Harvard Health Letter

In Brief: Sing along for health

In Brief

Sing along for health

Their mouths curve into O's as if in collective astonishment. Sometimes they sway. Other times, they lean toward each other, gathering themselves for that climactic note.

Whether in a barbershop quartet, an a cappella group, a gospel choir, or a community chorus, people who sing together often seem utterly happy and engaged.

And it may be true. Scientists have researched the effects of group singing, and the results show benefits for mood, stress levels, and even the immune system.

Researchers in Germany used questionnaires and before-and-after saliva samples to compare the effects of singing choral music with just listening to it. They found that singing buoyed mood and boosted the immune system activity. Just listening to choral music dampened spirits, although it did decrease the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

Singing may also offer benefits not unlike those of deep breathing exercises, which are recommended as a way to promote the stress-relieving "relaxation response." It requires similar deep, controlled breathing and focuses the person's attention on the lungs, diaphragm, and abdominal muscles.

Many studies have shown that people with various kinds of speech problems can often sing words that they have difficulty speaking. In 2006, University of Montreal psychologists reported that singing per se didn't help eight people with speech difficulties caused by damage to the left side of their brains. But singing in unison with a recording did help. The researchers said the results suggest that choral singing might be good therapy for some speech disorders.

The sing-along effect may not be limited to members of the choir. In his popular book Bowling Alone, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government professor Robert Putnam identified group song as a form of civic engagement that could lead to other kinds of involvement, such as volunteer work or political activism. On his Web site, www.bettertogether.org, Putnam includes singing in a choir on his list of ways to build "social capital" — the social networks, trust between individuals, and so on that make people happier and probably healthier, too.

Diet and exercise — they dominate health advice. But perhaps it's time we started giving other activities — like choral singing — their due. We agree with Garrison Keillor: "To sing like this, in the company of other souls, and to make those consonants slip out so easily and in unison, and to make those chords so rich that they bring tears to your eyes. This is transcendence." And it may be good for your health, too.