Studies show that singing in a choir can provide psychological, social, and physical health benefits.
Singers get it—a sense of well-being as words and music fill the air. Choral singers amplify it, voices weaving a tapestry of sound. Now, more and more singers are joining in, combining voices to enrich body, mind, and soul.
Chorus of approval
Choral singing has become popular. Young people worldwide decided choral singing was “cool” when the musical television show Glee became a hit in 2010. That same year, Show Choir Canada started up, establishing the Show Choir Canada Championships. American high schools and universities soon noted significantly increased student interest and enrolment in choral singing. Young singers have discovered a secret to a long, happy, and healthy life.
Older choristers have done the same. An informal survey conducted by the writer asked the members of four Vancouver-based choirs why they joined a choir and how they feel they benefit from singing. The 35 respondents, men and women aged 25 to 75, gave various reasons for joining, topped by a love of singing.
When asked to list the benefits of their ongoing participation, the choristers described numerous positive experiences, physically, mentally, and socially.
When joining a choir, only one person had looked forward to the “exercise of singing” but many came to realize that they experienced one or more of the following:
- lung expansion and improved breath control
- better posture and core strength
- awareness of mind-body connection
- better coordination and fitness (with choreography)
- improved health and well-being
- therapeutic effect during illness
The list of perceived mental health benefits was extensive, many also unanticipated:
- stress relief
- increased confidence
- good feelings, joy, and renewed energy
- active grey cells: learning and memorizing pieces
- new skills such as reading music and learning choreography
- therapy during illness: acceptance and positive energy
- fun, fulfillment, and competition
The social benefits, boiling down to “the human connection,” were also mostly unanticipated:
- a community of like-minded people, new friends, a second family
- enhanced holiday spirit
- travel to performances and competitions
- opportunities to give to the community
Cathy Mutis, of Vancouver’s chorus the Maple Leaf Singers, sums it up: “When I’m singing, I am 100 percent focused on the now: breath, sound, posture, direction—a dozen things or more demanding my attention. There is a clarity and a stillness that comes from that. There is even something sacred about coming together to create something out of nothing, something beautiful. It is deeply soul-satisfying.”
Wilson Fowlie, the group’s choral director says, “Working toward a common goal—learning and performing songs—week after week, and then succeeding, unites people. We create beauty together—sometimes transcendent, sometimes ridiculous, but always beautiful—making the bond stronger. We share experiences and memories that only other choral singers understand. That makes a surprisingly strong connection.”
Harmony and science
The Vancouver survey reflects results worldwide, in studies involving thousands of choristers. In 2010, researchers with the University of Melbourne catalogued published research in English dating back to 1985, identifying 48 studies on group singing, well-being, and health. Most studies were conducted after 2000, and many more have been done since 2010, indicating increased interest in the field.
Physical benefits, though not easily measured, are evident. They include improved immunity, breathing, posture, and energy levels, as well as changes to singers’ heartbeats.
A 2004 University of Frankfurt study conducted blood tests on choral singers, examining levels of the antibody S-IgA before and after rehearsals. Levels increased after singing, indicating enhanced immunity. Japanese researchers published similar results in 2013, finding increased S-IgA levels in saliva samples taken after singing.
A recent long-term study in England indicated that “community singing (including attention to posture and breathing techniques) can have an exercise training effect on the lung function of people with mild to very severe COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).” Another English study found that lung cancer patients showed improved lung expiration pressure after three months of choral singing.
Researchers at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, found that choristers’ heartbeats synchronize when they sing together, bringing about a calming effect.
Mind and soul
Psychological and social well-being studies reveal that participants of choral groups benefit in many ways. Singing, as an aerobic activity, releases mood-enhancing endorphins and lowers levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. Singing with a group has been shown to
- boost our sense of self-esteem, satisfaction, and inclusion
- decrease levels of depression
- increase confidence, joy, and energy
- increase cognitive stimulation
Joint studies in 2009 and 2010, involving over 1,100 choristers in England, Germany, and Australia, confirmed the benefits of singing for well-being; positive effects on mood and cognition were also identified.
In 2013, an Oxford Brookes University study of 375 people who sang in choirs, sang alone, or were members of sports teams, showed choral singers may experience more well-being than those who sing alone. Choral singers also considered their choirs more meaningful social groups than participants belonging to sports teams.
In a 2013 Finnish study, 117 older singers completed questionnaires about the perceived benefits of choral singing. Those who reported the highest number of benefits had fewer symptoms of depression and higher overall quality of life and satisfaction with health.
A 2013 Australian study of depressive patients measured brain activity before and after choral singing. Results suggest improvements in several depression indicators.
An American study in care homes found that regular group singing improved the mental performance of Alzheimer’s patients after four months, compared with others who simply listened to music.
The studies continue, adding supportive threads to the rich tapestry of sound that is choral singing. Voices harmonizing, our bodies, minds, and souls benefit as we sing for our lives.