Imagine something that can ease the symptoms of depression, might be able to regulate heartbeats can may even be able to help sufferers of Parkinson’s disease regain control over their vocal chords. These results have not been linked to some miracle pill or a difficult exercise: they have been linked to singing in a choir.
Research suggesting singing in a choir gives us more than the ability to hold a tune in a bucket has been popping up for several years now. In 2011, a conference was held at the Royal Society for Public Health in London, where Grenville Hancox, professor of music at The Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health, discussed findings of his research into the health benefits of singing in a choir.
Back then, he said that he and his colleagues have observed those with trouble breathing gaining control of their breath. They also saw patients with depression start to recover, and they saw some exciting developments in patients with Parkinson’s. After joining the choir, patients with Parkinson’s – a disease that causes people to slowly lose the ability to control their muscles, meaning that over time they can’t stand or talk – were observed standing up straight and singing loudly.
In one article on the conference and Hancox’s results, Roger Clayton, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2006, said after he joined a choir, he’s seen a real improvement. “I think the improvement arises from deeper breathing, and the extended use of the vocal cords,” he said.
In the same article, voice specialist at the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine Ian MacDonald said singing in a choir has some more basic benefits that just helping with Parkinson’s, however. Singing helps people loosen and warm up vocal chords, which can make the muscles in the throat move more easily and more accurately. It works in the same way as warming up your leg muscles before going for a run or a long walk. By singing regularly, choir members also strengthen their vocal chord muscles, and stronger muscles can do harder work. Moreover, MacDonald pointed out that standing up nice and tall for practices and performances could strengthen the core as well.
Singing also requires regular, controlled breathing, and that can help patients with breathing difficulties. The even breathing has also been observed changing the heart variability rate (HVR), or how often the heartbeat speeds up and slows down. In a small study carried out in Sweden, researchers found that the subjects’ heart rates evened out as they sang hymns or chants together, though there was no noticeable difference when they simply hummed. The idea was that singing tapped into the nerves that is involved in our emotional states and communication skills, which in turn can lead to increased relaxation. The study was small-scale, though, so further research needs to be conducted before we can know for sure that this is what is happening.
One thing we definitely know about singing in a choir is that it eases the symptoms of depression. One study in the Integrative Physiological and Behavioural Science journal showed that singing in a choir caused the brain to release oxytocin, which helps lower stress levels and blood pressure. Another study, conducted by Professor Stephen Clift, one of Prof Hancox’s colleagues, showed that a year after joining a choir, 60% of people had less mental distress, and some even stopped fulfilling the criteria for clinical depression.
Prof Hancox’s 2011 study likewise showed that when singing in a choir, every positive emotion increased and every negative emotion decreased even more. Emotional pain especially decreased dramatically, and that is something everyone needs from time to time.
Singing in a choir is shown to benefit us in lots of ways, but how do you relax and get a sense of wellbeing? Do you sing in a choir? Are you tempted to start? Let us know in the comments.