Five years ago, I joined a community choir. I’d long forgotten how to read music, had more of a croak than a contralto and no idea whether I was soprano or alto these days. But the smiles were warm and there were home-baked cookies, so I kept going back.
Within a few weeks, I found myself humming every day, conquering the tricky bits in the harmonies (turns out I’m still an alto) and generally bouncing around a bit more than usual. It wasn’t until summer rolled round that I realised I’d escaped winter without the dreaded lurgy, although I chalked this up to good luck rather than the magical properties of singing.
It wasn’t until life’s circumstances kept me away from my little choir that I began to really appreciate its benefits. Was it a coincidence I felt sharper, fitter and more alive when singing Broadway classics every Thursday night?
The links between music and health get stronger every day with studies showing tunes can reduce pain, eliminate anxiety, improve sleep and boost cognitive ability.
Recently, attention has turned to the performance of music rather than the passive experience of listening to it. Studies of adult choirs in Sweden have found singing in unison synchronises people’s heart rates and breathing, creating a calming effect across the group. Further studies on children in hospital have shown singing together greatly reduces stress and anxiety.
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Professor Graham Welch, Chair of Music at the University of London has been studying the developmental and medical benefits of singing for three decades. He says, “Singing is an aerobic activity that increases oxygenation in the blood stream and exercises major muscle groups in the upper body, even when sitting.
“It also has a positive effect in reducing stress levels through the action of the endocrine system, which is linked to our sense of well-being. Psychological benefits are also evident when people sing together because of the increased sense of community, belonging and shared endeavour,” says the Professor.
Further research shows that belting out a few rounds of your favourite Mamas and Papas song could even prolong your life. A joint Harvard and Yale study showed singing in a choir actually increased the life expectancy of the population or New Haven in Connecticut. Researchers decided this was due to a combination of singing improving heart health and creating an enhanced mental state.
In fact, singing may be just mind-altering as yoga. “Song is a form of regular, controlled breathing,” says Dr Björn Vickhoff from the Gothenburg University in Sweden. “Breathing out occurs on the song phrases and inhaling takes place between these. This gives you pretty much the same effect as yoga breathing. It helps you relax, and there are indications that it does provide a heart benefit”.
As for colds and flu, my healthy streak may have been less to do with lady luck and more to do with Let It Be – a University of California study found higher than normal levels of immune-system proteins in the saliva of choir members after performing a piece by Beethoven.
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I know what you’re going to say, so let me jump in here: you don’t have to be Barbra Streisand to enjoy the benefits of singing. I mentioned earlier my group is a community choir. There are no auditions, no experience necessary, and no one expects you to sing alone. To be frank, our members range from superb to completely tone deaf. Ours is a performance choir, but there are others out there that simply sing for the love of it. Either way, singing is the point.
If a choir isn’t really your thing, you can still find ways to get more song into your life. You could attend a Kirtan, which is a form of yogic meditation where a group comes together to chant mantras, usually accompanied by drums and some other instruments. The simple, melodic repetition is another form of singing and even if you don’t understand the words (usually in Sanskrit), it’s easy to follow along and enjoy the endorphin rush.
A quick Google search for choirs or kirtans in your areas will provide the opportunities, and if there’s nothing available, you could always create your own!
Of course, singing along to your favourite music at home or in the car is also great, better still if you can grab a loved one and croon together. And once you’ve got your groove on, you might find you want to create music to sing along to. I’ve recently taken up the ukulele, but that’s another story…
Do you sing? And do you do it with others? Tell us what you love about it!