A melody a day keeps the doctor away? The proposed health benefits of singing

by Beth Cotter on February 21, 2013

Whether you are belting out a song in the shower, taking over the lead vocals to a hit on the radio, joining in exclaiming your alma matter after a football game, or performing a vigorously rehearsed performance of Handel’s Messiah, on a daily basis, the majority of us most frequently participate in the expression of music through singing. As some of us may be aware of the positive health effects of listening to music through music therapy, I wanted to examine whether any health benefits result from swapping roles from the number-one-groupie to the super-star vocalist. In other words, how does our health benefit from singing in our every day lives?

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Singing Can Boost Your Immunity

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – Kelly Clarkson

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if singing in the shower could improve our immune function? Well, some evidence suggests that it can. A study by Kreutz et al. in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, looked at the levels of an important antibody in the immune system that is secreted during infection (Secretory IgA) in response to singing status amongst members in a choir. After comparing the antibody levels of singing choir members to the antibody levels of non-singing choir members, they found that the IgA levels were significantly higher amongst the singers than the listeners. This finding suggests that singing has a positive influence upon the immune system.

Not only does IgA respond to signals in the immune response but it is also understood that IgA levels can be associated with an individuals’ emotional state. Typically, when someone is in a happy or positive mood, they experience an increase in IgA. Therefore the positive emotional reaction amongst singing members of the choir could be serving as a major contributor to an enhanced immune response.

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Singing  Can Bring You and Your Loved One Closer Together

Love shack is a little old place where we can get together – B 52

A study by Grape et al. examined the beneficial effects of singing upon the overall well-being amongst trained and untrained singers. Although there were slight differences between the groups in terms of health outcomes, both groups of singers demonstrated an increase in oxytocin levels after singing. Oxytocin is typically referred to as the “cuddle hormone” since it is known to be released after a sensual encounter with a loved one, but it has also been associated with boosting feelings of trust, reducing anxiety and stress and promoting feelings of happiness. Have you ever gotten so fully involved in singing a song that you felt emotionally uplifted after it was done? Have you ever felt exhausted from the level of investment that you put into singing a song? Well, an emotional connection to a song or singing experience could be due to this release of oxytocin that, in turn, signals an improved sense of well-being.

Singing Can Help to Alleviate stress 

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I can see clearly now the rain is gone – Johnny Nash

Considering the fact that most of us have “that certain song” that we listen to in order to help us clam our nerves when we are  stressed or anxious, it is no surprise that by actively engaging in singing, we can reduce our levels of stress and anxiety. An exploratory study by Clift and Hancox collected information from students in a university choir about the perceived personal and health benefits that could result from participating in a choir. Eighty-seven percent of the students responded positively in believing that they benefited socially, 75% believed that they benefitted emotionally, 58% thought that they benefitted physically and 22% of the students believed that they experienced reduced stress and anxiety as a direct result of singing. In general, the study found that singing in a choir setting can influence relaxation and stress reduction amongst choir participants.

Singing Can Help You to Breathe More Easily

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Breathe, just breathe – Anna Nalick

A study performed by Gale et al. examined the quality of life and lung function of cancer survivors after participation in a choir that rehearsed for two hours a week. Although this study did not find that there was any signifiant change in their lung function after participation in the choir, they did find that the patients involved in the choir had a greater expiratory capacity than those people  not in the choir. Other studies have shown that patients with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) who sang twice a week had better respiratory health than those who did not. These findings make sense considering the fact that singing utilizes muscles involved with breathing. By learning how to both regulate your breath and extend your expiratory time, singers are inherently increasing the strength of their lungs.

Singing Can Facilitate a Sense of Community

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Oh I get by with a little help from my friends -The Beatles

Having grown up in a relatively musical family, it seems like whenever we all get together we find a way to incorporate singing. From Christmas caroling around the neighborhood, to performing duets from musical theatre productions, or attempting to create a five-part harmony, it seems that no matter what type of music is produced it always brings my family closer together. Because of this, I fully appreciate the idea that singing could play a role in facilitating community, an idea supported by Gale et al. The researchers of this study recognized that it could be very difficult to fully separate the direct health effects of singing versus the health effects of having a social support system (via a choir), yet still found it valuable to acknowledge the social and community benefits that choirs can provide. Considering that the population in this study consisted of cancer survivors, the findings are particularly relevant to that specified population, but I think that the positive influence of singing in a “community” can be translated to external populations.

Does level of singing expertise effect the magnitude of the health benefit?
No! In fact studies demonstrate that professional and amateur singers receive distinct health benefits from singing! While as you might expect, professional singers are more physiologically fit for singing and are more tuned into the details of musical performance, they experience greater stimulation from singing than amateurs. But, in terms of health benefits, it appears that amateur singers are able to utilize singing to better release emotional tensions and experience a greater  sense of well-being than professional singers. Therefore, whether you sing in the car or perform on Broadway, health benefits can result from anyone who takes time to sing!

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Need for Further Investigation:

While the health benefits of singing appear to be slightly diffuse, the success that has been discovered in observational studies, surveys, and experimental studies sheds a positive light upon future discoveries. As with any body of research, caution should be taken when translating the findings of one study to an entire population, but the significant effects of singing upon the health outcomes of choir groups, surviving cancer patients and COPD patients establishes a promising future for further investigation.

 

He who sings scares away his woes – Miguel de Cervantes

 

[Updated: 02/27/13]