Why does singing make us feel good?

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The science of singing together: Goldsmiths students investigate how group singing benefits not only the individual but also the whole group.

Goldsmiths’ staff and students may have noticed something different in the air during spring term. Every Thursday, certain staff members mysteriously disappeared for an hour and then returned to their desks with a distinct buzz. Is it a secret pub lunch club where pinot flows freely and hearty meals of starch embraced? Not quite. (That’s reserved for Fridays.) Thursdays are when the Goldsmiths Staff Choir rehearses. And this, somewhat surprisingly, has been the source of the feel-good vibes around campus.

The staff choir is informal. Everyone is welcome and there are no auditions. Most members join expecting a bit of fun, and it certainly delivers in that respect. But there’s also a wonderful feeling that pervades the room during each singing session. A sense that all is well, or if all isn’t well it’s definitely less of a bother than it was before.

Singing is an instant mood enhancer

The warm and fuzzy feeling people experience after choir practice isn’t a coincidence. Group singing gives us a sense of belonging, working together for a common purpose, and bonding with other choir members. It can also be incredibly relaxing. Like yoga, singing forces you to focus on your breathing and physical performance, giving you a break from the brain-chatter and worries that occupy your mind throughout the day.

The feel-good aspect of group singing may also have an evolutionary context. In “The Science of Singing Along”, a 2012 study by the Music, Mind & Brain Group at Goldsmiths, group singing is compared to a “neo-tribes” paradigm. The study says: “By joining its participants in a relatively unison activity, singing along facilitates the formation of temporary neo-tribes in leisure contexts, where mostly strangers are brought together socially to form a tribe...”

This tribe aspect can be seen in modern-day choirs. People come together and participate in an activity that most of us would be terrified doing alone. Solo singing is something most of us reserve for the shower, but group-singing can be carried out in public with a sense of fun and excitement.

Singing and personal development

Not only does singing give us a natural high, it’s pretty great for our mental wellbeing too. Learning a song is a complicated task for the brain. You have to be coordinated enough to sing the right words at the right time, using the correct pitch and volume, and learn to sing along with other people.

Mastering a new song can deliver a real sense of achievement, build self-esteem and increase confidence. It also exercises our memory, flexes our concentration, and tests our listening skills. So it’s no surprise group singing is increasingly introduced for patients in hospitals and aged care. Elderly patients who might find communication difficult or suffer memory loss can engage with others through singing and find joy in the activity.

The physical benefits of singing

Singing involves lots of deep breathing, meaning we take more oxygen into our bloodstream. Controlled breathing also increases lung capacity and has a calming effect on the singer.

When we sing we stand up straighter and expand our chest, improving posture and toning the diaphragm. We stretch our facial muscles and exercise our vocal chords, which helps in keeping us looking and sounding younger.

As an aerobic activity, singing is good for our heart health. It tones the core and ab muscles, stimulates circulation and boosts the immune system. Singing also clears the sinuses, aids sleep, and can help people recover from mental health issues like depression or anxiety.

What happens on a chemical level when we sing?

In the same way that exercise boosts endorphin flow, singing also releases the brain’s “feel good” chemical - resulting in a sense of euphoria, enhanced immune response, and a natural pain relief. Singing also triggers the release of oxytocin, which helps relieve anxiety and stimulates feelings of trust.

And there’s a scientific explanation for the immediate sense of pleasure we feel when we listen to music or sing. Inside the inner ear lies a tiny organ called the sacculus. The sacculus forms part of the balance-regulating vestibular system and is connected to the part of the brain that registers pleasure. The sacculus is stimulated by low-frequency high-intensity sounds - like singing. So when you hear loud music or you belt out a ballad at karaoke, you could say the sound is literally tickling your brain.

New research at Goldsmiths investigates effects of group singing

The benefits of singing have long been felt but only recently have they begun to be studied empirically. This year Goldsmiths is conducting research looking at the benefits of singing in groups. Following on from the work of Daniel Weinstein, a recent graduate of the MSc in Music, Mind & Brain programme (supervised by Professor Lauren Stewart), two current students, Sean Fields and Katie-Rose Sanfilippo, are currently undertaking research. Their aim is to find out more about how singing together can create a benefit for not only the individual but also the whole group. If you are interested in participating in current singing research please contact Katie-Rose at mmbmasters@gmail.com