The Neuroscience of Singing

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Jul 152014

Tania de Jong 

Discouraged by a fear of being judged, the only time most people sing is the shower. However, evolution has left us with an inherent desire to sing, and singing alone and in groups has many mental health benefits, argues soprano and motivational speaker Tania de Jong.

Oh what a feeling, I’m singing again

There was a time when everyone used to sing. We sat around campfires, at church and at school. We sang our stories and our dreams. We sang alone and we sang together. Nowadays, not many of us sing. We think we can’t because someone at some time told us not to sing, or we think we’re not good enough. We worry that people will think we are strange, that we will be judged as not as good as the celebrities we idolise. Eighty-five per cent of people have been told not to sing at some point.

Of course, we can all sing. Voice is the language of our hearts; it is how we express ourselves. Singing has so many great benefits for our brains, our psychological function, our thinking and learning skills, and our social functions.

Our voices have been silenced, and it’s not doing us any good. Most people believe that they can’t sing. There is a taboo about singing or even speaking in public, and yet we were all given voices to express ourselves and tune in with one another. We have such a fear of failure and we are incredibly vulnerable to being judged.

Of course, we can all sing. Voice is the language of our hearts; it is how we express ourselves. Singing has so many great benefits for our brains, our psychological function, our thinking and learning skills, and our social functions.

One of the many great advantages of singing is that it connects our right brain to the rest our brain, which benefits our thinking. The right hemisphere of the brain is in charge of our imagination, intuition and all of our creative functions; it enables possibilities and connects us to everything that is. The brain is like a battery; the right side charges and the left side uses the energy.

Read more: A musical recovery

Our goal is to always keep our mental battery charged, but often we’re overloaded with too much information, so we spend 85 per cent of the time using our left brain. We’re literally draining our batteries. We talk more to boxes and screens than we do to one another.

When we regularly engage in music-making, singing and other creative pursuits, our attention and cognition improve and we are connecting with others. It is fundamentally important to nurture the attributes of humans that set us apart from machines: love, compassion, creativity, courage and caring. Otherwise, we will become redundant. The best way to change the balance and recharge our mental battery is to use the right brain more. The most effective activity for doing that is singing.

Professor Sarah Wilson, one of the leading researchers on the neurological benefits of music, says that ‘music is to mental health what sport is to physical health’. The mental connections that music makes have been shown to translate to academic benefits, including improved literacy, numeracy, spatial abilities, executive functioning and intelligence, as well as greater school attendance and participation. They also extend to self-confidence, self-discipline, teamwork and social skills.

More: Berlin’s real time music

Neuroscience proves that singing connects neural pathways and fires up the right temporal lobe of the brain, releasing endorphins, which make people healthier, happier, smarter and more creative. Music-making and singing activate multiple brain networks. Not surprisingly, music has been dubbed the ‘food of neuroscience’ and provides a powerful model of how the brain can change in response to the environment.

What I love about this research is that it’s way more powerful when we sing together. It’s important to note that group singing is on the rise. In America, 32.5 million adults sing in choirs, up by almost 10 million over the past six years. There are similar increases in Australia.

Doctors are increasingly interested in the ability of music—particularly singing—to allay depression. Stephen Clift, director of the Sidney De Haan Research Centre at Canterbury Christ Church University in the UK, says that ‘singing together helps people with mental health issues feel happier, better connected with others and more supported’. Singing can literally retrain the brain.

The good news continues: singing promotes social bonding, cohesion and is part of our social identity. When we sit around a campfire or anywhere else singing together, we feel part of a bigger, connected universe. This takes us out of our small, isolated and separated selves. When we sing together we share a mental and spiritual state and this gives people the ability to empathise and step into the shoes of others. It also enables us to transcend the mundanity of our ordinary lives and experience the magic of connection to something vast and infinite. When we sing with others there is something really magical as we crescendo and sing in harmony together. Not only do we breathe together, but studies show that our hearts start to beat together

There are theories that speculate that music and singing developed alongside our brains as a survival mechanism. Before there were governments or nations, tribes and groups used songs and dance to build loyalty to the group, transmit vital information and ward off enemies. Those who sang well survived because the world was a scary place.

It’s said that most of us go through our lives with our music unplayed. Imagine if we can just unlock a little bit more of our brain’s creative potential. We were all born with a voice, so let’s not sit in silence any longer.

As they say: ‘Sing like no one’s listening, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like no one’s watching and live like it’s heaven on earth.’

Ockham’s Razor is a soap box for all things scientific, with short talks by researchers and people from industry with something thoughtful to say about science.

The Benefits of Singing in a Group…

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Jan 072014

If you were wondering about singing in a ‘group’, read on to find out some of the benefits…

Well or unwell, singing is an important part of life and brings joy and good health to people of all ages. ages.

There’s a reason why singing talent shows are so popular on TV. We take a closer look at the emotional, mental and social benefits of singing…

Glance at today’s TV guides and you’ll see they’re jam-packed with singing-based entertainment – The X-Factor, The Voice and Glee being just three hugely popular examples. It all goes to show that while these days we’re less likely to stand around the piano for an old-fashioned Sound of Music-style family sing-along, people do still really enjoy singing ‘ even if it’s only in the shower or the car.

No matter how you choose to do it, there’s evidence that any singing in your life is a good thing. Though you’re probably not consciously aware of it when you’re belting out Bohemian Rhapsody into your hair dryer, singing delivers a host of physical and emotional benefits including increased heart rate and improved breathing, lung capacity, posture and mood. And while singing alone is good, singing with others can be even better.


“To some extent, technology has removed us from singing – you can hear such good singing at the press of a button, so we sing less ourselves,” says Professor Jenny Sharples, psychologist and Executive Dean at Victoria University. “But singing ourselves connects us to a different part of our brain. It gives us pleasure. When we’re part of a larger group where voices soar together, that’s even better. It’s a way of improving our wellbeing.”

Professor Sharples is co-author of a 2011 research project conducted by the Wellness Promotion Unit at Victoria University and funded by VicHealth, which examined ‘group singing’ and its associated health and wellbeing benefits. Generally, group singing is quite informal, where anyone is welcome and no preparation is required.

The report concluded that group singing is a powerful personal and social health promotion activity, with benefits such as increased self-confidence, empowerment, wellbeing and interpersonal skills, and lowered feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety.

“Group singing can help with problems,” Professor Sharples says. “Our research looked at wellbeing generated by singing, but there is research around how singing can help with difficulties – a classic example is the Choir of Hard Knocks, made up of homeless people.”


“Singing also has physical benefits,” Slater says. “When you sing, your posture and breathing is different to when you speak. It’s like a sport. And just as in playing sport, singing promotes mental and physical fitness; it creates endorphins and it leaves you feeling uplifted and energised.”

A physical activity involving the lungs and respiratory muscles, singing – and the increased control of breath that’s associated with it – is believed to be beneficial for everyone, from expectant mothers (helping them to prepare for labour) to people with asthma, lung disease and respiratory disorders.

Asthma sufferer … Lady Geraldine Currie, aged 85, says that singing has done her the world of good. “All my life I’d sung, and then for one reason or another, I didn’t sing for a while,” Lady Currie says. “And then I was diagnosed with late-onset asthma. I joined a singing group, and saw immediate benefits. Singing has improved both my lung capacity and my breathing. It’s a wonderful social outlet too. I get an enormous amount of pleasure from singing – it makes you feel good.”


The breathing techniques promoted by singing are also useful for counteracting stress. “Have you ever noticed that when you’re stressed you hold your breath?” Professor Sharples asks. “Singing helps with stress relief, because it’s very good for managing breathing, which helps with anxiety and panic. If you’ve ever tried to sing and be stressed at the same time, you’ll find it’s difficult.”

“Singing and wellbeing is a new area of research, but it will grow,” she says. “If you think about it, we sing at funerals and birthdays and all sorts of meaningful social occasions. It’s an important part of how we socially connect. When you’re singing with others, you’re part of something bigger than yourself.”