Singing Changes Your Brain

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

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

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.

54 comments
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

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.


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!

annas
annas

There is an old tradition called "Sacred Harp Singing," sung with others on a regular basis, four-part harmony, no audience, free and open to anyone. There are groups singing in most cities and towns, just check fasola.org

MonicaMcCannMarks
MonicaMcCannMarks

So we were just being healthy the other night on the deck...not just being silly

harriett
harriett

almost every protestant church has a choir--free.  Ours would certainly welcme you--church membership is not a prerequisite.

Jolenecf
Jolenecf

Sweet Adelines International is another way to go for ladies and the Barbershop Harmony Society for men! I've been singing with Sweet Adelines for more than 15 years and it has transformed my life!


PeterStampfel
PeterStampfel

there was an article by eno in ode magazine a few years back about the four-i think- person a cappella group he got together with on a weekly basis, a totally non-commercial venture. he spells out a number of benefits, like making paying attention to other people automatic, and rightly suggests that singing together in all schools should be part of the ciriculum (sp?). as a pro musician, i've been experimenting with starting shows with our group and the audience doing vocal improvisation together. the duration is 4 deep breaths. shallow breathers can do extras if they finish early. examples: everybody hum ( any sound, but mouths closed), everybody falsetto, everybody ish kabibble (pucker lips, manipulate them with fingers/hand(s)) (big fun!), go from lowest sound you can make to highest sound and back, any vowel sound, like all a's, or o's etc. there's lots more! this does a great job of connecting performer(s) & audience. also fun to do with any number of singers as a warm up. also gets you high real fast. antway, i'm promoting this exersize for use by pro and non-pros alike. but yeah, your articl is spot on!

ShamsAci
ShamsAci

CREATIVE LIVING AWARENESS WELFARE (CLAW):

It’s really delightful research report news that singing has been scientifically proven to lower stress, relieve anxiety, and elevate endorphins. For future I'll surely make it a point for myself to sing often whenever I find suitable time and situation knowing that singing releases tense and induces relaxation as that I felt in the past as well.

Sw33t_Ladi757
Sw33t_Ladi757

playing in a band/orchestra/symphony is just as effective

Phoenicia
Phoenicia

Stacy, thanks for dropping in to chat with everyone.  Such a great topic.  I used to be a poetry teacher.  So the effects of rhyme and rhythm are fascinating even without the music.  We often say of poetry that it faces the discordant challenges of life and shapes them into harmony.  Think of this excerpt from a poem by Auden, written in 1939 In Memory of W.B. Yeats:

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.
...
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

George_T
George_T

Right on.  There are two things I tell people about singing Barbershop.  1) This is one of my mental health tools. It's cheaper than therapy, and it lasts longer.  2) Singing in a barbershop quartet, making those tight chords ring with such clear strong overtones, is really the most fun four guys can have with their clothes on.  Here's how to find one near you.  http://ebiz.barbershop.org/ebusiness/Public/ChapterProximitySearch2.aspx

Phoenicia
Phoenicia

A related research question, of course, would be the destructive power of sound.  I much prefer reading newspapers to listening to news on TV or Video.  I think that is because with print I can control which stories I read and how much time I spend on each one.  Reading helps me control the traumatic impact of violent news stories.  However, in light of the singing and harmony issue, I wonder if the human voice, telling me about the violence and corruption in the world, also gives the negative stories more traumatic impact, which would be the opposite of the healing impact of choral singing.  We know that certain sounds can shatter glass and could presumably be used as weapons.  This is a very important field of research, I think.  I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

PauloFaustini
PauloFaustini

This is why I take American choral singers to perform in Umbria, Italy, every summer for a 12 day choral and cultural extravaganza!  Add the cultural component and choral singers have life transforming experiences!!!  www.umbrianserenades.com


Phoenicia
Phoenicia

I am a cancer patient.  Although I have often meditated and prayed throughout my life, I find now that listening to choral and solo singing is my number 1 therapy, along with prayer and meditation, of course.  The cancer is in my bones, and after my thigh bone cracked, the surgeon who fixed it with a pin inserted into the bone said it would not heal without radiation and even with radiation it might not heal.  It took so long to get my Medicaid funding straightened out, it was several months after surgery before I started radiation.  My leg did heal and I am walking.  I don't sing much myself anymore because, as a trained singer, I don't have the strength or breathing which real singing requires, but I have a lifetime of memories.  When I attend church in person, I can only make it through one or two hymns myself and then I just listen to the rest of the music. When I listen to singing and any music, I swear that I feel it in my bones as well as in my heart and mind and soul.  I have seen research showing the geometrical patterns which sound makes.  Some esoteric researchers say the patterns of sound correspond to the carvings in Rosselyn Chapel which was built by a former master of the Knights Templers.  Freemasons hand down the mystical traditions of ancient Egypt and Greece which include the Pythagorean traditions of music and harmony and their link to medicine and physics.  I hope modern researchers develop scientific research to help us understand better the healing power of music, especially the power of hymns and lullabies.

NicklasJohnson
NicklasJohnson

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

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.

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!

elindi
elindi

yikes sorry for the huge screenshot

StacyHorn
StacyHorn

@annas Yes! We were talking about this in earlier comments.  I wasn't aware of shape note singing, I have to say, but a lot of people have been telling me about it and I plan to try it in the fall.

StacyHorn
StacyHorn

@Jolenecf It's great how many opportunities there are out there to sing whatever kind of music you like, and it just seems to be increasing. 32 million people = 10% of the population of the country.  A lot of us sing!

StacyHorn
StacyHorn

@PeterStampfel Sounds amazing! By any chance are there videos on Youtube of you doing this? It does sound fun and a great way to just bring everyone together. I bet they listen even more intensely after that. Because now they know you in a way they didn't before, having shared that intimacy I mentioned.  

Also, I quote Brian Eno at the very beginning of my book.  It's a great quote of his, he says it all:  "I believe in singing. I believe in singing together."

StacyHorn
StacyHorn

@Sw33t_Ladi757 I believe you. I focused on singers, that was experience I was writing about in my book (which is part memoir, part the history and science of singing).

StacyHorn
StacyHorn

@eetom There is much much much more research about listening to music, although that is changing.  Speaking very generally, the results are similar.

StacyHorn
StacyHorn

@Phoenicia Very moving.  And yes, once you express something harmonically, it does seem to undeniably, unavoidably, transform it into something more positive.

StacyHorn
StacyHorn

@George_T Yeah, I'd agree with "most fun four guys [anyone] can have with their clothes on."

StacyHorn
StacyHorn

@Phoenicia I've listened to music about the Holocaust, some of which was unbearably sad, but still had that element of healing. I guess it depends of the composer's intent. But you bring up a very interest ... direction.  There must be music out there written by people who were angry, and weren't writing to heal, but draw attention to something awful, something that still needed to be addressed.  

KirinNielsen
KirinNielsen

@PauloFaustini I add my voice here! Paulo's wonderful Umbrian Serenades is absolutely wonderful. If you're a singer who loves singing in a chamber choir, or loves going to wonderful places, or enjoys the company of delightful people, or gets excited about fabulous wine and food and history and art and language, then go! I wish I could; I know lots of people who have, and therefore recommend it highly!

StacyHorn
StacyHorn

@Phoenicia This is not something I went deeply into when researching my book, but I believe there are people researching this.  Certainly there were architects who designed with a sacred or mystical purpose. Now I feel like looking into this more.

And I absolutely believe you are feeling it in your bones. (And I'm glad you healed.)

LillianMcKimmyLahiri
LillianMcKimmyLahiri

It's great! There's an old saying about it:

"I wouldn't walk across the street to hear it, but I'd walk all day to get to sing it."

PeterStampfel
PeterStampfel

@StacyHorn @PeterStampfel don't think we've posted any vids, but it's a good idea. people i play with are still farandwide for summer, we will post some sept/oct. can i buy yr book directly from you? or wanna swap for an equal $ amount of my CDs? you on facebook?

LillianMcKimmyLahiri
LillianMcKimmyLahiri

When the Nazis brought international observers to their concentration camp for musicians, artists & intellectuals, to shoe how humane it was, the resident chorus and orchestra presented the Dies Irae from Verdi's Requiem. It's a terrifying musical representation of the "day of wrath" text from the Catholic mass. Basically, they were singing a challenge and warning that God would deal justly with the wicked. They got their point across. Their were repercussions, but they had the satisfaction of having used their art to stand up boldly as a community and sing truth to power.