The Benefits of Singing and the Orchestra in my Head

choirThe orchestra in my head.

In the three years since our daughters were born I think I have sung more notes than in the previous couple of decades. We sing in the car, at breakfast , to settle down for bed, at playgroups and sometimes just for no reason at all. And you know what? I am great at it. In my head. Pre-vocalisation I am in tune and often there is an orchestral accompaniment. Then it comes out my mouth and it sounds somewhat flat (or sharp) and a tad toneless. None-the-less I enjoy it – in particular I enjoy singing quietly to (or, I admit sometimes, at) my daughters in the wee hours when it is just us.

It turns out singing is good for you. Personally, I find it has a absorbing quality (much like gardening!) which de-stresses to the extent it makes you mindful of the present without worrying about everything else. If you really belt out a tune, the cardio effects can raise endorphin levels much like exercises such as running or swimming. I did consider trying this when singing to my daughter last night, but it was suggested to me that she only has small ears, I can probably project quite loudly, and the two may lead to less than positive parenting.

You can do it by yourself and have fun, but it’s better with others

The real benefit of singing seem to be realised when you do it with other people. Some of these benefits may be physical – singing ‘properly’ for instance, gives you training and regular engagement in a form of cardiac exercise, which is generally good. Cancer patients with compromised lung function, for example, have been shown to have better expiration levels and better immune system responses after a course of singing than a control group[1]. Singing in a group also generates two important hormonal responses. The first of these is a decrease in cortisol production[2]. I’ve talked about cortisol’s role in stress responses before. Whilst you naturally experience increases and decreases in the day, increased cortisol is typically linked to negative experiences of stress and too much is linked to poor health outcomes. Choral singing has been shown to reduce levels of cortisol and increase positive emotions.

The other hormonal response which is striking is an increase in oxytocin[3]. Oxytocin is great stuff. We produce masses of it at emotionally significant times in our life – when falling in love, after being intimate with our partner, when our children are born and, apparently, after a good choral session. This ‘bonding’ hormone brings people closer together and can produce feelings of intense (usually positive emotions). It can also be a bit of an aphrodisiac apparently, which may explain generations of hopeful swains singing outside of damsels’ windows in medieval tales!

The effects of singing are not just chemical. Choral singing also seems to increases feelings of social connection, evidenced by self-report[4]. We’ll look at the importance of social connections soon in detail, but trust me, they are pretty much the most important thing you can have to improve your mental wellbeing!

My own choral experience is limited – they won’t allow my mental orchestra to join apparently. But, I do recall on several occasions nearly being moved to tears simply sitting with my daughter on my lap in a singing a simple song with other parents and their children. I put down the heightened emotion down to sleep deprived at the time, but know I think it was something else. I suspect had I had the opportunity to get my hormones analysed after these groups, I would have found very low cortisol, and plenty of oxytoxin. I should do this with my children more often whilst I have the chance…

If you want to find out more about this, I would really recommend a visit to the Sidney De Hann Research Centre webpage. These guys are systematically investigating how singing can benefit people in all sorts of way and championing ‘singing by prescription’. Indeed, it was a meeting with their Director, Stephen Clift (and chats with super psychologist Genevieve Dingle working at Queensland University), which inspired this weeks post!

Tell me what you think of this post, and don’t forget to sign up for email updates or visit the bookshop if you enjoyed it!

References

[1]Daisy Fancourt, Aaron Williamon, Livia A Carvalho, Andrew Steptoe, Rosie Dow, Ian Lewis. Singing modulates mood, stress, cortisol, cytokine and neuropeptide activity in cancer patients and carers. ecancermedicalscience, 2016; 10
[2]Beck, R.J., Cesari, T.C., Yousefi, A. & Enamoto, H. (2000). Choral singing, performance perception, and immune system changes in salivary immunoglobulin A and cortisol, Music Perception, 18(1), 87–106.
[3]Keeler, J. R., Roth, E. A., Neuser, B. L., Spitsbergen, J. M., Waters, D. J., & Vianney, J. M. (2015). The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: bonding and oxytocin. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 518. provides a nice overview.

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