There was a time in our history when being part of a singing group was common. Many people were part of their church choir, legion hall chorus, barbershop quartet, or even just holiday caroling group. Before it was possible to access professionally recorded music 24/7 at the touch of a button, we were all musicians. Singing was part of everyday life, and families would gather around the piano after dinner or share folk songs by the fire. We sang together to pass along our stories, history, and culture to the next generations. We sang for entertainment. We sang as a way to come together.
After decades of decline, community singing is once again on the rise. This is great news, as a growing number of studies show that the benefits of singing with others are significant. Group singing can help promote social bonds, improve physical and mental health, and increase happiness.
Life today sets us up for isolation in a way humans just weren’t designed to experience. Technology, the ease of moving far from family, working from home, and social media all take us away from in-person social interactions. Loneliness is now considered an epidemic in the United States, with a recent study finding that the majority of Americans are “lonely.”
The importance of social bonds to our health and longevity are critical. In fact, the quality of our social relationships is one of the most important factors on lifespan. The study cited above found that, “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”
Singing together may have been one way our ancestors created and maintained social bonds with large groups of people. These large social groups have been credited with the survival of our species. Recent research suggests that singing together, even in very large groups where you don’t know everyone present, fosters feelings of social closeness. Participants also showed improvements in affect, connectivity, and endorphin release. Another study compared group singing with group sports and found that singers felt a greater sense of social cohesion and meaningfulness.
A sense of belonging is a fundamental human motivation. The need to feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and that we serve an important role in that group is essential to our emotional wellbeing. Singing with other people is a very clear way to obtain that feeling. When you sing with a group, you are an important part of creating something beautiful and meaningful. You are using your own voice- something very intimate and unique to you, sharing it with others, and immediately hearing the impact.
Making music, especially with other people, has real impacts on our bodies and minds. It is at the same time calming and energizing. It can trigger the release of pain-blocking endorphins, reduce the stress hormone cortisol, and boost immune antibodies. Making music we enjoy stimulates the release of dopamine, part of the brain’s reward system, and makes us feel good.
Group singing has additional benefits beyond other types of music making. To sing, we must breathe, and the kind of breathing that singing encourages is particularly beneficial for respiratory health, improving posture, and decreasing muscular tension. Singing is a kind of workout for your lungs, helping you pull in and circulate more oxygen.
People who sing in choirs may even synchronize their heart rates. Singing together requires breathing deeply and together. One study showed dramatic results, with choir member’s hearts rates synching up almost immediately after beginning singing.
Singing with others in a group typically requires learning (and remembering) new music, which is stimulating to our mind and memory. It requires sustained attention and strengthens our ability to focus on a given task. Singing in a choral group requires the ability to listen selectively and studies are currently being done to determine if singing in a choir improves one’s ability to distinguish speech from noise- a common problem as we age.
Singing is Fun and Easy!
Let’s not forget the fact that singing with others is enjoyable! It is fun to work with others towards a common goal. It is satisfying to master a song and share it in a performance. We feel proud when we improve a skill. And when you sing with a group, you inevitably meet new people and have the opportunity to make new friends. All of these things make us feel happy and more resilient.
Singing requires no extra equipment, instruments, or purchases. It really can be done by anyone! “But I can’t carry a tune in a bucket!” some people protest. This is likely not true, but the residue of an unkind early teacher can be hard to shrug off. It is only recently in human history that singing be left largely to the professionals, a trend that has unfortunate consequences. The reality is that very few people are actually amusical, and a few simple techniques will dramatically improve your singing and your confidence.
"The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Henry Van Dyke
Finding a group singing opportunity in your community.
There are likely options to sing with others for a wide range of skill and experience levels in your community. Local churches, community music schools, theater groups, and community centers are a good place to start. More and more communities are also developing special choirs designed for people with certain health conditions, such as dementia, aphasia, or Parkinson’s Disease.
In the Bar Harbor/Ellsworth Maine area, opportunities include: