Is Choral Singing the New Prozac?
From formal concert choirs to belting out tunes around a campfire with friends and family, research shows that singing as a group is good for us! So why does it seem to have gone out of style? Why do families no longer gather around the piano, or friends break into drinking songs down at the local pub? Jennifer discusses new research into the physical, mental, and psychological benefits of singing as a group, and why we need to bring it back.
If you prefer to read rather than listen, scroll down to read a transcription.
“The Surprising Health Benefits of Singing in a Choir” (article on Artistworks.com)
Some seventh-inning serenading at a Chicago White Sox game (hear “Na Na Hey Hey” at 1:44)
Here’s a link to the famous Coke commercial that has infected the brains of so many generations. You’re welcome! 🙂
Transcription of Episode 14: Is Choral Singing the New Prozac?
I’ve just come back from a community choir rehearsal. I say “choir” when technically the particular group I sing with calls itself a “chorale.” I didn’t know what the difference was, so I went to Webster’s Dictionary, which defines a “choir” as an organized company of singers, a “chorus” as “an organized company of singers, especially who sing the choral parts of a work such as an opera, and a “chorale” as a synonym for “choir” or “chorus.” Not very helpful. Maybe some of you listeners who are better educated I the fine points of musical terminology can clue me in. At any rate, I choose to call my group a ‘choir” in casual conversation, because when I say “chorale”, meaning the musical group, some people think I’m saying “corral,” the place where you ride horses, and all sorts of misunderstandings ensue.
My community choir is rehearsing a lot these days, because we have a concert coming up in June. To be honest, I don’t always like going to rehearsal. Often I resent having to make space for it in my schedule, and I have to drag myself to the practice venue, and only my highly developed sense of personal responsibility spurs me on. Once I’m there, though, and once I’ve warmed up and am singing, my cares melt away, until the only thing I really care about is mastering that tricky passage that seems next to impossible, or counting the measure correctly. And when we do it right, when the conductor stops casting the evil eye toward my section and heaving deep sighs indicative of great pain and suffering, when he actually looks pleased, when all the parts come together, it feels glorious. I leave rehearsal tired in a different way. Physically tired, mentally fatigued, but somehow buoyed up in my spirit.
It turns out, there are actual scientific reasons for this. An article posted at Artistworks.com says recent research bears this out.
According to the article, which I’ll link to in the show notes, humans bond best when we are making music with each other.
Studies show that our physical health is improved by singing: lower blood pressure, increased blood oxygen saturation, elevated immunity, stronger respiration, and less stuttering. Singing and other forms of music-making also produces measurable changes in the brain!
When we sing, we breathe deeply, as in meditation, with the same good effects like improvements in mood, decrease in stress, depression and anxiety. These effects are even more enhanced in a group setting, compared to singing alone. In other words, singing alone is good, singing with others is even better.
Turns out humans like to have a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, to be part of a larger community. We get that feeling when we sing in a group. And research shows that this deliberate synchronizing with others makes us feel more altruistic, more generous, more ethical, more helpful toward others, and more willing to respectfully listen to others’ points of view. This is starting to sound a lot like “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”–extra points to those of you who are old enough to remember that iconic Coke commercial of old.
No less than the noted researcher and author Daniel Pink writes, “Exercise is one of the few activities in life that is indisputably good for us. Choral singing might be the new exercise.” Pink goes on to cite the following: “Choral singing calms the heart and boosts endorphin levels. It improves lung function. It increases pain thresholds and reduces the need for pain medication.” Similar effects have been found in athletes who must synchronize efforts and their sense of timing, like dancers and rowers.
So, no wonder choir rehearsal makes me feel good … well, most of the time. But with all that good stuff coming out of singing together as a group, why has group singing mostly fallen out of favor nowadays? For example, lots of the older novels I like to read mention families gathering together around a piano to sing, just for fun, or people going caroling at Christmas, or singing folk songs on a hayride or around a bonfire. Workers used to sing together to make the long days pass more quickly. Thus we have a whole treasury of folk songs centered around the railroad, the mine, the forest, the farm … even the prison yard. Maybe today’s professions don’t lend themselves to singing as much as the professions of yore. There are no software-coding songs that I know of.
Schools had songs, and sports teams had songs. Outside of singing the National Anthem, and maybe “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at the seventh-inning stretch, or “Sweet Caroline” or “Na-na-hey-hey,” do sports fans sing anymore?
Some writers have put forth theories about why we don’t sing together anymore. One is that we’ve turned from a culture of participation to a culture of performance. We pay to watch professionals perform and keep our own mouths shut. A hundred years or more ago, people also paid to watch professionals perform. Singers like Enrico Caruso and Jenny Lind drew crowds. But listening to the pros didn’t stop people from also gathering around the piano at home. So why does it stop us now, if it does stop it? Even some of our churches have given in to this nowadays, disbanding the traditional choir and sitting back to listen to the worship band perform instead of singing together as a congregation.
The rise of streaming music has also meant a splintering of what we listen to. There is no common body of songs that everybody knows, like the Top 40 of my youth. I remember driving on a highway late one night with my brother and his wife. To pass the time, we sang as many pop songs as we could think of, the ones we liked and even the ones we hated, and we laughed and laughed. Today, with everybody tuned to their own individual downloads, I don’t think people today have a common songbook like that. Do they? It’s hard to sing together if you don’t all know the words.
For whatever reason, group singing seems to have fallen out of favor. Members of community choirs like my own tend to be older, looking, as one wag put it, like a bunch of cotton swabs on stage with all that white hair. As these music-lovers die out, who will take their place? My sense is that, to the younger generation, singing as a group is nerdy and uncool. And that makes me sad. People who feel that way are missing out on all those great physical and mental health benefits mentioned earlier, and the sheer joy of learning new music or pulling out old favorites and singing them together. They’re missing out, and that makes me sad. It makes me want to teach the world to sing. In perfect harmony. I’d like to buy the world a Coke. And keep it company.
Why don’t you try group singing sometime soon? Start small, maybe with your family, in the car on a long trip. In church, open your mouth and actually sing the hymns with gusto–don’t sit back and let the worship band do all the heavy lifting.
Today’s grace note is a book I’ve been enjoying called The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan. It’s historical fiction set in England during World War II. With most of the men away fighting in the war, it’s decided that the choir of the local church should be disbanded. The women in the choir rebel at this, and choose to carry on singing, resurrecting themselves as the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. While most of the novel focuses on the individual stories of the women involved, the common bond of the choir sustains and encourages them during difficult times. If you like books like Lilac Girls and The Nightingale, this might be a good one for you. Unlike many novels set during wartime, this one is not depressing or gloomy, but more about courage and camaraderie. Of course I’ll put a link the show notes, which can be found at sparklingvintagelife.com/podcast. You can also leave a comment there.
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