Singing Changes Your Brain

Group singing has been scientifically proven to lower stress, relieve anxiety, and elevate endorphins

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When you sing, musical vibrations move through you, altering your physical and emotional landscape. Group singing, for those who have done it, is the most exhilarating and transformative of all. It takes something incredibly intimate, a sound that begins inside you, shares it with a roomful of people and it comes back as something even more thrilling: harmony. So it’s not surprising that group singing is on the rise. According to Chorus America, 32.5 million adults sing in choirs, up by almost 10 million over the past six years. Many people think  of church music when you bring up group singing, but there are over 270,000 choruses across the country and they include gospel groups to show choirs like the ones depicted in Glee to strictly amateur groups like Choir! Choir! Choir! singing David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World.

As the popularity of group singing grows, science has been hard at work trying to explain why it has such a calming yet energizing effect on people. What researchers are beginning to discover is that singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits.

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.  A very recent study even attempts to make the case that “music evolved as a tool of social living,” and 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.

The benefits of singing regularly seem to be cumulative. In one study, singers were found to have lower levels of cortisol, indicating lower stress.  A very preliminary investigation suggesting that our heart rates may sync up during group singing could also explain why singing together sometimes feels like a guided group meditation.  Study after study has found that singing relieves anxiety and contributes to quality of life. Dr. Julene K. Johnson, a researcher who has focused on older singers, recently began a five year study to examine group singing as an affordable method to improve the health and well-being of older adults.

It turns out you don’t even have to be a good singer to reap the rewards.  According to one 2005 study, group singing “can produce satisfying and therapeutic sensations even when the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.”  Singing groups vary from casual affairs where no audition is necessary to serious, committed professional or avocational choirs like the Los Angeles Master Chorale or my chorus in New York City, which I joined when I was 26 and depressed, all based on a single memory of singing in a choir at Christmas, an experience so euphoric I never forgot it.

If you want to find a singing group to join, ChoirPlace and ChoralNet are good places to begin, or more local sites like the New York Choral Consortium, which has links to the Vocal Area Network and other sites, or the Greater Boston Choral Consortium.  But if you can’t find one at any of these sites, you can always google “choir” or “choral society” and your city or town to find more. Group singing is cheaper than therapy, healthier than drinking, and certainly more fun than working out.  It is the one thing in life where feeling better is pretty much guaranteed.  Even if you walked into rehearsal exhausted and depressed, by the end of the night you’ll walk out high as a kite on endorphins and good will.

84 comments
Kathy-R
Kathy-R

I know with out a doubt that music is good for the brain!  I started having seizures 7 years ago. The Drs. did not know what was going  on for 3 years until I had my first grand-mal seizure. I ended up having a total of 5 grand-mal seizures and petiet-mal seizures everyday.  I could do things but I was not here cognitively. I called myslf the walking dead. They were getting ready to take a piece of my brain out and going through other alternative measures I stopped having seizures within 2 weeks. When I woke up out of the fog. I did not have any memory of life.The world and so on. When I saw the beauty of the trees the fields the flowers it was like seeing it all for the first time! I was in such awe this is so beautiful!!!  Here is where the music comes in. The radio was on and I was singing along and knew the beat and all the words. I did not remember the persons or group singing it but I just sang along. Mind you I did not even remember who I was. The music was there though.  I was shocked yet so happy. It has been almost 3 years sense then. I still do not have most of the memory of my life, but I do have the MUSIC IN ME !!!  The one thing I can think of is that in music you use both sides of your brain and it is so beautiful !!!  Thanks for reading!!!  BE Well !!!


MarijaneScott
MarijaneScott

@Kathy-R Thank you so much!  I sent a copy of your lovely words to a dear friend who has epilepsy and grand mals.  Then I phoned my 95 YO mother, who is in extreme pain all the time and can barely move, but she used to sing.  She things your idea is great!  Much appreciation to you.  Marijane

ansibil
ansibil

Sacred Harp singing is basically the best of all words to get these benefits: it's very energetic, has a tremendous sense of community, happens all the time, requires no expertise, and has cathartic words. I am so glad I found this tradition.

MichaelChik
MichaelChik

Why don't you just find the music concerts in your area that you can afford, go to them, and sing along with the music artists? 

Anne-SophieBourgeois
Anne-SophieBourgeois

You should Come And See a french choir called CHAMADE Who is making a show about Serge Gainsbourg songs.

We are 30 on stage with musicians, singing, acting And dancing. That rocks!

Www.ensemble-chamade.fr

Chamade is also on FB

Enjoy

MickWalsh
MickWalsh

There is a film in production that strongly touches on this subject specifically through the growing phenonomen of Mantra singing and Kirtan yoga. The teaser trailer is worth a few minutes of your time. Its on their website http://www.mantramovie.com

SKlomrod
SKlomrod

It is believed that music is the language of the soul. This gave way to the creation of different songs that people around the world like to sing together. When you hear a striking song over the radio or perhaps you're watching a singing artist perform on stage, you usually find yourself singing along. A lot of people want to sing and there are even those who take-up singing lessons but then again, they fail because they feel that they can't sing perfectly.

http://l1nk.com/FREESingingTipsVideo

brandon1
brandon1

I think we are drawn to singing, and the reason why it is so popular is, because we want to feel harmony within ourselves (and our environment), and singing allows us to physical experience harmony in a way that playing instruments can't get to quite as intimately. At my toronto singing studio http://singersedge.com, I'm continuously amazed at the number of adults who, through taking voice and singing lessons, experience a physical metamorphosis, or finally come out of their shell as adults, from this simple, yet quite complex art of self-expression. 

CreativityAustralia
CreativityAustralia

Brilliant article! Singing has been central to community, culture and storytelling worldwide for generations. It's a shame our voices are so often silenced to shower cubicles! 


The With One Voice choir program (recently named one of Australia's top social innovations) capitalises on the neurological benefits of singing, bringing people together from all walks of life at 15 locations across the nation. A pilot is now under development in Phoenix, Arizona. It's all about wellbeing, inclusion, joy, freedom and inspiration! 


Through the Wish List, participants grant one another wishes big and small... the choirs are fascinating global villages and we're constantly touched by the stories that emerge from the groups. 


www.creativityaustralia.org.au


See also WOV Founder and Chair Tania de Jong AM's recent TEDtalk How singing together changes the brain: www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_HOBr8H9EM 

PauloFaustini
PauloFaustini

This is why I go to Umbria, Italy, every summer and sing with other choral singers!  www.umbrianserenades.com  Great article!!!

IamBullyproofMusic
IamBullyproofMusic

I have had people say to me "I'm not like you. I can't just go sing a song and feel better!" But the truth is quite the opposite; of course they can! That's why we attach social emotional learning to singing for kids in the first place. Double win! LOVE LOVE LOVE this!

2bsmithinc
2bsmithinc

Music should not be credited as an "evolutionary reward". We were created to glorify the Lord and are called to do so by praising his name.

"Let them praise the name of the Lord: for he commanded, and they were created." Psalms 148:5

"Sing forth the honour of his name: make his praise glorious. Say unto God, How terrible art thou in thy works! through the greatness of thy power shall thine enemies submit themselves unto thee. All the earth shall worship thee, and shall sing unto thee; they shall sing to thy name. Selah." Psalms 66:1-4

NicklasJohnson
NicklasJohnson

@2bsmithinc Load of nonsense.  Everyone knows we're to sing to please Apollo, lest we be destroyed by Zeus.

MidgeWagner
MidgeWagner

M. Wagner

I have been teaching Native American drumming and songs for about 20 yrs, and I totally agree.  People come to lessen the withdrawal effects of alcohol recovery, stress from every day life, and just plain joy in singing the traditional songs. I hope to be teaching for the next 20 years.

dlpprogram
dlpprogram

It's one of the most natural things for humans to do. I teach many instruments (including voice) and whenever a student of mines says "I can't sing" I usually say, "really?" , "Who taught you  Happy Birthday?".   Music should be fun, communal, it is a verb not a noun - it's something we all do (espoused by the great music philosopher Christopher Small) and it is valid at every level. There's no need fro a rallying cry for music in schools...we simply need more adults making music.  Engaged adults will make sure their children schools will make room for the arts.

JanetF.
JanetF.

I have gotten 3rd graders to willingly and happily memorize and recite over 40 poems in a school year. This research is very interesting to me in that the joy that emanates for both the children and the listeners who have been involved in doing this for the last 10 years. There is no pressure, test, homework or requirement to do this. They WANT to do it as a group. The educational benefits are wide using my simple strategies. (For reading, vocabulary, writing, content knowledge, character development, performance etc.) This takes very little class time, too. Children ask to recite the poems and return to reunion nights, too. I think there is a connection with this research. Thanks for your article!

GabrielleThierry
GabrielleThierry

I just love what you say, it reminds me of Venite Cantemus, it is a charity event held in Paris (France) on 7th December, where choral singers from around the world will perform Handel's Messiah in order to raise money for autism. Singing together is always a treat, meeting with people from different cultures who share the same passion is another, spending a week in Paris... Details and booking on venitecantemus.com


KirinNielsen
KirinNielsen

Singing in ensembles has been connected with all of the important, good, happy, moving, inspiring, ecstatic, profound times in my life. This is why I sing a lot (I'll be in three very fine choirs this coming academic year), why my vacations have almost all been associated with singing (choir tours, specialized courses in singing, conducting masterclasses), and why I eventually earned a master's degree and doctoral degree in choral conducting and choral literature. This is why I love to conduct choirs (and have conducted choirs for singers of all ages and many levels of ability); and even when I have that opportunity, I seek out opportunities to sing in ensembles. Most of my friends sing. My sister and her husband met in church choir (this happens over and over in choirs). Singing in choirs (especially if your ability and experience are pretty closely matched with the choirs you sing in, allowing for the benefit of being challenged) is good for the soul, and can be a life-long source of pleasure, and spiritual and intellectual rewards.


StacyHorn
StacyHorn

@KirinNielsen I have nothing to add to that.  Except, yeah. Conducting is a whole other thing, I have no experience with that.  I appreciate the people who take on this responsibility.

elindi
elindi

Stacy, I'm wondering if you know about Circlesinging? It's a form of choral improv, usually with a leader (Bobby McFerrin is well known for doing this, and in fact I'll be attending his workshop next week! OMG can't wait). You can get a taste here: http://vimeo.com/70876746

I've been part of a group in Oakland CA for many years - we do an annual 12-hour circlesong, as well as 2-hour ones monthly. It's accessible to beginners and pros alike, and lots of fun - and no sheet music to learn!

elindi
elindi

yikes sorry for the huge screenshot

StacyHorn
StacyHorn

@elindi I'm not sure if I've heard the term Circlesinging, but I went to a panel a few years ago at the World Science Festival (something that has been happening yearly for around 4 years or so here in NYC) and Bobby McFerrin gave a talk and then a demonstration, and we all sang.  It was great, and what singer in the world could possibly not love Bobby McFerrin?  Since writing this book I've been learning a lot more about singing opportunities that are out there. Thanks for telling me about this!