Singing and Health
Issue 6, Volume 113
By Alex Zheng
“If you can speak, then you can sing” is the motto of Stuyvesant’s beloved chorus teacher, Liliya Shamazov. Widely known as a stress reliever, music has various benefits for physical and mental health. In particular, singing’s accessibility has made it a popular form of music for all people. While levels of singing range from the enchanting voice of Taylor Swift to your average person belting out notes in the shower, it has become a universally enjoyed pastime for all. Why is singing so beneficial and why should one partake in the activity?
Imagine the following scenario: you are hanging out with your friends and hear your favorite song come up. Everyone knows the lyrics, so a singing chorus quickly fills the air. Though this may seem like a simple action, many things are occurring behind the scenes.
Socially, you are aware of your surroundings. You hear the sound of the song playing in the background and your friends’ melodious voices in the mix. There is a moment when you adjust your own pitch to match the notes of the song or your friends’ pitch. Musicologist Allison Pawley stated that the act of singing in unison promotes a sense of empathy, social connection, and coordination. It increases feelings of trust and strengthens bonds between people. She explained that because singing is a means of opening up to others, it is a team-bonding experience. Additionally, singing, especially in public, boosts one’s self-esteem and confidence. Admittedly, there is a hurdle to get over, but once the mindset of “I suck at singing, I shouldn't perform” is abolished, singing becomes a liberating experience and form of self-expression.
In a study with elderly choir singers and a non-singer control group, people who sang were associated with greater verbal flexibility and ability to speak, which reflects an improved overall cognitive ability. Choir singing is an activity that requires a variety of information processing, including memorizing pitches and lyrics, vocal intonation, and other motor functions related to making sounds. In addition, singing is a means of releasing endorphins, such as oxytocin, to grant us that dopamine hit. The release of these “feel-good” chemicals is linked to stress reduction and the improvement of emotional well-being. Furthermore, there is evidence that in choir singing, music synchronizes the heartbeats of the singers, allowing for an even more profound sense of connection between them. Studies comparing the brain scans of singers versus non-singers showed that singers have a more developed singing network in their brains that completely lights up during a performance. The results of the study indicated that non-singers received the same dopamine hit as singers but whether because of anxiety or nervousness, do not get the same opportunities to perform, which impacts the development of the singing network described.
Physically, singing could also turn into an exhilarating workout since it employs the entire upper body—muscles in the thoracic cavity, abdominal muscles, lungs, vocal cords, and facial muscles—to work in unison. Singing also requires both deep and quick inspirations and expirations of air, which helps improve the uptake of new oxygen within the lungs to benefit bodily respiration as a whole. As singing is a cardiovascular activity, the average person burns around 136 calories by singing for an hour while standing. This is incredible, especially considering how accessible singing is for all genders and ages.
Historically, singing predates the spoken language as people sang out their feelings to communicate. Though this form of singing was primitive and most likely monotone or a cacophony of sound, it was an effective form of expression. As civilizations progressed through their stages of development, each developed singing in one way or another. Whether to entertain, to be used in hymns and prayers, or to recount history through ballads and epics, singing is the original musical instrument and is ubiquitous to all cultures. Over time, singing became more complex and well-explained through the invention of scales and talented composers who understood chords and harmony. Now, singing remains the most common form of music thanks to thousands of artists and the internet. Lyrics are easily accessible through online websites and music has become a universal and omnipresent part of society.
During the pandemic, the sense of connection brought upon by singing was especially desirable. Many sang on their balconies as a cry for freedom but also developed a sense of connection amongst their neighbors who also sang. The benefits that were brought by singing should be used as a motivator for everyone to sing more. Just like speech, singing should be even further normalized and part of a required curriculum at school, especially considering the stress and anxiety associated with Stuyvesant along with the need for a break from the humdrum of education. Essentially, it is a form of therapy that everyone can and should partake in for the sake of their own health. Thankfully, singing is easily accessible to us and can be used to develop the potential of our voices.