Why Sing?

Choir singers ‘synchronise their heartbeats’

By Rebecca Morelle. Science reporter, BBC World Service
Published 9 July 2013

Choir singers not only harmonise their voices, they also synchronise their heartbeats, a study suggests.

Researchers in Sweden monitored the heart rates of singers as they performed a variety of choral works. They found that as the members sang in unison, their pulses began to speed up and slow down at the same rate. Writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the scientists believe the synchrony occurs because the singers coordinate their breathing. Dr Bjorn Vickhoff, from the Sahlgrenska Academy at Gothenburg University in Sweden, said: “The pulse goes down when you exhale and when you inhale it goes up. So when you are singing, you are singing on the air when you are exhaling so the heart rate would go down. And between the phrases, you have to inhale and the pulse will go up. If this is so then heart rate would follow the structure of the song or the phrases, and this is what we measured and this is what we confirmed.”

Sing from the heart
The scientists studied 15 choir members as they performed different types of songs. They found that the more structured the work, the more the singers’ heart rates increased or decreased together. Slow chants, for example, produced the most synchrony. The researchers also found that choral singing had the overall effect of slowing the heart rate. This, they said, was another effect of controlled breathing.
Dr Vickhoff explained: “When you exhale you activate the vagus nerve, we think, that goes from the brain stem to the heart. And when that is activated the heart beats slower.”

The researchers now want to investigate whether singing could have an impact on our health.

“There have been studies on yoga breathing, which is very close to this, and also on guided breathing and they have seen long-term effects on blood pressure… and they have seen that you can bring down your blood pressure. We speculate that it is possible singing could also be beneficial.”


Why Sing?

The Science bit…

Information compiled and written by James Davey. 

Singing has a wide range of personal benefits besides learning about music and how to create it. As well as developing and improving healthy singing techniques, and also being a thoroughly enjoyable experience, a recent education research project at Roehampton University has shown these workshops to have multiple physiological and social benefits for the participants.

Working with the voice brings many physical benefits (such as improved posture and respiratory strength, increased energy levels and also stimulation for the mind), but there are also many social and personal benefits (boosted self-esteem and confidence, improved communication and listening skills, raised self-awareness and awareness of others, and developed team working skills),

“When a people lose their song, they often lose identity, cohesion and morale. When people do sing together, they often find the experience meaningful, energising and refreshing, and they come away with hope, a lift of spirit and a sense of belonging.” (White, 2001)

Health & Well-being

“Because singing is visceral (relating to, or affecting our bodies), it can’t help but affect change,” says Suzanne Hanser, chair of the music therapy department at Berklee College of Music, Boston.

Studies of human emotional response have found that participating in musical activity can bring more enjoyment than many other leisure activities, enhancing our willingness to interact with others, and “at least one study has suggested that involvement in the arts, including as a spectator, can prolong your life.” (Kaufman, 1999)

Professor Graham Welch tells us that people who sing are healthier than people who don’t. Singing exercises the lungs and tones up the intercostal muscles and diaphragm. Singing also causes deeper breathing than many other forms of exercise, opening up the respiratory tubes and sinuses as well as increasing aerobic capacity. This leads to a greater intake of oxygen, benefiting the heart and circulation, and decreasing muscle tension. (Welch & Thurman, 1997, White, 2001)

Further studies have linked singing with a lower heart rate, decreased blood pressure, and reduced stress. In Hancox’s study on the perceived benefits associated with active participation in choral singing, 84 members of a university college choral society were surveyed to see whether they felt there were ways in which participation in the choir may have benefited their health and well-being. Some participants reported feeling more positive, feeling more alert and feeling spiritually uplifted. With respect to health benefits, 84% of participants gave responses, of which the main themes related to improved lung function and control over breathing, improved mood and stress reduction. The study showed that significantly more women than men experienced feelings of well-being and relaxation. (Hancox, 2001)

Several studies have found that singing also enhances immunity, one study, conducted at the University of Frankfurt, finding that singers had higher levels of immunoglobulin A and cortisol (indicators of enhanced immunity) after singing Mozart’s “Requiem” than before. The activity of singing is also thought to block some of the neural pathways that pain travels through (Hancox, 2001).

Researchers at the University of Manchester have discovered that the sacculus, an organ in the inner ear connected to the part of the brain responsible for registering pleasure, responds quickly to low frequency, high intensity sounds, commonly found in singing. Under the right circumstances, this can lead to the release of pain-relieving, or pleasure-giving, endorphins. (White, 2001) Increased confidence and self-esteem are further benefits that teachers and educators deliberately aim to develop in their students. As Silber tells us, “self-esteem, where the personal and the relational meet, is also an area where the choir can contribute. The development of new skills, the successful mastery of the complex tasks involved in choral singing, and the affirmation that comes after a well-received performance, may contribute to a positive self-image.” (Laya Silber, 2005, p254)


“Warm-up exercises are a series of activities that get the body and brain into gear and introduce healthy and effective singing practice at the same time… We all learn in different ways and each singer will respond to different stimuli. Some people need to understand the physical processes before enjoying an action, while others respond instinctively and are less interested in the techniques involved.” (Brewer, 2002, p.2)

Breathing exercises have the benefit of sending larger amounts of oxygen to the brain, but the effects of stretching exercises are not entirely obvious. Stretching can certainly help to improve circulation and exercises to lengthen the body are particularly good for this (Dennison & Dennison, 1989). Neck-rolls, in particular, can help with the circulation of blood to the head, but also have the benefit of heightening binocular vision and binaural hearing.

This type of exercise is also expected to be beneficial to those participants for whom singing is a new experience, and Dennison and Dennison, authors of Brain Gym, give a detailed explanation of the body processes involved: “The Brain Gym Lengthening Activities help students to develop and reinforce those neural pathways that enable them to make connections between what they already know in the back of the brain and the ability to express and process that information in the front of the brain… The front portion of the brain, especially the frontal lobe, is involved in comprehension, motor control, and rational behaviours necessary for participation in social situations. The Lengthening Activities have been found to relax those muscles and tendons that tighten and shorten by brainstem reflex when we are in unfamiliar learning situations.” (Dennison & Dennison, 1989, p16)

For more information on James Davey please visit his website.

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