Does Music Sound Better with a Robotic Companion?

Reference: Hoffman, G., & Vanunu, K. (2013, March). Effects of robotic companionship on music enjoyment and agent perception. In 2013 8th ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) (pp. 317-324). IEEE.

I will never forget my first road trip with friends after receiving my driver’s license. It was an old car, and the radio did not work, but we had one CD that my friend brought along. We listened to that CD on repeat for hours and sang along to every word. A few weeks later when I was driving to school, I put the same CD on, I soon became bored by the music and turned it off. Nothing about my taste of music had changed since the road trip, rather, listening to the music alone was not as enjoyable as it was with friends.

Studies show that individuals prefer to listen to music in a group. It is no wonder that a recent study found that most music listening occurs in groups (1). In fact, music can enhance social bonding and group cohesion (2). There are many positive effects on groups involved with music listening such as reduced stress and improvements in mood (3).

But what happens when we listen to music with something that is not human? Recently, companies have been designing robots to act as social companions. Studies show that there is of similarity between Human-to-Human Interaction and Human-Robot Interaction (4). A recent study done by Guy Hoffman and his team analyzed the effects of robot companionship on music enjoyment.

Travis the Robot used in the study. Figure taken from original conference proceeding.

Travis the Robot

The robot used in the study was called Travis. Travis was specially designed for the study and has built in speakers. Travis resembles a small pet and can make ‘eye contact’ by turning its head toward the participant. Travis can also move to the beat of the music and ‘holds’ the music playing device.

The Experience

Participants all listened to the same three songs in randomized order. Participants experienced Travis either moving to the music on beat, off beat or not moving at all. After each song the participants rated how much they liked the song and at the end of the experiment they were asked to rate their impression of Travis, how similar Travis was to them, as well as their overall enjoyment of the experience.

Do We Enjoy Music More with a Lively Robot?

Interestingly, when asked whether the robot was moving on-beat or off-beat, participants were not able to distinguish between the two. Despite not being able to distinguish between the two, results showed that individuals rated music enjoyment higher when it was experienced with a robot that moved on-beat versus a static robot. The overall impression of Travis was much higher in the on-beat and off-beat condition compared to the static condition. Participants also rated the robot as more similar to them in the on-beat condition compared with the static condition. Lastly, researchers measured the interaction between an individual’s music listening habits and their impression of Travis. Results showed an interaction between the two variables. Individuals who reported being social music listeners rated Travis higher in the on-beat condition and much lower in the static condition, whereas solitary listeners rated the robot similarly in both conditions.

What is next for Human-Robot Interaction Research?

Hoffman’s experimental results coincide with other research in Human-Robot Interaction that suggest that humans respond similarly to robots as they would humans in social conditions. The study leads the way for further research on human-robot interaction and how researchers can better understand the relationship. The research is also beneficial for companies looking to create robotic agents that can enhance an individual’s experience.

Additional References:

(1) North, A. C., Hargreaves, D. J., & Hargreaves, J. J. (2004). Uses of music in everyday life. Music perception22(1), 41-77.

(2) Boer, D., & Abubakar, A. (2014). Music listening in families and peer groups: Benefits for young people’s social cohesion and emotional well-being across four cultures. Frontiers in Psychology5, 392.

(3) Keeler, J. R., Roth, E. A., Neuser, B. L., Spitsbergen, J. M., Waters, D. J. M., & Vianney, J. M. (2015). The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: Bonding and oxytocin. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 518.

(4) Kiilavuori, H., Sariola, V., Peltola, M. J., & Hietanen, J. K. (2021). Making eye contact with a robot: Psychophysiological responses to eye contact with a human and with a humanoid robot. Biological Psychology158, 107989.