Music Notes: Benefits of Singing

by Eric Lane Barnes

Singing is a personal act. It involves our whole self: body, mind and spirit. From a purely physical standpoint, singing increases blood flow to the brain, lungs and extremities, lowers blood pressure, reduces cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’) improves posture and might even relieve pain and alleviate asthma. Singing connects neural pathways and improves memory connections. Occupational and speech therapists working with survivors of stroke or other forms of brain injury find singing to be a powerful therapeutic tool: many find they can sing words they cannot speak. From a psychological standpoint, singing out loud stakes a claim in the world: sustaining one’s voice out loud connects one to one’s body and can act as a powerful grounding mechanism. Singing out loud has been shown to boost confidence in the singer, even in those who do not consider themselves to be good, or even passable, singers.

When people gather together and sing in groups, these benefits become magnified many times over. Numerous scientific studies are showing that the feeling of warm connectivity and joy is not imaginary.

What thrills me even more than the measurable, provable physical and psychological effects of singing, however, are the effects that can’t be easily quantified or measured. We connect together on a level that can best be described as mystical. Out of many disparate parts we become a harmonious whole. When we sing together, we create something much greater than simply the sum of our parts. It is a veritable act of creation. Out of the chaos comes order. We enter the space with the infinite variables of our individual backgrounds, histories, beliefs, fears and hopes. But by the end of the song we are one.

One of the first things I shared with the congregation at East Shore was what I term a ‘congregational voice lesson.’ Some of you may remember being asked to repeat the words ‘I have a beautiful voice.’ This was a surprising statement for some. It is a powerful thing to claim, and it is 100% true for every single person. It is true even – perhaps especially – for those who have been told they cannot sing, or should not sing. Every human’s voice is absolutely unique. The patterns our voices make when captured mechanically and displayed as a set of waveforms is as unique as our fingerprints. To say ‘I have a beautiful voice’ is as true for each human as it is to say ‘I am a worthwhile being’ or simply ‘I am beautiful as I am.’ I’d like all of us to say to ourselves at least once each day: ‘I have a beautiful voice.’ Claim it. Believe it. I promise you that it is true.

Many of the hymns in our two books (the gray and the teal) are new territory to me. I’ve been thrilled, edified, bolstered and sometimes humbled to be able to bring many of these to life on Sunday mornings with the East Shore congregation. Some of the hymns in either book are still unknown to many in the congregation (although I wouldn’t be all that surprised if someone would tell me they know every hymn in both books.) With our shiny new Reverend, we’ll be exploring some of these unfamiliar or forgotten hymns. I’m particularly looking forward to those songs that can be sung as rounds, or have built-in harmony or special descants. (A descant is an added line that acts as a counter melody, usually on top of the regular melody.) And don’t worry about any of these hymns being unfamiliar: I am happy to take a moment here and there in services to go over some of the stickier parts of these new-to-us hymns.

Some members of East Shore have shared wishes for specific hymns, or for certain songs they feel would work in Sunday services. I am always delighted when people bring such ideas to me. Do you have a fondness for #332, ‘Perfect Stranger’ composed by Béla Bartók? Let me know! Does #1027, ‘Cuando el Pobre’ hold a special meaning to you? Let me know! This also goes for songs you feel might work well as special music, or a choir anthem. A Bach chorale or a movement from the Brahms Requiem? We can probably do it! A show tune from an obscure 70s musical? Bring it on! A song by John Legend, Celia Cruz or that K-pop group you love? Let me know! I can’t promise we will always be able to fulfill every musical wish, but I do promise I will entertain each idea seriously, and whenever possible, deliver. The best way to reach me is through my official East Shore email. Or you can feel free to drop a written note in my mail slot in the administration building.

I so enjoy bringing music to Sunday services. And singing with you as a congregation is a deep, abiding joy. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Here are links to three online articles that give more detail on the benefits of singing, with source citations and everything:

http://ideas.time.com/2013/08/16/singing-changes-your-brain/

https://www.prevention.com/health/a20511082/6-health-benefits-of-singing/

http://www.sixwise.com/newsletters/06/06/07/how_singing_improves_your_health_even_if_other_people_shouldnt_hear_you_singing.htm