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The Neuroscience of Singing

By Cassandra Sheppard on Sunday December 11th, 2016

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Singing Together Brings Heartbeats Into Harmony

The neuroscience of singing shows that when we sing our neurotransmitters connect in new and different ways. It fires up the right temporal lobe of our brain, releasing endorphins that make us smarter, healthier, happier and more creative. When we sing with other people this effect is amplified.

The science is in. Singing is really, really good for you and the most recent research suggests that group singing is the most exhilarating and transformative of all.

The good feelings we get from singing in a group are a kind of evolutionary reward for coming together cooperatively.

The research suggests that creating music together evolved as a tool of social living. Groups and tribes sang and danced together to build loyalty, transmit vital information and ward off enemies.

Alt text hereSinging in a group has been a part of tribal traditions for thousands of years.

Science Supports Singing

What has not been understood until recently is that singing in groups triggers the communal release of serotonin and oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and even synchronises our heart beats.

Group singing literally incentivised community over an “each cave dweller for themselves” approach. Those who sang together were strongly bonded and survived.

In her book Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, Stacy Horn calls singing:

An infusion of the perfect tranquiliser – the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirit.

Alt text hereGroup singing not only brings happiness but deeply connects people.

Singing Makes You Happy

For a decade, science has been hard at work trying to explain why singing has such a calming yet energising effect on people. Numerous studies demonstrate that singing releases endorphins and oxytocin – which in turn relieve anxiety and stress and which are linked to feelings of trust and bonding.

Singing helps people with depression and reduces feelings of loneliness, leaving people feeling relaxed, happy and connected. What’s more, the benefits of singing regularly are cumulative. People who sing have reduced levels of cortisol, indicating lower stress.

UK singer, singing teacher and choir leader Sophia Efthimiou describes singing as a process of consciously controlling our breath and larynx to create and sustain certain pitches and we blend that with rhythm and poetry to create songs.

In a group setting, each group member feels the musical vibrations moving through their body simultaneously. Our heart beats become synchronised. Sophia explains:

We literally form one unified heart beat.

Alt text hereSinging together synchronises heartbeats so that they beat as one.

Anybody Can Sing

One of the great things about singing is that you can receive the wellbeing benefits even if you aren’t any good. One study showed that:

Group singing can produce satisfying and therapeutic sensations even when the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.

Tania de Jong, singer and founder of Creativity Australia, has effectively harnessed this ability of group singing to lift every member of the group up, no matter their singing ability.


The organisation’s project With One Voice puts a diversity of people together regularly to sing. The group euphoria is harnessed allowing people’s natural creativity, triggered by the group singing session, to generate new levels of community support, connection and opportunities. Tania says:

One of the great things about singing is that is connects you to the right side of your brain. This is the side responsible for intuition, imagination and all our creative functions. It connects us to a world of possibilities. In modern life we are constantly bombarded with so much information that we process and analyse. We tend to get stuck in the left, processing side of our brain. So it becomes fundamentally important to nurture the attributes of human beings that set us apart from machines. The best way to do that is singing.

Alt text hereIf you have a voice then nothing can stop you from singing your heart out.

Sing Anywhere, Anytime

These benefits are free and accessible to all. We all have a voice. We can all sing, even if we don’t think we can.

There was a time when we all used to sing. We sang at church, around camp fires, at school. While group singing is experiencing a resurgence, not so many of us sing anymore. At some stage, someone told us to be quiet or judged our imperfect singing voice. Sophia Efthimiou suggests that singing is very personal, an expression of sound coming from within us, so we cannot help but take this criticism very personally and it sticks.

Yet, people who claim they cannot sing because they are tone deaf are more likely to be very unfamiliar with finding and using their singing voice.

Tone deafness is comparatively rare and means that you would be unable to recognise a song. If you can recognise a song you are not tone deaf, you are just unpractised. Sophia clarifies:

When our voice makes the wrong note we can feel terrible as though it is a reflection of our self worth. But – if you can talk, you can sing.

Alt text hereEverybody can sing so let the songs flow out wherever you are.

Raise Your Voice

US opera singer Katie Kat wishes to encourage all of us to sing far more often regardless of our perceived skill.

Singing increases self-awareness, self-confidence and our ability to communicate with others. It decreases stress, comforts us and helps us to forge our identity and influence our world.

When you sing, musical vibration moves through you, altering your physical and emotional state. Singing is as old as the hills. It is innate, ancient and within all of us. It really is one of the most uplifting therapeutic things we can do. Katie continues:

However, society has skewed views on the value of singing. Singing has become something reserved for elite talent or highly produced stars with producers, management, concert dates – leaving the rest of us with destructive criticism of our own voices.

She claims that singing is instinctual and necessary to our existence. You do not have to be an amazing singer to benefit from the basic biological benefits and with practice the benefits increase.

Alt text hereSinging in a group brings joy to people of every age.

Singing Creates Connection

I have fond memories of hearing my grandmother singing throughout the day and of large group singing sessions with her friends.

One of my favourite memories of group singing is the old Scots tradition on New Year’s Eve of singing Auld Lang Syne. My grandmother and all her friends would stand in a big circle just before midnight.

Everyone would hold hands, and then at the beginning of the final verse we would cross our arms across our bodies so that our left hand was holding the hand of the person on our right, and the right hand holds that of the person on the left. When the song ended, everyone would rush to the middle, still holding hands. It was beautiful fun and as a young girl I felt so safe, included and loved within that singing circle.

The phrase “auld lang syne” roughly translates as “for old times’ sake”, and the song is all about preserving old friendships and looking back over the events of the year.

A tradition worth resurrecting, considering the benefits of singing in a group.

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Words By Cassandra Sheppard

Passionate community development worker who has lived and worked in Asia and Africa and created a thriving grass roots community centre in Democratic Republic of Congo.

 

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22 Responses to The Neuroscience of Singing

  1. This article should NOT be titled “The Neuroscience of Singing” It both lacks any discussion of neuroscience research (the link “numerous studies” takes you to another uplift article that’s also completely void of research) and propagates the myth of right brain=creativity left brain=analytical thinking. As a cognitive neuroscientist myself I’m tired of reading this kind of fluff that uses the word “neuroscience” as click bait. There’s a ton of easily available and interesting research on music that could have been included, if the author had taken more than 10 minutes to write this article.

    • I agree that the neuroscience is absent in this article, rendering it mostly – as you say – clickbait. Would you care to share links to a few of the articles on this topic that you find most useful? The topics is fascinating from many different perspectives.

    • The tittle is attractive, but, I agree with you, there is a lack of references. I would have been happy to share it with my community of singers, choir directors, solists, … but as it is, it’s not serious enough

    • Katrina, agreed. Would you care to take a few moments to see what we are doing at Cymatrax, both the web site and the Facebook page, where we are funding clinical trials to be written by the chief pediatric neurologist at the major children’s hospital here in Dallas? 99.5% of people are attached to music because of emotions, not the science of energy transmission through the central nervous system with cellular transduction and signaling the brain. Real neuroscience comes from trials and clinical testings like this one from the Morgan Freeman hosted show, Through the Wormhole.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Az9BxFu5VIE

    • sounds to me like you guys need to sing more and stop worrying about the left brain… who cares about references??? i don’t… so many people write such bullshit and then reference more bullshit… JUST SING!!!! WHO CARES!!!!

      • Gee, maybe there are a couple of reasons to care. Maybe we care because we’re interested in the neuroscience and the research, and it’s an annoying waste of our time to have been lured into an article that doesn’t deliver either. And maybe we care because there are enough ill-informed people in the world without rewarding people who write inaccurate articles under unsubstantiated headlines.

  2. I totally agree that singing is good for you. I think I am a good example
    i have sung all my life I cant remember ever not singing.. My biggest draw back when I was young was shyness. I sung at my grandmothers farm every Sunday we would sit round the fire and sing I cant remember how I started to sing but I just sang. Church;s junior choir, school choir, just around the house. Gave away choir when I had my children but still sang around the house and at parties. I took up singing in a choir when my husband took ill and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s This was.on the advice of a Physiologist. The best advice anyone has ever given me. My husband died over 10 years ago after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, he was diagnosed in the early 1990’s so it was a long journey. I put my good health and sanity down to my singing it has given me so much enjoyment. I wouldn’t have a clue if it is Neuroscience of Singing I’m not that clever. However I’m still singing loving it and still learning. I agree anyone can sing, for some it may take a bit more time but eventually they will be able to hold a tune.
    You make friends with people from all walks of life, you bond , you laugh and you cry when things go wrong but you pick yourself up put a smile on your face and get ready for the next rehearsal or concert.

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  4. Absolutely correct!
    the (un)described emotions and feelings we get
    participating in a chorus or a band or just singing all together in a party or sited around a table
    make us feel better at the end of thw day.
    So,
    let ‘s keep singing!

  5. When I was scared walking in the city at night I would sing, when my daughter was a newborn and cried so much I didn’t know what to do I would sing, and last night as I was getting my kids ready for bed I became frustrated and wanted to yell I sang instead. The effect was transformative on all of us. Yes! I love this article! thank you!

  6. One way that your heart beat gets in synch when you are singing the same song, is that you tend to breathe at the end of a line, so you all breathe in the same place, you are singing the words at the same speed, and your hearts fall into the same rhythm. Also, if you have perfect pitch, and you are near someone singing the same part, who also has perfect pitch, the exhilaration and enjoyment is multiplied! This has happened to me on several occasions, and you just want to keep singing; it feels really great. I think that might have to do with wave theory. If you and someone else are on the exact same pitch, then you are technically emitting the same wave lengths (I think), and the harmonics just naturally feel good!
    I haven’t read through all the other comments yet, so if someone has already brought this up, sorry!

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    Sabe’ apanha mais joga’

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  8. I like the gist of the article, but I’d sure like to see a citation to the research that shows heartbeats become synchronized.

  9. No citations will ever come about. Miguel Indurain had a heart rate of around 30 or 40 while some people with fybromialgia can have heart rates over 100. Age, heart size physical conditon rested or not rested effect the heart rate. Its not possible. There is no research. This all BS

  10. So encouraging – wonderfully inspiring. I now live alone – is singing alone beneficial to me, or must it be in groups like your article says?

  11. I love this. I was expecting more scientific reference that would have been interesting to learn, but the anecdotal stories of its effect, particularly with group singing are a motivator for me. I will look for ways to do that!

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