Thursday 14 December 2017

Singing is not just fun, it improves quality of life

Gareth Malone from the Naked Choir
Gareth Malone from the Naked Choir

Patricia Casey

When in company, I have been known to sing at the drop of a hat. I don't need alcohol, I don't need an accompanist, although I prefer one, and I don't need to be asked. I just do it.

The transformative power of singing on the individual is immense. And singing in a group is likely to be even more powerful as harmonies are woven and beautiful sounds emerge. As Gareth Malone's series (currently The Naked Choir) on BBC has shown, people with no experience of singing either solo or otherwise, are flocking to choirs. They are no longer the preserve of the church-going, the retired elderly or the lonely.

In the US, the numbers in choirs are up 10 million in six years, with over 32 million now regularly engaging with choral groups. The question is: why are they so popular? And science has been trying to explain this.

An article in Time magazine in August 2013 by Stacy Horn (also the author of Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others) reported that: "The elation may come from endorphins, a hormone released by singing, which is associated with feelings of pleasure. Or it might be from oxytocin, another hormone released during singing, which has been found to alleviate anxiety and stress. Oxytocin also enhances feelings of trust and bonding, which may explain why still more studies have found that singing lessens feelings of depression and loneliness."

Others have made the case that "music evolved as a tool of social living".

One study found that a choir singing Mozart's Requiem released an immunoglobulin s-IgA that assists our immune defences, while others have shown that choir music reduces cortisol, one of the markers of stress in the body.

Prolactin, normally produced by lactating mothers, may be released by singing and so contributing to the calming effect of singing. This may explain why even sad music can make us feel better. And even mediocre singing has a positive effect on the choir members.

Another hypothesis proposed by Dr Björn Vickhoff from the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, is that "song is a form of regular, controlled breathing, since breathing out occurs on the song phrases and inhaling takes place between these".

And the pulse rate increases and decreases in unison among choir members with the combined effect on breathing and on heart rate being potentially similar to the beneficial effects of yoga.

It has been said that the pleasure that comes from singing together is our evolutionary reward for coming together cooperatively, instead of hiding alone, every cave-dweller for him or herself. In real terms, this is another way of saying that we form a relationship with others who have a common interest and this solidarity wards off loneliness and increases our sense of belonging.

In the September issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, I spotted a fascinating study on the impact of community singing on people over 60. The study was a randomised controlled trial in which 60 individuals were recruited from day centres for the elderly and from advertisements in the local media. They were assigned to singing plus usual activities and compared with those only engaging in usual activities.

The measures they compared in the two groups were related to quality of life, depression and anxiety and the intervention consisted of a 90-minute singing session over a period of 14 weeks.

The results indicate that depression and anxiety measures improved over the study period, and six months later, quality of life measures were still better than in the usual activities group.

It was also found to be cost-effective. These results confirm the benefits of group singing and the authors recommend that this is something which should be continued to enhance the mental health of elderly people.

Interestingly, singing is one of the few group activities that have been shown to be helpful unlike reminiscence groups, exercise or tai chi. This makes it likely that the benefit does not just derive from the social elements but that singing has some other elements that distinguish it from other activities.

So, whatever your type of choir - a cappella, polyphony, gospel, light opera, "Sacred Harp", traditional church, classical or pop - there is likely to be a genre that suits you, even if you can't read music.

You just have to be able to sing and be prepared to be surprised.

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