Each year, the church where I am organist takes one Sunday to celebrate music. Yesterday was Celebration of Music Sunday, and in a coincidence. Yesterday was our annual Celebration of Music (and happy mother’s day!), and in a striking coincidence, yesterday I happened on a fascinating article about — singing.
Singing has been studied from all sorts of perspectives. When I was a university student, I took singing lessons to learn how to project my voice (which is one reason you’ve probably heard me singing!). So of course, you can study singing from the perspective of learning how to sing technically. Once the science of acoustics was born, scientists wondered how trained singers can sing loudly enough to be heard over orchestras — so that’s been studied, too. Through training, singers learn breath control, resonance, and “placement.” Placement is the term for focusing the voice to maximize projection. Singers also develop and engage muscles in the diaphragm and abdomen to produce sufficient airflow for volume. Singers learn to control muscles in the larynx, so that the vocal folds produce a strong, consistent sound. And singers learn to work the mouth and tongue to enunciate the sounds of the language they are singing.
But — did you know that scientists have also studied singing from the perspective of health and well-being? Yes, it turns out that singing benefits your health! Singing is good for you in at least three Bs: Singing improves your breath, your brain, and your bonding.
Believe it or not, empirical studies have shown that regular singing helps regulate your breathing, and deep breathing has been shown to lower stress and anxiety. In fact, deep, regular breathing is one of the standard techniques people can learn to reduce anxiety during panic attacks. Shallow breathing increases carbon dioxide in your blood, which makes you feel even more anxiety — but you can change that with a song! Because singing is an aerobic activity, it also improves your mood like other types of exercise, and boosting your mood also boosts your immune system. So, lesson 1: Sing for better breathing and well-being.
You’ve probably heard that language is a “left-brain” activity. Actually, that whole left and right brain thing that people talk about — like “Matthew is a left-brained guy!” – is partly a myth: You use a lot of different areas in your brain to do ordinary activities, and your brain regions are highly interconnected. So while we can say that some brain functions are localized, no one is really a right- or left-brained person. However, your brain can be more or less integrated when it functions, and guess what?!? When you sing, lots more areas of your brain light up with activity than when you just speak. The language areas are active when you sing, but so are other areas — like the parts that process emotion. This suggests that singing — words plus melody — do more to engage and integrate your experiences at the brain level. Add the research that shows that singing is also correlated with improved memory, focus, and cognition, and you have my prescription: Sing for your brain!
For a lot of people, singing is a stealth activity: They sing in the shower when no one is around, or otherwise keep their singing out of the ears of others. I can understand why: When I was a student, after my first voice recital, one of my favorite professors caught me in the hall and gave me this advice: “Stick to the organ; no one wants to hear you sing.” That advice made me just a little less eager to sing in public!
If thoughts like, “I can’t sing” or “I don’t have a nice voice” keep you from joining in, here’s another piece of encouragement from science. Singing with others is good for you! And I don’t mean that it makes you feel better for a little while, like eating chocolate when you have the blues. Studies have found that people who sing with groups of people have a heightened sense of connection and belonging. It’s like singing with others reinforces your relationship, and you don’t feel disconnected or alone. This is partly about what happens in your brain. Singing activates a lot of networks in the brain, and the more you engage in singing the more you strengthen those networks — including the networks that are active when you belong to a group and engage in cooperative activities. That’s why you should sing for your bonds to others.
I have to confess that, writing this post I realized that I should have sent this “prescription” before the church’s celebration of music. But it’s not too late: In fact, start today. Take a moment to sing your favorite hymn or song. Better still, gather some friends and family, and sing together. And next time you find yourself in a group that sings (churches, for instance), make a commitment to sing with your fellows. Your breath, your brain, and your bonds with thank you.
But most of all, by sharing your music, you’re remaking a world of discord and conflict and isolation into a world of melody and harmony — a musical version of what Jesus envisions in the Kingdom teaching. So, drop your excuses, take a deep breath, and just sing.