Those of you who have seen “The Theory of Everything”, the 2014 biopic of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking will remember the point in the film where his loyal wife Jane feels swamped and weighed down by the pressures of dealing with Hawking’s motor neuron disease, his increasing world renown, and of looking after two tiny children and trying to find the time and concentration to deal with her own thesis. Her mother then gives her the most British advice possible: she tells a daughter to join a choir!
The British choral tradition spans over a thousand years, and today there are literally thousands of amateur choruses up and down the country, over 80 cathedral and college choirs, and hundreds of smaller parish choirs. In the US, according to Chorus America statistics for 2013, 32.5 million adults were singing in choirs, with over 270,000 choruses across the country ranging from gospel groups to show choirs (like the ones shown in ‘Glee!’) to amateur initiatives.
In her 2013 book “Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness While Singing with Others”, Stacy Horn describes how joining a choir helped get her out of a “big black hole of depression”. She sought refuge in a community choir, and the work they took on was “a piece of music 230 pages long: Handel’s Messiah”. The experience left her “vibrating with a wondrous sense of musical rapport”. Since taking that crucial step, she hasn’t looked back: “I haven’t found the sorrow that couldn’t be at least somewhat alleviated, or the joy that couldn’t be made even greater, by singing.”
The scientific evidence for the advantages of singing, and singing in groups in particular, is mounting. Betty Bailey and Jane Davidson from the Department of Music, University of Sheffield UK published a paper in 2005 titled “Effects of group singing and performance for marginalised and middle-class singers” in the reputed peer-reviewed journal “Psychology of Music”. Their conclusions, among others, included the observation that “the emotional effects of participation in group singing are similar regardless of training or socioeconomic status”, that the same benefits were experienced even when “the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.”
A 2013 meta-analysis of 400 music studies by Mona Lisa Chanda and Daniel J. Levithin, department of Psychology, McGill University Montreal Canada looked at the “neurochemistry of music”. While it pointed out design flaws, lack of proper controls etc in many studies, some observations are interesting. Group singing (as opposed to singing solo) releases the hormone oxytocin. This hormone is known to the medical profession chiefly for its role in childbirth and lactation. But it is also an important chemical in promoting intimacy and social bonding and alleviating anxiety and stress. This might account for the finding revealed by several studies that singing diminishes feelings of loneliness and depression.
This is borne out by another study which measured cortisol levels in choral singers and found them to be diminished, indicating lower levels of stress. Other findings were that “choir singing positively influences both emotional affect and immune competence”.
A Swedish study indicates that during group singing, the heart rates of the participants “sync up”, giving a feeling akin to group meditation. Conversely, it can explain why group singing is such an important component of community worship. Saint Augustine of Hippo seemed to know instinctively what he was talking about when he proclaimed, “He who sings, prays twice”. One can shed worldly burdens and stressors much more easily, become relaxed and enter a higher spiritual plane or level of focus or concentration when one is singing.
A team of researchers presented seven studies in 2013 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology to put forth their theory that “music evolved in service of group living”, as a “tool of social living”. So music possibly began as a group activity! They conclude by saying that their findings “provide a reason for the intense psychological pull of music in modern life, suggesting that the pleasure we derive from listening to music results from its innate connection to the basic social drives that create our interconnected world.”
Another hormone in the cocktail unleashed within us by group singing and accounting for the sense of elation derived from it is endorphins, associated with the perception of pleasure.
To quote Stacy Horn again: “Group singing is cheaper than therapy, healthier than drinking, and certainly more fun than working out. It is the one thing in life where feeling better is pretty much guaranteed. Even if you walked into rehearsal exhausted and depressed, by the end of the night you’ll walk out high as a kite on endorphins and good will.”
Child’s Play India Foundation is lucky to have Nicholas Manlove from the US, and who is resident with our charity for a year. Since his arrival in September, he has single-handedly begun a children’s choir in Santa Cruz, comprising children from the parish school; and he has also started an adult community choir. Both choirs gave their debut performance at our Christmas concert on 12 December 2015 at Menezes Braganza hall. I have seen and heard the beneficial effects of group singing on this cohort of 40 children and 16 adults, and many of you may have heard their energy at the concert. The children would file in for rehearsal after a tiring school day, and leave rehearsals with a spring in their step. A similar effect was seen in the adults.
One has to actually be in a choir to experience the delicious “buzz” or “vibrations” coursing through one’s bodies when the group enters the “zone” and sings a beautiful harmonic progression. One can experience this as a listener too, but it is much more visceral, “up close and personal”, when one is part of the creative process. You are a part of the sound, not only because it is all around you, but because you are directly helping create such beauty.
Whether or not you need a pick-me-up, give it a try. You’ll be glad you did.
(An edited version of this article was published on 20 December 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)