Perhaps it's an outlet. Maybe it heals you. It could give you a sense of awe, or allow you to grieve. It might help you find a connection to the world around you, or the person standing right beside you.
It could be your way of relaxing after a long day at the office, or the coping mechanism for getting through rush-hour traffic. It might be the only way you can get your young one to sleep at night.
These are just some of the things singing can accomplish on an individual level; but when one person joins with others, the power of song is undeniable. Think about "We Shall Overcome," or the story of Estonia's Singing Revolution.
While overthrowing the people in power may be higher than you'd like to aim, singing can allow people to tap into memories once thought to be lost, and reconnect with loved ones. A study showed that choral singing has calming effects on a singer's heart rate. The singers' heart rates increased and decreased collectively as the music changed.
If you think you've never had that type of communal experience, you might be mistaken. Have you ever been in a crowd singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"? Do you sing in the congregation at your preferred house of worship? Have you sung "Happy Birthday" at a party? You could be part of the collective experience any of those times.
In the so-called Land of 10,000 Choirs, many of us get that experience in a particularly structured manner. I sing in four choirs myself, including one that is made up almost exclusively of similar choral junkies: The Summer Singers.
Singing can heal the soul. That's why one of my fellow singers participates in so many groups. She has such a mind-numbing job that she needs to feed her soul in any way she can, and that's through singing. Another says singing can alleviate or augment her emotions, whether they're positive or negative. You may recognize how a sad song could help you work through that emotion and come out feeling better on the other side.
For me, however, singing is more about finding the calm and peacefulness at the end of a busy day. My life is filled with so many random acts of multitasking that choir rehearsal is practically the only place I can focus.
When I unplug from the rest of everyday existence and immerse myself in the collective, that's where I feel the magic.
There's more to singing, though, than emotion, peacefulness and healing your soul. Singing in an a cappella choir means you are constantly adjusting—to the voices around you, to the way the sound reverberates (or doesn't) in the performance space. There might be eight (or more) notes being sung at once, so where does yours fit in?
That's just the note. Then you need to make sure your "ah" matches everyone else's "ah," and that your beat matches the conductor's, and you appropriately capture the emotion of the passage — not just in your voice but on your face.
I liken it to walking a tightrope. I love the challenge, and I know I'm not alone.
This season, the Summer Singers are fortunate enough to have a newly commissioned piece by Joshua Shank titled "This is Why We Sing." Robert Ressler wrote a fantastic original poem by the same title that encapsulates so many of our emotions about singing.
Ressler's text refers to a spark igniting and bringing music to life. It uses imagery that evokes the Big Bang. The melody line emerges from a sea of background murmurs and rises to a crescendo before settling into a mantra intoning the reasons why we sing.
Come hear us sing — or go to hear any of your area choirs. If the spirit moves you, find a choir to join. Here in Minnesota, at least, there are about 10,000 to choose from.
When you sing, musical vibrations move through you, altering your physical and emotional landscape. Group singing, for those who have done it, is the most exhilarating and transformative of all. It takes something incredibly intimate, a sound that begins inside you, shares it with a roomful of people and it comes back as something even more thrilling: harmony. So it’s not surprising that group singing is on the rise. According to Chorus America, 32.5 million adults sing in choirs, up by almost 10 million over the past six years. Many people think of church music when you bring up group singing, but there are over 270,000 choruses across the country and they include gospel groups to show choirs like the ones depicted in Glee to strictly amateur groups like Choir! Choir! Choir! singing David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World.
As the popularity of group singing grows, science has been hard at work trying to explain why it has such a calming yet energizing effect on people. What researchers are beginning to discover is that singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits.
The elation may come from endorphins, a hormone released by singing, which is associated with feelings of pleasure. Or it might be from oxytocin, another hormone released during singing, which has been found to alleviate anxiety and stress. Oxytocin also enhances feelings of trust and bonding, which may explain why still more studies have found that singing lessens feelings of depression and loneliness. A very recent study even attempts to make the case that “music evolved as a tool of social living,” and that the pleasure that comes from singing together is our evolutionary reward for coming together cooperatively, instead of hiding alone, every cave-dweller for him or herself.
The benefits of singing regularly seem to be cumulative. In one study, singers were found to have lower levels of cortisol, indicating lower stress. A very preliminary investigation suggesting that our heart rates may sync up during group singing could also explain why singing together sometimes feels like a guided group meditation. Study after study has found that singing relieves anxiety and contributes to quality of life. Dr. Julene K. Johnson, a researcher who has focused on older singers, recently began a five year study to examine group singing as an affordable method to improve the health and well-being of older adults.
It turns out you don’t even have to be a good singer to reap the rewards. According to one 2005 study, group singing “can produce satisfying and therapeutic sensations even when the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.” Singing groups vary from casual affairs where no audition is necessary to serious, committed professional or avocational choirs like the Los Angeles Master Chorale or my chorus in New York City, which I joined when I was 26 and depressed, all based on a single memory of singing in a choir at Christmas, an experience so euphoric I never forgot it.
If you want to find a singing group to join, ChoirPlace and ChoralNet are good places to begin, or more local sites like the New York Choral Consortium, which has links to the Vocal Area Network and other sites, or the Greater Boston Choral Consortium. But if you can’t find one at any of these sites, you can always google “choir” or “choral society” and your city or town to find more. Group singing is cheaper than therapy, healthier than drinking, and certainly more fun than working out. It is the one thing in life where feeling better is pretty much guaranteed. Even if you walked into rehearsal exhausted and depressed, by the end of the night you’ll walk out high as a kite on endorphins and good will.