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Good news for choir singers: How singing helps the body and brain

Clive Wearing cannot remember his past. His memory span is only seconds long — one of the worst cases of amnesia ever recorded — and every pause in the conversation has the potential to send him into a spiral of confusion and hopelessness. When he goes to his bathroom, he has to fumble around a room that will always be unfamiliar. He shudders uncontrollably and writes the same journal entry again and again: “I am awake.” His brain was decimated by encephalitis and no cure for his condition exists.

Yet he can still sing.

His wife Deborah writes in her memoir:

I started to sing one of the lines. He picked up the tenor lines and sang with me. A bar or so in, I suddenly realized what was happening. He could still read music. He was singing. His talk might be a jumble no one could understand but his brain was still capable of music. … When he got to the end of the line I hugged him and kissed him all over his face. … Clive could sit down at the organ and play with both hands on the keyboard, changing stops, and with his feet on the pedals, as if this were easier than riding a bicycle. Suddenly we had a place to be together, where we could create our own world away from the ward. Our friends came in to sing. I left a pile of music by the bed and visitors brought other pieces.

What about music — about singing — is powerful enough to cross through the fog of brain damage?

The physiological effects of singing

Scientists have found increasing evidence that singing has a therapeutic effect on the human brain. Much like exercise, singing causes the body to release endorphins (or “endogenous morphine”) that reduce pain and increase happiness. Another study found that music increases the body’s level of immunoglobulin, an antibody that plays a critical role in fighting disease. Yet another study found that singing increased plasma levels of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.”

These powerful biological effects aren’t only for show – scientists have also observed real behavioral changes that come from singing, especially in a group. Choir singing was found to improve depression symptoms in individuals with cancer. Homeless men who joined a choir reported considerable emotional, social and cognitive benefits from the experience, even when they struggled to sing in key. Elderly adults reported feeling refreshed and happy after singing. In a study that examined 600 choral singers, most participants reported increased mental well-being and quality of life even when they were actively struggling with mental health issues and physical ailments at home.

Singing to improve your health

It seems more and more obvious that singing — like exercise — can make a positive difference in a person’s mental and physical life. (Of course, singing — like exercise — should act as a supplementary to treatment rather than a replacement.) Here are some helpful hints for ways to integrate singing into your daily life.

  • Sing in the shower

There’s a reason why this is a cliché — when people sing in the shower, they sound amazing. Let the acoustics boost your confidence and belt out a couple of your favorite songs, even if you’re not usually happy with your singing voice.

  • Sing to your pets

Some animals, such as dogs and birds, love it when someone sings to them. Give your furry (or feathery) friend your full attention and see whether or not you can make them sing along.

  • Sing with your friends

There are countless karaoke apps on the market. Download one and have a party with your closest friends. When people sing together, their heartbeats actually synchronize, making this a prime bonding opportunity.

  • Sing in a choir

If you’re comfortable singing in public, joining a choir is definitely the way to go. Research on choirs has been overwhelmingly positive, especially when it comes to improving mental health. Not all choirs are religious. Search the Internet to determine which choirs might work for you.

Scientists still aren’t sure why music and singing are so beneficial to brain health. (They also aren’t sure why Clive Wearing can sing so well despite his short-term amnesia — it may be because music taps into another form of memory entirely.) Regardless, the power of song is undeniable. The next time someone frowns at you for singing too loudly in the shower, tell them that it’s all right — you’re busy healing your brain.

The Sovereign Health Group provides patients with treatment programs designed to address mental illness by treating it at its source — the brain. From the moment our patients contact us, we work with them to be sure that we know what they need and can provide a solution. Our revolutionary brain wellness program teaches patients ways in which they can achieve proper nutrition, sleep hygiene and healthy living in the real world. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health Group writer

For more information and other inquires about this article, contact the author at news@sovhealth.com.