The Glorious World of Choir
Published in the American Choral Directors’ Association (ACDA) Choral Journal, Feb 2016.
I don’t sing because I’m happy. I’m happy because I sing. – William James
Those of us in the choral world witness first-hand the glorious and wide-ranging benefits of group singing. But not everyone understands how choral activity can transform people. If you are required to justify why choir is deserving of a place in the schedule or curriculum, the few notes here may assist your case.
There is so much good that comes from group singing it is difficult to choose where to begin the lobby. But we can find a beginning in this quote from Aristotle:
Above all, human beings seek self-esteem and happiness.
What we do in school and community programs should address life goals such as those espoused by Aristotle. Self-esteem is enhanced by making progress and reaching goals. Learning a song requires a level of self-discipline and ‘stick-to-it-iveness’ that builds character. Studies on the mental health effects of participants who sing in choirs address these life goals and are consistently positive. As one study commissioned by Victoria Health Australia found, people in choirs report fun, enjoyment, happiness, humour, excess smiling, invigoration, exhilaration, and relaxation. Adults in community choirs experience a release from day to day worries and tensions. When one becomes fully immersed in choral activity there is little attentional space left over to worry about the self. Supporting emotional health is of fundamental importance for communities, and very clearly, choirs achieve this. Having a performance outlet is also valuable; there is something quite empowering and pleasurable about transmitting an aesthetic experience to others. What’s more, people gain increased confidence through public performance. Self-confidence, which is related to self-esteem, is enhanced through singing in a choir. Further to this, a good way to improve the speaking voice is to cultivate the singing voice.
There is no doubt that choral singing is good for physical health. The full body experience that is singing requires attention to posture and various body muscles. There is a connection between the emotional and physical. When we feel stressed, it affects our body. Our blood pressure, pulse rate, body temperature can all increase. We can become tense and suffer ailments such as headaches and insomnia. Activities that alleviate stress reduce these physical health problems. One Swedish study found that when people sing together their heartbeats are synchronised. Singers not only coordinate their breathing, but choral singing has the overall effect of lowering the heart rate. This finding suggests that it is possible that singing is beneficial to one’s blood pressure. Music–the most emotional and centripetal of the arts-has a unique capacity to moderate our emotions. Many people self-report that music makes them feel better physically and medical research claims that endorphins (the body produces these to combat stress and pain) are released through singing. Other research suggests that the hormone oxytocin is released when people sing together.
Sing Together and Connect—Oxytocin
One of the most significant neuroscientific contributions in recent times involves the linking of the hormone oxytocin with singing. If there is such a thing as a morality hormone, oxytocin just might be it. Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the brain that contributes to feelings of trust, generosity, compassion, kindness, caring and empathy for the people around you. The brain releases oxytocin in large quantities after sexual activity, which bonds couples together. Other stimulants of oxytocin include breastfeeding, massage, dancing together, praying together, and hugging.
One activity that leads to the highest levels of oxytocin production is singing, and in particular, singing in choirs. Therefore singing together can transform people to a more receptive frame of mind for bonding with one another. We have been aware of the health benefits of singing in a choir for some time, such as the ‘feel good’ factor, the boost in self-esteem, a lowering of stress levels, and socialisation benefits. We know that choristers feel happier, more energetic, and more relaxed after a rehearsal. Now we understand why from a scientific perspective, as neuroscientific investigation contributes to a growing body of evidence.
Oxytocin is stimulated when people sing together. Singing together generates trust and harmony among people, and trustworthiness is an essential factor for prosperity and happiness. Perhaps this is why primitive peoples and tribes have always sung together. To survive, communities need to establish loyalty and trust. Trust is one of the most precious commodities in life. Does oxytocin point to a chemistry of morality? Moral codes are based on empathy, connectedness, and generosity, and these qualities prosper with the release of oxytocin. Will this revelation spark a new impetus for the establishment of school, community, and even corporate choral programs?
Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and make music to the Lord in your hearts. – Ephesians 5:19
The personal skills developed through choir are too numerous to fully discuss here, but choral singing requires one to stop, listen and be aware. This occurs on an emotional, empathetic, physical and even spiritual level. Indeed, music activity is the most reconciling activity as nothing else gives such a thoroughly integrated whole-person experience. Today, neuroscience confirms for us that no other activity is capable of stimulating the whole brain as completely as does music-making. The social element of choral music takes this a step further. The requirement to generate ensemble through teamwork requires compromise, discipline and commitment. Choirs provide an alternative teamwork environment to sport and incorporate cross-age mentoring. Choristers pay attention to what someone else is doing and coordinate actions with others. This requires an attention to subtlety.
Not least important are the musical skills learned in choirs. Instrumentalists should be encouraged to participate in choirs for the invaluable contribution to personal musicianship. In a broader educational context, American based The Chorus Impact Study found that students who sing in choirs get better school grades than those who don’t sing in choirs.
Possibly the most important community benefit resulting from choirs is the resultant sense of belonging, a sense of social connection, social identity, group cohesion and purpose. The good news is that these benefits are not even dependent on the quality of the result. Choral participation is a powerful instrument for advancing social inclusion. Perhaps this is assisted with the release of oxytocin. Beauty is the lubricant of the soul. We share our voice and seek beauty together in a collaborative rather than a competitive manner. Members listen to one another and forge new friendships. A sense of belonging ensues. This welcome mat breaks down barriers of age, backgrounds and abilities, and multi-cultural repertoire furthers this inclusivity. In Australia, the government of Victoria has invested in choir programs that link art and health with the aim of building community, as singing in groups has become the number one community arts activity in that state. A UK study from found that singing in a choir delivered significantly higher self-reported scores of well-being than singing solo or being involved in team sports. Whilst moving and breathing in synchrony with others might be the major factor responsible for this, we still have much to learn about how the well-being effects of singing in a choir occur. The ‘bottom line’ for governments, companies and schools is that choral singing programs are inexpensive to set up and accessible across economic and cultural strata. The voice is free.
In February 2015 The University of Birmingham released a research report that ties music learning with character. Schools in the United Kingdom are chartered with responsibility not only to teach intelligence, but also character and morality. This report found that contrary to widespread public belief that sport builds character, evidence for this was lacking. However, students involved in choir/music or drama performed significantly better on character tests than any other school-based extra-curricular activity.
Choir programs have contributed to the rehabilitation of prison inmates. Research clearly shows that low self-esteem is related to criminal activity. Participation in prisoner education choral programs has proven effective in spawning the competence and sense of belonging essential for raising self-esteem. Look to Venezuela where the remarkable El Sistemá orchestral program for disaffected children is being trialled in penitentiaries and has been extended to include a choral program. In these prisons the orchestra and choir options are the most popular activities selected by inmates, more so than carpentry, metal work or sewing. The program is intense. Inmates make music eight hours a day, five days per week, and the resulting transformative effects have been remarkable. More than half the prisoners are taking part in this musical renaissance. As one inmate said “my life has changed 100 percent”. Elsewhere, incarcerated youth in detention facilities report these consistently positive outcomes from singing in choir:
– The formation of special relationships with other choir members, different to the relationships with non-choir participants. (Is this oxytocin at work?)
– Significant improvements in emotional stability, social behaviour and happiness.
– Deeply personal and special insights, like entering a sacred space beyond words and explanation.
– Positive influence on rehabilitation, with lesser instances of offending behaviour.
An additional benefit is that which audiences receive from attending choral concerts. Seeing and hearing people sing together gives one hope. This is particularly true when older adults hear the thrilling sounds of adolescent choirs. As Traddles says to David Copperfield “She sings ballads to freshen up the others a little when they’re out of spirits.” Our performances give listeners an opportunity to explore their inner self. Listening causes self-reflection, nurturing the process of becoming, of identity formation. This is the most wonderful gift from musician to listener.
Music gives the soul energy. Music is humane and social; it is the tonal bridge-building fabric of society. Music plays a vital role in energizing the self and gives us a reason to live, a reason to be. Music provides us with a constant source of beauty and wonder. Through choirs we have the opportunity to preach to the world that music is, as Beethoven said, a revelation greater than all wisdom and philosophy. Learn, teach, conduct, sing together, and share your music!
Sing like no one’s listening,
Love like you’ve never been hurt,
Dance like nobody’s watching, and
Live like it’s heaven on earth.
– Mark Twain
 VicHealth (2010) Group Singing: Community Mental Health and Wellbeing and Health Benefits of Singing.
 Frontiers of Psychology reported in BBC News (2013)
 Chorus America (2009)
 Stewart and Lonsdale , Oxford Brookes University (2013)
 Arthur et al, University of Birmingham (2013)
 Grainger, S. Venezuela Prisons offer Hope to Inmates. BBC News, 7 August 2011