One of the highlights of Katy Cadman’s week is conducting two-hour-long MomChoir practice sessions with more than 50 other women.
When all the voices come together for a song such as All I want for Christmas is You, the effect can be electrifying, says Cadman, the Vancouver choir’s artistic director.
“You leave just buzzing with excitement and enthusiasm and this feeling of camaraderie,” she says.
The high Cadman describes matches what researchers are learning in their labs: Singing has powerful effects on the brain, and it may provide a potent antidote to modern maladies such as stress, loneliness and depression.
More than other social activities such as team sports or card games, group singing seems to have the ability to generate feelings of social connectedness, says Dr. Frank Russo, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University. When done in unison, he says, it synchronizes singers’ breathing and heart rates. The auditory and motor areas of their brains spontaneously fire in time with one another. Their levels of the stress hormone cortisol decrease, while oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” increases. Moreover, studies have shown people can withstand more pain after group singing.
One of the special powers of singing likely has to do with how it engages people to move together in time, says Russo, who holds the Hear the World Research Chair in Music and Emotional Speech. People may not typically think of singing as movement since it doesn’t involve the larger kinds of actions that sports or dance requires, he explains. But there are hundreds of muscles involved in controlling one’s voice – all of which need to be exercised in unison when singing in a choir.
Given all of these complex and highly co-ordinated movements, one hypothesis is that group singing causes individuals to lose sight of where they end and where the next person begins, Russo says.
“That’s an intriguing idea, that we really become some kind of superorganism that’s like a collection of the parts,” he says.
The resulting sense of being part of something greater than oneself may be why people can tolerate more pain after group singing. The activity may remind them they’re not on their own, and thus they may feel stronger and more resilient against adversity, Russo says.
To better understand what happens biologically, Russo and his colleagues are currently collecting questionnaire responses and saliva samples from participants of around 15 choirs across the country. They are then testing the cortisol and oxytocin levels of the samples, taken before and after choir sessions, to see whether the results align with prior research that suggests cortisol dips after singing, and oxytocin rises.
Changes in these hormones, however, may just be the start. A small, recent study by British researchers provides early evidence that singing may increase endocannabinoids, which are cannabis-like chemical compounds produced naturally in the body. The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, suggests singing’s effect on the endocannabinoid system produces a euphoric sensation akin to a “runner’s high.”
It turns out singing can also help soothe us and bind us together at even the earliest stage of life. Sandra Trehub, a professor emeritus of psychology at University of Toronto who studies the effects of maternal singing, says babies are responsive to music from birth.
“In a situation where babies are crying or upset about something, singing is really the fastest way of turning something around. It’s like a comfort food almost,” she says, adding that research measuring mothers’ and babies’ physiological responses show that mothers are calmed by their own lullabies as well.
In daycares or nursery schools, children tend to be more sociable toward other children who sing the same familiar songs, says Trehub, who is a member of the renowned Montreal-based International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research (Brams).
While there is evidence to show singing may help those with depression and improve speech in patients with Parkinson’s disease or those who have suffered from stroke, there is still much more research to be done on its potential therapeutic effects, Russo says.
Nevertheless, it can do little harm, he says, and it’s something almost everyone can do.
He notes only about 3 per cent to 4 per cent of the population is actually tone deaf, or unable to perceive differences in pitches.
“There’s a lot of folks out there who have learned to not sing at the holidays,” he says, but there’s no reason to hold back.