Singing Your Heart Out Has Surprising Psychological Benefits

Community singing promotes fun and happiness, study finds.

Posted Dec 26, 2017

One of my favorite trends in pop music was when producers like Quincy Jones and Patrick Leonard enlisted the Andraé Crouch Choir to infuse a sense of gospel into classic hits such as “Man in the Mirror” and “Like a Prayer." Singing along at the top of my lungs with Madonna as she belts out, “Let the choir sing!” or Michael Jackson chanting “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make that change,” always feels especially cathartic and inspiring when the Andraé Crouch ensemble kicks in.

Anytime I get the chance to sing with others, the positive effects of singing my heart out seem exponentially better. I am not alone. New research corroborates anecdotal evidence that singing your heart out in a group makes people happier by reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. A recent study, “Sing Your Heart Out: Community Singing as Part of Mental Health Recovery," was published in the latest issue of the journal Medical Humanities.

For this study, Tom Shakespeare and Alice Whieldon from the University of East Anglia (UEA) Norwich Medical School in the UK worked with an organization called Sing Your Heart Out. SYHO is a grassroots initiative based in Norfolk, England that conducts popular weekly singing workshops and welcomes people suffering from mental health issues.

SYHO differs from most traditional choirs because anyone can participate—regardless of his or her singing ability. There's also very little performance anxiety because the singers aren't rehearsing for a public concert. The primary objective of "Sing Your Heart Out" is to have fun. 

Shakespeare and Whieldon immersed themselves in the SYHO project for six months. During this time they monitored and surveyed participants, organizers, and workshop leaders. Their final conclusion was that people from all walks of life who participated in a community singing group maintained or improved their mental health. The researchers speculate that the combination of singing and socializing was key to optimizing mental health because it promoted ongoing feelings of belonging and overall well-being.

In a statement, Tom Shakespeare summed up the main takeaway of the SYHO study:

"We heard the participants calling the initiative a 'lifesaver' and that it 'saved their sanity.' Others said they simply wouldn't be here without it, they wouldn't have managed. So, we quickly began to see the massive impact it was having. All of the participants we spoke to reported positive effects on their mental health as a direct result of taking part in the singing workshops. For some, it represented one component of a wider programme of support. For others, it stood out as key to their recovery or maintenance of health. But the key thing for everyone was that the Sing Your Heart Out model induced fun and happiness."

From a psychophysiology and community-building perspective, previous research has found that choir singing benefits the autonomic nervous system by reducing "fight-or-flight" stress responses as marked by more robust vagus nerve activity. More specifically, a 2011 study, “Cardiac and Respiratory Patterns Synchronize Between Persons During Choir Singing,” reported that interpersonal oscillatory couplings resulted in phase synchronization in both respiration and increased heart rate variability (HRV) while people were singing together and for some time afterward.

In closing, please take a few minutes to Sing Your Heart Out along with the backing track of this very rare, stripped-down version of "Like a Prayer" from 1989. This "Churchapella" remix is primarily just Madonna's voice and the Andraé Crouch Choir. Every time I sing along to this song, I pay attention to when Madonna inhales (which you can hear very clearly before each verse) and synchronize my breathing patterns. The singing itself becomes a form of diaphragmatic breathing which includes a long, slow exhale. This improves vagal tone and parasympathetic vagus nerve response. 

References

Tom Shakespeare and Alice Whieldon. "Sing Your Heart Out: Community Singing as Part of Mental Health Recovery." Medical Humanities (Published Online First: November 25, 2017) DOI: 10.1136/medhum-2017-011195 

Viktor Müller and Ulman Lindenberger. "Cardiac and Respiratory Patterns Synchronize Between Persons During Choir Singing." PloS One (2011) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0024893

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