We are all familiar with the power of music. It can evoke a wide range of emotions, from lifting our spirits, to helping us process grief; yet singing can be even more powerful than listening to music. Besides being a healthy aerobic exercise, singing out loud has been found to be an effective stress reliever and mood enhancer; and when our mood improves, our health follows.
Sarah Wilson, clinical neuropsychologist and head of the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, led a study to see what happens in the brain when we sing. MRI scans showed that the “singing network” in the brain includes areas not only in the language hemisphere, but also those in the areas involved with emotion, sound-producing motion, and articulation.
Why we stress less when we sing
Like any aerobic exercise, singing releases endorphins, the ‘feel good’ hormones, or peptides, released from the pituitary gland in the brain. We may not think of singing as an aerobic exercise; but the deep breathing required to fill our lungs, the concentrated control of our vocal chords, and the mouth and body movements involved, all require physical exertion; so yes it is!
These endorphins reduce stress directly by improving our mood; and indirectly, as with a more positive outlook our immunity is strengthened, improving our ability to deal with stress.
The breathing itself can also be considered a stress reliever. Our parasympathetic nervous system, linked with quiet and restful physical situations, is stimulated when diaphragmatic (deep) breathing enables a high rate of oxygen exchange in the cells of the lungs. A study of the neurophysiological factors behind therapeutic breathing found that the focus required to control our breathing also stimulates areas of the brain linked to emotion and awareness.
Positive physical effects of singing
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In a 2004 study that looked at the effects of singing versus just listening to music, singers were found to have higher levels of immunoglobulin A, an antibody we use against infection, thus measurably enhancing the immune system.
A 2008 study on snoring, a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), found that singers were less likely to snore than their non-singing spouses. Researchers thus suggested singing as a therapy for snoring. Playing a wind instrument also appears to reduce snoring, and both activities may be considered helpful in treating OSA.
The deep breathing and controlled use of respiratory muscles required for singing may also improve lung function. Individuals suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), asthma, and cystic fibrosis may benefit from the strengthening effects of regular singing on the respiratory system.
The exercise of recalling song lyrics may improve memory. A 2016 study found that Alzheimer’s patients were not only able to remember song lyrics more readily than other things, but singing familiar songs also triggered memories that they had previously forgotten. Many participants were able to recall detailed autobiographical information after singing a song from their youth.
Research has also been done to determine whether singing can help those whose speech is affected by neurological conditions. Studies have found that singing does improve speaking ability for individuals with autism, Parkinson’s disease, stroke related aphasia, and stuttering. Perhaps because singing engages many areas of the brain, communication can be achieved through compensating the impaired area with a different active area.
Group singing builds empathy and sense of belonging
So, music is good. Singing is better. And singing in groups may be the best. As Wilson says in her report, “There is evidence that, in general, singing in a group enhances our sense of empathy and social connection. We see this at football clubs… people in congregations at church. It’s a community-building activity because we’re united in our voice.”
In addition to endorphins, oxytocin, or the “love hormone” is also released in the act of singing. Oxytocin as a hormone is instrumental in childbearing, breastfeeding and sexual activity. As a chemical messenger, it is believed to be linked to the sense of trust and bonding. So when singing in a group, we sense a warm feeling of connectedness.
A 2014 study, involving over 11,000 school children, found that children developed a strong sense of community when placed in a singing and musical engagement program. Likewise, a smaller study of adults showed a greater sense of meaningful connection and wellbeing for those who sang in groups than those who sang solo. This feeling of social connection is also believed to boost pain tolerance.
Singing and spirituality
Sarah Wilson believes that singing is “fundamental to our biological makeup,” and one of the “innate things that bring us connection and strength.”
Indeed, singing has been a basic part of life since ancient times as a form of devotion to the divine. All major religions have their own devotional hymns, chants, songs, or sung scriptures.
Such an expression of love and gratitude to the divine helps quell anxiety, depression and tension. As one sings, fears and worries are forgotten, and the heart fills with joy and radiance, much like a powerful meditation. In an offering to the heavenly spirit, sincerity in love and devotion are more important than your singing voice.
Does your voice matter for other practical purposes? Yes and no. Non-singers exercise only the language network of their brains when they sing, so some of the above-mentioned benefits are not realized. However, as we engage in singing, we can develop the specialized singing network in the brain, and reap the physiological rewards as well. In short, while you don’t have to be a songbird to benefit from singing, practice will improve not only your musical experience, but also your health and happiness.