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
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.