The role of music, in globalised Western folk theories, appears limited to hedonic listening. Even in this limited context, music is recognised as having significant social effects largely through its powers to modulate emotion; music has been shown to exert a powerful influence in areas as disparate as the formation of a sense of self‐identity, or the experience of narrative multimedia. But music takes diverse forms in different societies. In many cultures music is not just for listening but is a participatory medium; research in cognitive neuroscience has shown that music can have extremely potent effects not only on how individuals interact with one another but also on the development of a capacity for empathic interaction. This paper will outline some of the ways in which music's social effects have become a focus for scientific exploration, and will outline some of the underlying mechanisms that endow music with such powers.