Susan Barry by Rosalie Winard

Susan R Barry Ph.D.

Eyes on the Brain

Why Singing Together Is Good For Us

One reason why music is so powerful and universal.

Posted Sep 22, 2013

About ten years ago, a friend suggested that I join our town’s chorale. I like music and have played the piano since age 7, but, for me, piano playing has always been a solitary activity. My father was a very good violinist with a good ear. When I was little and practiced at home, he’d hear every mistake and would shout from anywhere in the house “F sharp” or “B flat!” Sometimes, he stood by the piano while I played and joined in with his violin. But he was such a good musician and so demanding that our playing together just made me nervous. I tried to practice when no one else was around.

 But singing with the chorale is completely different. Wednesday night, the night we practice, has become my favorite evening of the week. Even though I don’t know most of the other singers well, I feel a strong bond with them. There are times when the singing sends chills down my spine, and all of us singers share in communal feelings of joy.

 Often, when we rehearse a new piece, our conductor will indicate when during the song we should all breathe together. I have learned to make a mark, a little comma, on the musical score to indicate when to take in a breath. At first, I thought that the breathing instructions were simply a guide to ensure we had enough air to sing through a passage. But they do more than that. When we breathe together, we bond together, both physically and emotionally.

 Our bodies generate many rhythms including the beating of our heart and the timing of our breathing. These two rhythms are coupled. When we breathe in, our heart rate accelerates, and, when we breathe out, it slows, a phenomenon known as respiratory sinus arrhythmia or RSA. However, the strength of the coupling between heart rate and breathing varies with the situation. Strong coupling promotes improved circulation and makes us feel good.

 Typically, heart rate and breathing have been measured in people while they are lying down. But several recent studies have looked at this coupling while singing. Singing dictates when we breathe, and this coordinated breathing strengthens the coupling between respiration and heart rate. Not only is this coupling enhanced in a given singer, but all the singers together synchronize their breathing and thus changes in the beating of their hearts. As we sing in unison, we all breathe together, speed up and slow down our hearts together, and bond. No wonder music is so powerful and is shared by people everywhere.

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