The Science of Singing

Turns out that opening your mouth and letting your voice ring out can catalyze a whole range of physical and emotional benefits. A growing body of research is revealing the positive impact of singing, both in groups and on your own. And there’s some evidence to suggest that you can enjoy those boons whether you’re a trained vocalist or an enthusiastic amateur. Here’s the lowdown on the science of singing.

It’s a mood-boosting, stress-busting practice.

Science suggests that people with regular singing routines experience increases in the feel-good chemicals dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. According to Stacey Horn, author of Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others, “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.” In her Time feature, “Singing Changes Your Brain,” Horn also cites a study in which singers exhibited lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Mantra music superstar Deva Premal, who is touring the United States this spring with her partner, Miten, agrees. “When you sing, you lift yourself up. It also relaxes your nerves and releases tension.”

It may boost immunity.

A study on the benefits of music, published in 2013 in Trends in Cognitive Science, noted three studies finding that people who sang in a choir displayed greater increases in secretory immunoglobulin A (S-IgA), an antibody that enhances our immune defense, as compared to people who simply listened to a choir sing. And a 2016 study suggests that singing in groups may increase levels of immune proteins called cytokines in cancer patients.

It helps us bond with each other.

According to a 2015 study conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford, group singing can help us form close bonds with each other within the span of just two hours. Other research suggests that group singing in particular increases levels of oxytocin, which is associated with trust and bonding (or what scientists refer to as “social affiliation”).

Kripalu presenter Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, has experienced this firsthand. “Once, during a Q&A after a book reading, somebody asked me what my go-to karaoke song was,” she recalls. “I had everybody whip out their phones and pull up the lyrics to ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ by John Denver. We all sang it together. It was meant to be funny, but by the end of the song, 900 people were raising their voices as one, swaying with their arms around strangers. It kind of put everyone in the room into the same spiritual and emotional and breathing space. It was one of the best nights I’ve ever had speaking. Now I try to lead karaoke at my book readings whenever I can.”

From a yogic perspective, says Deva, “When we sing together in a group, we are all breathing together in the same rhythm and we are all making our breath be heard in the same way. That makes the group vibrate as one whole.”  

It may improve depression, sleep, and memory function.

In 2012, researchers teamed up with the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation to publish the results of a small pilot study conducted on the potential benefits of a chant-centric, eight-week practice called the Kirtan Kriya. This study suggested that the practice may improve depression, sleep, and memory function in adults with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment.

Other studies, cited by researchers including Aniruddh D. Patel, author of Music, Language, and the Brain, and a former senior fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, suggest that singing improves other cognitive abilities, including working memory, information processing, and the ability to sustain goal-directed attention.

A 2009 study found that trained singers develop better verbal working memory and show higher activation in the basal ganglia than non-singers, “resulting in more efficient information processing and implicit motor control,” according to the study’s authors. Singers also show increased activation in portions of the prefrontal cortex responsible for maintaining goal-directed attention through changing sensory information.

It may improve heart health.

According to Horn, “Regular singing is positively linked with cardiovascular fitness.” A small study published in a peer-reviewed medical journal called The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) found that reciting the rosary or singing “a slow mantra” may have a positive influence on cardiovascular health—notably by slowing respiration rate and thus, cardiovascular rhythms.

And then there are the deeper benefits …

Some experts cite benefits of singing that are harder for scientists to measure. Kripalu presenter Claude Stein, an award-winning voice coach who has worked with artists on labels such as Warner Brothers and Atlantic, observes, “With the correct guidance, singing can ennoble our darkest fears and our deepest unspoken desires. It can help us create beautiful, inspiring music that changes the world around us and leaves us in a state of triumph.”

What, exactly, does that look like? “It’s the shy singer who finally turns into Tina Turner,” he says. "The self-conscious, trained singer who lets go of technique and sings from her soul. The man who fears that he might be unworthy or judged negatively, who reclaims his power and sings out his truth. It’s the magic that happens when you finally give voice to a part of your core self.” 

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