Singing and Psychological Well-Being

The power of group singing to elevate mood and forge relationships can help people weather challenges and face life’s ups and downs.

Back in the early 1980s, Stacy Horn was about as miserable as a 20-something could be. Her marriage had ended, her job was sapping her spirit, and her attempts to find love again had resulted in only short-lived relationships.

“I didn’t have a clue what to do about it,” Horn recalls, but after one particularly difficult night of soul-searching, she decided to make a list of what made her happy. “There were small little things on the list that might make me feel better for a minute,” she recalls, “but I wasn’t coming up with anything that would work consistently.”

“Then out of the blue, I wrote down singing. I hadn’t sung in any way in a long time. In fact, my only experience had been singing in a church choir for their holiday concert. I remembered how completely fantastic that felt. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I could join a choir and sing regularly and that would feel good.’”

Stacy Horn

She pulled out a map, marked x’s on the churches in her neighborhood, and set out on foot to check them out. The third or fourth church she entered was Grace Church at the corner of East 10th Street and Broadway. “The space was overwhelmingly beautiful, and I thought, ‘Oh, I hope they have a choir,’” Horn says.

They did—the Choral Society of Grace Church, a community choir—and after a difficult audition, Horn was in. “I just wanted to feel better,” she says. “I didn’t know it would be a life changing thing. But that is exactly what it has been for me. It has been a slow and subtle life change, but now singing is very important to me and my well-being.” 

Horn had discovered what thousands of others choral singers can attest to—how the simple act of singing with others can help them navigate life’s disappointments. “It is so surefire,” Horn says. “I walk into choral rehearsal feeling bad. I walk out feeling better.” 

It was so surefire, in fact, that Horn, an author and researcher, wanted to know why. What happens in a singer’s body and mind to turn around a dark mood or a difficult stage of life? She explored all the research she could get her hands on in preparing Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, due for release in July 2013. “When I started out there was a decent amount of research,” she says. “Now there is so much I can’t keep up with it.”

This is Your Brain on Singing 

As Horn discovered, numerous studies have shown an elevation of mood after an experience of group singing, and there are an array of theories about what causes this effect. Researchers at the United Kingdom’s University of Manchester believe that the sacculus, a little organ in the inner ear, may be the pathway. The sacculus only responds to the kind of low frequency, high intensity sounds commonly found in music and singing, and it responds within a few seconds of hearing these sounds. Because the sacculus is connected to the part of the brain that registers pleasure, singing delivers immediate enjoyment.

Several researchers believe that singing sparks the release of oxytocin, a hormone that plays a crucial role in our ability to forge and maintain relationships, to empathize, trust, and even love one another. A study led by Maria Sandgren, a researcher at the Stockholm University in Sweden, found that men and women got an oxytocin high when they sang. Walter J. Freeman, a neurobiologist at UC Berkeley, thinks the hormone’s release is likely part of the reason that group singing forms bonds. “Oxytocin is not a happiness chemical, but a brain tool for building trust,” Freeman writes. Joy comes in “dancing and singing with each other, thereby forming the bonds of trust.” 

That bonding experience may help explain why choral singers surveyed in some 21 choirs in Australia, Germany, and the UK reported being “happier” than their non-singing counterparts, even though they were not necessarily healthier physically. “It's very much about the act of togetherness, the importance of being involved with others gives people this strong sense of connectedness and well-being, we think,” says Don Stewart, head of public health at Griffith University in Queensland, quoted in an article about the study in the Sydney Morning Herald. “It seems to be quite a powerful effect.”

Songs of Resilience

If choral singing works to elevate mood, might it be a good intervention for those suffering from chronic mental illnesses? Eleanor Calden tested that premise when she formed the Mustard Seed Singers in Canterbury, England. The group specifically serves people like herself contending with mental health issues, particularly depression. “I have always sung,” she says in a BBC broadcast in 2010. “But I didn’t have the confidence to sing in a big choir. I have seen the benefits of singing, so I wanted to bring that to other people.”

Since its formation in 2008, the group has tripled in size. Stephen Clift, director of research at the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health in Canterbury, has studied the group, using questionnaires to monitor the singers’ psychological progress. The improvements have been dramatic, he says. The Mustard Seed Singers model has inspired some eight other new choirs for people with a variety of enduring mental health problems. 

Sing Your Heart Out, another choral organization aimed at mental health service users, has also helped reduce depression and anxiety in its participants. The singing workshops, now held at several locations in the United Kingdom, include staff, caregivers, friends, family, and interested people from the local community.

Clift and his colleagues include the Sing Your Heart Out groups as a case study in their book Songs of Resilience, which explores the connection between singing and health. They note that the inclusiveness of the choral workshops is “combating stigma and facilitating re-integration into ordinary life, especially for service users who have spent time in institutional care…encounters are person-to person, rather than, for example, staff to service-user or mentally ill to ‘healthy.’” The musical character of the songs used in workshops also has an effect, they believe. “In each group particular songs have assumed special significance—they have become ‘anthems’ for the group—and in a real sense their own ‘songs of resilience.’”

When Bad Things Happen, People Sing

There seems to be a human need to collectively give voice to tragedy. How else to explain the “Rolling Requiem” in 2002? During this event, 145 choirs from 40 states, 23 countries, and 20 time zones performed Mozart's Requiem at their local time of 8:46 a.m., the moment of the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Melinda Bargreen, a music critic for the Seattle Times writing about the outpouring of choral music, says, “The enormous concert calendar for Sept. 11 bespeaks the unique ability of music to bring people together in circumstances that are beyond words.”

The New York City Children's Chorus performed "Silent Night" and Brahms's "Wiegenlied" on the Today show in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Choral singing has been a compelling response in the wake of other devastating events. In China, a music therapist created small choirs of boys and girls as a crisis intervention after the Sichuan earthquake in 2009. More recently, children’s choruses organized special concerts and appeared on national television shows to pay tribute to those affected by the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting. The chorus from Sandy Hook Elementary School performed “America the Beautiful” with Jennifer Hudson as part of the Super Bowl XLVII broadcast.

Horn begins her book with the story of another tragedy—a devastating fire in 1919 that took the lives of 92 Pennsylvania coal miners. Just two weeks after the catastrophe, 13 local men left their jobs in and around the mine and christened themselves the Orpheus Glee Club. “All of the men were either miners or sons or brothers of miners,” Horn wrote. “They were mostly Welsh; for them, singing was how they celebrated and how they grieved.”

“It sounds crazy at first,” Horn says. “All of your friends have died, and you want to sing? But now that I have researched the science of singing, it is completely understandable how soothing and healing it can be.”

The Chorus as Support Group

The power of singing to both elevate mood and encourage a sense of connection makes it a natural tool for support groups. As people facing difficult life challenges look for ways to bond with others in similar situations, many have turned to choral groups.

The Military Wives Choirs Foundation, a network of some 60 choirs across the United Kingdom and other far-flung places where military are stationed, aims to bring women with loved ones in the military closer together through singing. The original choir was created by choirmaster Gareth Malone as part of the BBC show “The Choir” from the wives and girlfriends of servicemen at Royal Marines Base Chivenor and Bickleigh Barracks, both in Devon. The new choirs range in size from 25 to 70 wives and girlfriends, including many whose partners are serving in Afghanistan. The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) has helped create the network of choirs. 

“Military families, on average, move every two years, and every time you move it feels like you’re starting again,” choir member Nicky Clarke told a reporter for The Telegraph in 2012. “Military wives feel incredibly proud of the role they have and this is a way of wives coming together and creating something for themselves. It’s time just for you. You’re just focusing on singing and the music.”

The Military Wives Choirs have enjoyed unexpected success as recording artists. Their single, “Wherever You Are,” which uses lines from the wives’ love letters to their husbands serving in Afghanistan, was the number one Christmas single in 2011. Its sale raised £500,000 for the Royal British Legion and the SSAFA Forces Help charities.

In the United States, choirs for survivors of breast cancer are popping up around the country. In North Texas, Jan Burkhalter formed a choir for breast cancer survivors after she was diagnosed with the disease while pregnant. The group made its debut performance at the Denton Race for the Cure in October of 2011. Melinda Pollack-Harris, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, formed the Sing to Live Community Chorus to provide a musical outlet and supportive environment to Chicago-area singers whose lives have been touched by breast cancer. 

Like others facing life challenges, Pollack-Harris found an emotional cure in singing that other activities simply did not provide. She recalls that her cancer support group offered a variety of activities, from cooking classes to tai chi, but singing wasn't one of them. “It was a glaringly missing piece,” Pollack-Harris recalls. Starting off with 36 singers in 2005, the Sing to Live Community Chorus now supports two choirs—one in Central Chicago and one on the North Shore—and 90 singers, all of whom are either breast cancer survivors or spouses, friends, or caregivers of cancer survivors. 

The Chorus’ artistic director and conductor, Wilbert Watkins, whose twin sister is a breast cancer survivor, “has brought such beautiful music and depth to my musical experience,” Pollack-Harris says. “And meeting these wonderful people in the choir has enriched my life in so many ways. It has blown me away, quite honestly.”

The connection to cancer brings a unique sense of compassion to the group, Pollack-Harris says. “Whenever anyone is facing a difficult situation, the outpouring of support they get is amazing. It is this unspoken, very strong sense of community for the singers that has developed organically.”

This article was adapted from The Voice, Spring 2013. In this special issue devoted to singing and wellness, Chorus America explores current research and tells stories about how singing together contributes to the well-being of individuals, groups, and communities.