals, whether imposed or self-determined, the ability of groups to perform effectively becomes significant. In many compositions there may not be an explicit goal presented, other than the successful completion of the tasks and achieving the implicit aesthetic result (Saunders, 2020). In contrast, some compositions may use strategies for creating purpose, either through explicitly stating the purpose, or presenting a situation where players must determine a purpose. MaryFlanagan and Helen Nissenbaum (2014: 105-6) frame these decision spaces in games as either coercive or cooperative. In coercive spaces designers ‘may achieve certain behaviors through force (or tight constraints)’. In cooperative spaces they ‘may encourage certain behaviors while still allowing players to exercise choice’ by ‘drawing on known motivators or rewards (such as points, penalties, and levels), feedback (sensory cues with direct pleasant or unpleasant associations), and cues with certain meanings (such as a doorway, green or red light, the sound of an explosion, and so on).’ These two forces are also present in rule-based music.

My piece all voices are heard (2015) models consensus decision-making. The aim is to achieve consensus, defined here as all players playing the same sound sequence in unison such that they are in agreement as to its uniformity. Players use performance processes to determine the best strategy to achieve group consensus in a future state of the piece. The piece asks players simultaneously to play a sequence of sounds chosen from a limited set of sources to which all have access (such as a common list of words, set of objects, or group of pitches). This event repeats, with players using a heuristic each time to either (i) play the same material as that which they played previously, (ii) play material that matches what another player played previously, (iii) play something new, or (iv) remain silent. So for example, one player might decide that they want all other players to conform to their sound and prioritise option (i). Conversely another player might always try to conform to the majority sound, aiming to reinforce that to achieve consensus and prioritise option (ii). In both cases the players are trying to achieve the same aim, but their strategies differ and are evidenced by the decisions they make. In all voices are heard players’ decisions must, therefore, consider both the stated aim of the process and the likely responses of the other players, facilitating or inhibiting the progress of other players and impacting on the group’s productiveness. 

A more implicit balance between coercion and cooperation is present in Cassandra Miller’s vocal piece rounding (2017). Singers individually listen to a source recording on headphones and record themselves singing along to it while carrying out a body-scan mediation. They then come together as a group and undertake the same process in parallel, this time each using their own recordings as a source. This group session is recorded, and forms the basis of the next iteration of individual recordings. This cycle of individual and group recordings continues until a public performance, where the final group realisation is presented. The intermingling of individual and group responses to the task results in a complex iterating sequence, the efficacy of which relies on the necessary interdependence of group members. Individual singers’ recordings are influenced by the previous group recording, which in turn is constructed from earlier individual recordings. Group performance is mediated by individual responses and idiosyncrasies, enabling convergence towards a group voice to emerge.

The capacity for a group to reach a specified goal can be traced through performance processes such as these, considering individual and collective motivation, and the way groups make decisions. In these processes, the resultant music can be experienced as a sonicifation of dynamic interaction between people and their progress towards a goal.

Conflict processes

Conflict can both inhibit the performance of a group by undermining relationships and energise it through the potential benefit of competition. In behavioural-music compositions conflict might arise, for example, from limiting the available resources available to players, setting goals that are impossible to achieve for all group members, or the artificial imposition of hierarchies. 

In David Pocknee’s Economics (2010/2017), the sound each player makes is modified in four different parameters (pitch, dynamics, speed and duration) by players placing money on charts in front of the other players. The amount of money present alters a parameter in a specific way, for example ‘if 5 Euro Cents are placed in your Dynamics: Louder circle, then you must play louder’. Players use their own money, including any currently on their own chart, to moderate changes to other players’ sounds. They may not take money from others. The score also states that ‘Players can ask the audience for money. This is a form of public subsidy’. The piece sets up a dynamic set of power relationships between the players, and between the players and audience, facilitated by financial transactions. Pocknee notes that in a 2010 performance 

the audience organically got involved in the piece and started competing with each other and the performers, placing their credit cards, car keys, wallets etc. in the circles on the performer’s scores. In the audio recording you can even hear the Zoom recorder being picked up and used as currency. (Pocknee 2017: fig. C.4)

Here conflict is staged as a compositional process, with players exerting direct control over each other through competition and transaction.

Making impossible demands on players is another way to create conflict, through limiting resources and opportunities within a prescribed task. I take this approach in reaching an acceptable and stable solution (2018), in which the aim is for players to find a distribution of resources such that they can all play the available sounds at specified times. The group has a shared resource of 10 sound-producing objects that are within reach. Players independently assign each of the available objects to a number in their scores, which indicates when the object is to be used. Selections of objects by one player may cause difficulties for another player, and the requirement is made harder by having more players and/or fewer objects, such that in some situations it might not be possible to complete the task accurately. The players must balance the use of a shared resource in order to make a specified sequence of different sounds while helping or hindering others to do the same. Player allocations of sounds conflict with each other, so that by the end of the piece it is challenging for players to use the necessary objects at the right time as other players are likely to be using them. The piece plays with conflict, but also encourages compromise, problem solving and courtesy. 

Conflict processes are among the most extreme ways to explore group behaviours given their reliance on intra-group oppositions, whether hostile or benign. Pieces which use conflict as a mode of interaction expose tensions between people when undertaking specified tasks, potentially leading to the breakdown of the group and an inability to reach an agreed conclusion.

Contextual processes

The context in which pieces are conceived and realised may also have an impact on the way groups operate. The environmental context may impose physical constraints on the way players interact, while the social context may place limits and demands on individual choices. In both situations, the relationship between the players and the specific context in which they work is a significant factor in determining how a piece unfolds.

In John Lely’s Symphony No.4: The Great Outdoors (2009), a group of players with portable percussion instruments begin in close proximity to a conductor, then ‘gradually disperse over the course of a performance.’ They walk away from the conductor, occasionally articulating a synchronised event which ‘occurs on a cue from the conductor, and consists of all players sounding their instruments in visual unison.’ As they disperse, spatial displacement may cause the synchronisation of the sounds to vary depending on the listener’s relative position. Similarly, in one of the variations suggested by Pauline Oliveros in her Sonic Meditation VII (1991), a group of players strike stones together while seated in a circle, before gradually moving ‘anywhere in the environment’ while keeping ‘in audible contact with at least one other person’. Here the dispersal controls group cohesion, using aural perception to maintain ties between players. In both pieces the spatial context has a significant impact on the group ecology, such that ‘the place shapes the group rather than the group shaping the place.’ (Forsyth 2014: 481)

Context is also significant in environments where players respond to complex sequences of cues and instructions, where the possibility for failure is high. In my piece you are required to split your attention between multiple sources of information (2018) for string quartet and large ensemble, the players are presented with a stream of pre-recorded auditory cues to which they must respond with specified sounds. The cues regularly switch between different types and are directed at different sub-groups and individuals within the two ensembles, requiring the players to think and act very quickly. The level of cognitive load impacts on the way players remember associations between cues and responses, and affects decision-making and action in a networked situation. In the piece, moments of ordered information are disrupted by less predictable cue sequences and regular changes of cue type. The cues include samples of real-world sounds which induce a range of different responses, as well as text-to-speech computer voices reading extracts from the Harvard Sentences (a set of phonetically balanced texts developed in the 1960s to test artificial voice modelling) and giving other verbal cues. The density, speed and patterning of these cues causes different amounts of cognitive load on the players, altering their response times and with it the texture of the resulting music. Mousavi, Low and Sweller (1995: 332) suggest that this split-attention effect has an impact on cognitive load by requiring subjects to integrate multiple information sources mentally ‘before they can be understood, [otherwise] learning may be inhibited’. In the piece, all the cues and responses are aural, requiring players to negotiate the stream of information in one mode. The increased cognitive load affects the speed of response by players and the variations in time required to complete sound-producing actions on the different instruments, producing an unpredictable trail of sounds after each cue.

The different kinds of social and environmental contexts in which pieces such as these operate constrain the ways players interact. Context is a significant global influence on group behaviours through determining the relationship between players, and between players and their working environment.

Group behaviours as music

The examples presented above demonstrate some ways in which group dynamics may be deployed to manipulate and test group behaviours in a musical context. Through using disparate mechanisms such as cueing, formalised hierarchies, cognitive load, goal attainment, environmental constraints and social influence, scores may determine modes of interaction that translate specific values inherent in their rule systems (Flanagan & Nissenbaum, 2014). Frameworks such as Forsyth’s group dynamics processes suggest ways in which group behaviours might be developed as musical processes, set within the context of modes of interaction examined in social psychology more widely. John Zorn summarises the appeal for taking this approach, suggesting that 

What you get on the stage, then, is not just someone reading music but a drama. You get a human drama. You get life itself, which is what the ultimate musical experience is: it’s life. Musicians relating to each other, through music. (Zorn, 2004)

At a time where communities are being separated, divisions are emphasised, and autocratic government is more prevalent, work that explores how people might work together and reflect on social interaction has the potential to encourage positive social change. 


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