June 2, 2018 – Adapted from “Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness While Singing With Others”-Stacy Horn [Anne Chiarelli’s Soul Food]
In my 20s, I found myself facing a big, black hole of depression. I remembered how much fun I had once, singing Christmas carols with a boyfriend at his church. Desperation forced my hand. I joined a community choir! Except that at that first performance, we didn’t sing Christmas carols – we sang a piece of music that was 230 pages long: Handel’s Messiah. It was magnificent. I was left vibrating with a wondrous sense of musical rapport. Since that performance, I haven’t found any sorrow that couldn’t be at least somewhat alleviated, or joy that couldn’t be made even greater, by singing.
Music is awash with neurochemical rewards for working up the courage to sing. That rush or “singer’s high”, comes in part through a surge of endorphins, which at the same time alleviate pain. When the voices of the singers surrounding me hit my ear, I’m bathed in dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with feelings of pleasure and alertness. Music lowers cortisol, a chemical that signals levels of stress. Studies have found that people who listened to music before surgery were more relaxed and needed less anesthesia, and afterward they got by with smaller amounts of pain medication. Music also releases serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of euphoria and contentment. “Every week when I go to rehearsal,” a choral friend told me, “I’m dead tired and don’t think I’ll make it until 9:30. But then something magical happens and I revive…. It happens almost every time.”
Ohio State music professor, David Huron, believes singing may generate prolactin, which is released in nursing women, and in tears of sorrow. Prolactin has a tranquilizing, consoling effect, and this is why sad music makes us feel better, according to Huron. There’s even evidence that singing about death not only feels good, it’s good for you. Researchers discovered that a choir singing Mozart’s Requiem showed an increase in s-IgA, (secretory Immunoglobulin A) an immunoglobulin that enhances our immune defense.
It doesn’t even matter if you can sing well. I can’t. The best I can manage is singing in tune. Most of the time. Hopefully. One of my main goals in our weekly rehearsals is not being heard. Over the years, I’ve become a master in the art of voice camouflage, perfecting a cunning combination of seat choice, head tilt, and volume. Luckily, in a 2005 study, investigators found that group singers experienced the same benefits even when “the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.” It’s arguable whether my vocal instrument even reaches that level, but I’m happy to reap the benefits nonetheless.
While any singing has rewards, there are reasons you should find a choir rather than simply singing in the shower and leaving it at that. Studies have found that group singing releases oxytocin, a chemical that manages anxiety and stress and, according to McGill University professor, Daniel Levitin, enhances feelings of trust and bonding.
That bond, that connection, has seen me through the end of every romantic relationship in my adult life (because apparently my lifelong work on singing hasn’t done a thing for my boyfriend-selecting skills!). It has gotten me through the deaths of my mothers, some of my closest friends, and finally, my pets. I wonder how Brahms would feel knowing his German Requiem, so powerful and yet so gentle, never fails to evoke my long-dead cat! Whether it’s a combination of prolactin and oxytocin, or some yet-to-be-discovered neurochemical release, singing takes me to a place where what I thought was intolerable, like death, is somehow OK, which is insane, but there it is.
I’m convinced the answer will be found in the study of harmony. Because the world doesn’t open up into a million shimmering dimensions of hope and possibility when I sing alone, or even with other people in unison. It happens when I’m surrounded by my fellow choristers and all the different sounds we’re making combine to leave us thrumming in harmony – lit up together like fireflies flashing in synchrony by whatever masterpiece is currently racing through our brains, bodies, and hearts.
“Thank you fellow choristers!” [Anne]