Singing at Sunday Assembly

The Science of Singing in the Atheist Church

Group singing is easily the most controversial aspect of Sunday Assembly. Some people love it, others complain. Some clap hands, dance, and yodel at the top of their lungs, others mutter beneath their breath. So why do we sing at our events? Because it just makes good science.

Let me hit you with some facts about singing.

1. Singing makes you happier

There is a reason most musical films are so overwhelmingly joyful: the act of singing is commonly connected with a sense of celebration, exaltation, and of community. Now, perhaps you gag at the thought of musicals and prefer your songs in the melancholic blues style. While I commend your taste, science does tell us that no matter how sad you sing, the very act of singing raises your spirits.

In 2013, the world’s first randomised controlled trial into the health benefits of community signing was conducted. It found an overall increase in the mental health of people who took part in regular group singing sessions. Symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression were reduced and people found that their overall quality of life had increased. It was reported that singing in harmony with others “engenders happiness and raised spirits which counteracts feelings of sadness and depression.”

The deep breathing necessary for singing is another anxiety reducer. Then there is the release of endorphins, that is said to give singers an overall “lifted” feeling. Plus, studies that have reported singers (and especially those who sing in groups) have a greater sense of wellbeing, and contentment in their lives.

Wow, so many reasons to get up and sing and we are only at point one!

2. Singing boosts your immunity

A 2002 study in Frankfurt took samples of saliva from singers before and after they belted out a tune. What they found was an increase in the secretion of antibodies after a singing session. But of course, the scientists in Frankfurt wanted to ensure that it was actually the act of singing that caused the boost and not music by itself. They repeated the tests but this time had their singers listening to the same music without singing along. No increase in antibodies.

So yes, you do have to actively participate in singing to get the benefits. But hey, immediate immunity boost. Level up! Another reason to warm up those vocal chords (pun intended) on wintery days.

3. Group singing gets you feeling connected

Singing is undoubtedly an intimate action. When we listen to singers we aim to connect with their emotions, their words, their meaning. When we sing we usually do so alone: in the shower, in the car with the windows up, or alongside loud music when you have the house to yourself using the kitchen broom as a mic stand. Yeah, we’ve all been there.

So no surprise that when you sing along with a group you feel connected to a whole network of intimate camaraderie. Why is it so? Well, according to the Wellness Promotion Unit at Victoria University, singing with a group increases the sense of social support and social connectedness. This is due to interacting in harmony with others on a regular basis, which then boosts interpersonal skills and confidence.

Not only does singing help you connect with your fellow humans, but also your body because…

4. Singing is a great workout

Singing at Sunday Assembly

I’ve already mentioned that the complex, deep breathing required to sing calms the nerves but did you know it is also an aerobic activity? Prof. Graham Welch has been studying developmental and medical aspects of singing for over 30 years. He points out that:

“Singing has physical benefits because it is an aerobic activity that increases oxygenation in the blood stream and exercises major muscle groups in the upper body, even when sitting.”

Aerobics while sitting down? Sounds like my kinda workout! But now here is my favourite reason to sing:

5. Singing makes you feel soooo good! Yes, yes, yes!

Try to deny it, but your physiology is giving you away. Your body loves to sing even if you don’t.

A 2003 study at the University of Stockholm found that men and women get an oxytocin high when they sing. That name – oxytocin – it rings a bell, right? This hormone is also released during pregnancy, lactation, and…(drum roll) during orgasm. It is commonly known as ‘the bonding hormone’ because it makes people feel connected and loving (side note: that’s also why people love a cuddle after an orgasm). So yes, each time you sing it’s like a tiny slice of orgasm.

6. Singing keeps your brain active

Singing “involves education and learning, keeps the mind active, gives a sense of achievement and counteracts the decline of cognitive functions” according to an extensive study on singing and wellbeing from 2008. Singing requires attention. There are words and melodies to be memorised, timing to be kept, and if you are in a group you also have to keep in harmony with those around you. Needless to say, your brain lights up when you sing.

The fact that singers feel both energised and calmed by the act of singing often has scientists scratching their heads. While the mind is busy and the body active, singers report a sense of calm elation, of emotional release when they sing. How truly wonderful.

If you respect the science (and I know you do) then the facts are undeniable. Singing is good for you. Group singing is the best for you. So next time you are at SAM, don’t hinder the harmonies. Unleash your inner Fonzi and belt out a tune! Go on, your body will thank you.

Sing like Fonzie

This piece was originally published 23 May, 2015 for Sunday Assembly Melbourne blog.

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