The Health Value of Choral Singing

As a long-time choral singer, I appreciated these tidbits that came across my reading last week:

1) Philosopher J.D. Trout on one way he managed to stay out of trouble during a tough adolescence.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the all-volunteer group that supports the Boston Symphony Orchestra

I was able to steer clear of trouble in part because I was involved in activities that crowded out a lot of the unpleasantness that kids face. Choral singing is incredibly wholesome, and doing it well imposes a discipline that frustrates the temptations of idleness in a permissive world. I know that sounds Victorian, and it is, in a way. But it is also a contingent fact about humans that they form (mal)adaptive preferences, learning to like the often objectively bad practices in their orbit. Staying busy with work and singing, and having thoughtful, captivating, and funny friends, left little time or desire for idle, pointless wondering about whether my life could be better if I learned to steal money, enjoy cocaine, or sleep till noon. None of that ever sounded very fun to me, nor was I much in the orbit of its pull.

From the interesting series, “What’s it Like to Be a Philosopher?”


2.  Daniel Pink, who has praise for choral singing in his new book on timing, When.

Q: Share with us a striking insight from your research on timing.

Pink: Let me offer two:

  • People are twice as likely to run their first marathon at age 29 as they are at age 28 or age 30. Forty-nine-year-olds are three times more likely to run a first marathon than 50-year-olds. Endings—simply being aware of an end—dramatically shape our behavior.

  • Choral singing is the new exercise. Research shows that the benefits of singing in a choir (not singing alone, but singing together) are massive: higher pain thresholds and reduced need for pain medication, increased production of infection-fighting immunoglobulin, reduced symptoms of depression, increased sensitivity toward others, improved mood, and much more. There’s something about synchronizing in time with others that is profoundly human. 

Singing and Health

Author Dan Pink has a new book out, When, his synthesis of research about timing in our lives. He makes reference to research on singing in a chorus (everyone doing something at exactly the same time). Some results suggest that its health benefits rival vigorous exercise.

I spent a little time trying to find the original data on this, and although I didn’t chase down the exact studies, I did find some interesting stuff. In a volume that rounds up recent research on music generally,  Music, Health, and Wellbeing, the chapter on choral singing points out that Renaissance composer William Byrd was a strong fan of singing for health.

Here’s the relevant bit:

An early reference to the idea that singing can be good for health and wellbeing is found in the writings of William Byrd (1543-1623). In the preface to his Psalmes, Sonets & songs [of sadnes and pietie], published in 1588, Byrd outlined eight reasons ‘to perswade every one to learne to sing’. Four of these reasons resonate with contemporary views on the ‘therapeutic’ benefits of singing. Singing, he asserted, helps to maintain health, by being ‘delightfull to Nature’ (i.e. giving pleasure and joy), by exercising the musculature of the chest, by expanding the lungs and by helping to reduce stammering and improve voice quality.

Byrd summed up his advocacy for singing in a well-known couplet:

Since singing is so good a thing,
     I wish all men would learne to sing.

Remarkably, it is only now, over 400 years later, that scientific attention has begun to assess the merits of Byrd’s insights.

Everybody should learn to sing, although few do it with the elan of this gang, Voces8 in an arrangement of the folk song Shenandoah.

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