Ever noticed how people who whistle to themselves seem more cheerful?
Singing, whistling and humming to music is something we associate with happiness, contentment and relaxation. It’s not something we associate with worry, stress or anger.
Every culture on earth has a singing and music tradition. Whether it’s mass marketed pop music, the music of a youth subculture, or singing as part of a religious group, music has always had a central role in bringing people together. That’s because music is something that just about everyone is familiar with.
But could there be more to it than that?
Why does singing make us feel better?
There’s a reason why it feels good to hum along to a tune or blast out your favourite song at the top of your lungs. Quite simply, singing is good for you in many ways: it has been shown to able to improve your mood (for example, by helping reduce feelings of worry and anxiety); it can improve your breathing and posture; and there is even evidence that suggests the stress-reducing effects of music can benefit your immune system.
Yes, singing is both enjoyable and good for you. However, things get even more intriguing when you look at the effect of singing in a group. An increasing number of people are joining choirs and group singing activities around the world and it’s an area that mental health researchers have been studying with great interest.
In one overseas study, researchers monitored the wellbeing of participants at weekly singing choir workshops, appropriately called Sing Your Heart Out. These events differed to traditional choirs in that anyone could participate. The group also emphasised that it welcomed people with mental health concerns.
After six months of observation, the researchers concluded that yes, there was strong evidence to suggest that singing in a choir did have positive mental health benefits.
One researcher concluded:
“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.”
The Sing Your Heart Out study highlights several benefits of singing in a group. As mentioned, we know that singing is an inherently “happy” activity and that the act of singing in a choir can improve mood.
However, the benefits of singing extend beyond physical effects on the brain. We are, after all, social creatures, so an enjoyable group activity that meets one of our basic needs — that of social connection — is inherently beneficial.
This was shown in another study that followed multiple singing groups focusing on mental health. It found that “group singing can have substantial benefits in aiding the recovery of people with a history of serious and enduring mental health problems”. In other words, most people who joined the choir reported feeling better, as much for the effect of singing a for the social benefits.
Find your groove
Choir singing may not work for everyone. That’s because everyone’s music taste varies, and what works for one person may not work for another. For example, one unusual study measured people’s responses to extreme heavy metal music. It concluded that people who considered themselves fans of the genre reported positive emotions after listening to their preferred style, whereas people who did not enjoy that style reported more negative feelings.
The enjoyment of music is a highly personal experience and no two people will agree on the same thing. Someone who enjoys classical music may not enjoy heavy metal — just as someone who enjoys pop music may not enjoy choir singing.
What is clear, though, is that singing, enjoying and participating in a style of music that you enjoy or love can help your outlook and improve how you feel about stressful, worrying or difficult situations.
Whether it’s the actual physiological effects of singing on the brain, the emotional wellbeing that comes from participating in a group, or both, music that you love and enjoy is “good for the soul” to use an old saying.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.