A song for health
Exercise. Eat right. Join a choir. The first two are typical parts of healthy living. But the last? Research has now proven the health benefits of singing.
Exercise. Eat right. Get plenty of sleep. Join a choir. The first three are typical prescriptions for healthy living. But join a choir? Most people who join a choral group do so because they like to sing. However, many choristers soon discover the health benefits of following their passion for song.
For years, researchers in England, Germany, and the United States have pronounced that choral singing is good for you–physically, mentally, and socially. A Canadian study recently added to the mounting evidence.
Over the last two years, Dr. Victoria Meredith, a choral conductor and professor at the Don Wright Faculty of Music at the University of Western Ontario, studied four adult choirs at the university. Her observations of the members, aged 18 to 84, explored everything from breath control and vocal range to the singers’ descriptions about their moods and physical states when performing. Dr. Meredith’s conclusions: choral singing improves overall health, increases respiratory function, heightens the immune system, and improves brain function.
Similar findings have come out of Britain, where researchers have also been exploring the health benefits of choral singing. Heart Research UK quotes Professor Graham Welch, Chair of Music Education at the Institute of Education, University of London, who, for 30 years, has studied the developmental and medical aspects of singing.
“Singing has physical benefits because it is an aerobic activity that increases oxygenation in the bloodstream and exercises major muscle groups in the upper body, even when sitting,” says Welch. “Singing has psychological benefits because of its normally positive effect in reducing stress levels through the action of the endocrine system,which is linked to our sense of emotional well-being.”
Under normal circumstances, most people breathe shallowly, using only a small percentage of their lungs. To sing powerfully and sustain tone, choral singers must tap into their greater lung capacity. This improved breathing feeds the body and the brain with revitalizing oxygen and expels stagnant air, germs, and environmental toxins from deep within the lungs.
Massage therapist Jules Torti explains how shallow breathing, combined with tense neck and shoulder muscles, can result in a person’s ribcage and diaphragm being pulled upward. “Our natural reaction to stress is closely linked to our breathing patterns,” Torti says. “I have a client who is learning to breathe properly–through her stomach, instead of her normal short, shallow breaths–to produce stronger singing performances. The singing helps her to relax, and the healthier breathing pattern has crossed over into her daily life. Now, she’s aware that the deeper breathing calms her anxious nature, and she sleeps better at night. Her posture has improved, which has reduced the aches that can come with a desk job.”
Immune System Boost
Singing not only boosts our oxygen levels, but it also boosts our immune systems. A study at the University of Frankfurt, Germany examined the effect of choral singing on the immune system by testing the blood of choral singers. After they sang Mozart’s Requiem, their levels of immunoglobulin A and cortisol were noticeably higher, indicating enhanced immunity. A study at the University of California conducted saliva tests on choral singers and found significantly raised levels of immunity-building proteins after performing.
Singing is a complex mental procedure. Canadian neuroscientist Daniel Levitin wrote This IsYour Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Penguin Books, 2006). Levitin discusses primarily how humans respond to listening to music, but he also describes how various parts of the brain coordinate to process, plan, and produce song. Choristers challenge their grey matter further as they coordinate their voices with those of the group and sometimes memorize their music.
Such mental exercise can be just as important as physical exercise for today’s baby boomers and health-minded seniors. For those who have lost some mental capacity, singing could improve brain function. A British study involving dementia patients and their health workers showed that group singing improved communication and relationships as well as patients’ interactions with strangers.
We all have stress in our lives. While people join a choir for their love of singing, they quickly discover that singing does wonders for relieving stress. “Focusing on the music clears my head and re-energizes me after a tiring day at work,” notes Karen Fraser, member of Vancouver’s Maple Leaf Singers. Sometimes the effect is more profound. Fellow singer Keith Parker finds singing with the choir helps him cope with his recently diagnosed cancer. “Practices each week spirit me to a different world,” says Parker. “I concentrate on the music and everything else gets pushed to the back of my brain.”
There’s no guarantee that choral singing will reveal the fountain of eternal health, but the health benefits can be impressive. So free your voice from the confines of your shower walls and entrust it to a choir. Your body, mind, and soul will thank you.
Singing Across Canada
To find a choir in your area, check out the national listing of Canadian choirs on choralnet.org.