The healing power of choirs

Singing in a group has long been shown to lift spirits, ease stress, and create camaraderie. Now, new research shows that those spirit-boosting abilities may even help singers fight cancer.

Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral choir. Godong | UIG via Getty Images

Whether you can sing like Adele or can’t carry a tune, it’s hard to deny that the act of singing itself is fun. Who can resist singing in the shower, or humming your favorite new Taylor Swift song while cleaning or cooking? It makes everyday tasks more enjoyable. And that joy often increases when we sing together in a group setting—whether in an organized choir, in the pews at church, in the bleachers at a baseball game, around the table at a birthday party, or sitting on stumps ’round the campfire. Everyone who joins in gets a little mood boost, even those who can’t sing well.

As it turns out, there’s a reason for that: a Swedish study showed increased oxygen and oxytocin (the “happy” hormone) levels in people who sing together. Both the increased oxygen and oxytocin lower stress and blood pressure. Another study showed choir members showed less “mental distress” a year after joining.

But the euphoric powers of singing together goes even deeper than that. According to new research, singing in a choir—even just for an hour—has been shown to help some individuals fight cancer. The mood-boosting benefits of singing in a choir “put[s] people in the best possible position to receive treatment, maintain remission, and support cancer patients,” according to a new study by Tenovus Cancer Care and the Royal College of Music.

“Singing in the choir is about more than just enjoyment, it genuinely makes you feel better,” says Diane Raybould, a former cancer patient (and mother to a daughter who died from breast cancer), told Science Daily. The choir leaders play a huge part, of course, but so does the support of the other choir members, the inspirational program and uplifting songs. The choir is a family, simple as that. Having cancer and losing someone to cancer can be very isolating. With the choir, you can share experiences openly and that is hugely important.”

Anne Olson, a music teacher and choir director, in Palatine, Illinois, agrees—and isn’t surprised that science continues to discover health benefits linked to singing.

Music predates speech and language for humans. Singing together is primal—it’s almost instinctual.

“It just makes sense that something that makes you feel good emotionally and socially, makes you healthier physically,” Olson says. “Adding beauty to your life through song, and being a part of the group that creates that beauty, gives you a healthier, more positive outlook on life.”

Perhaps it’s because of this feel-good, healthy-beautiful factor that, as Olson told us, theories abound that music predates speech and language for humans. Singing together is primal—it’s almost instinctual—something Olson sees in her middle-school students.

“Chorus is extracurricular at my school, as it is at most schools, and we rehearse before school from 7-7:40 a.m.,” Olson says. “You would think enrollment would be pretty low based on how difficult it is to get middle schoolers out of bed in the morning. However, chorus consistently has between 75 and 90 members. That’s just a bit more than 10 percent of the whole school. Kids like to sing: it makes them feel good, they get to be with their friends, they get to express themselves, it’s not competitive, and it’s not graded. Singing takes you outside of yourself.”

Of course, 7 a.m. meeting times aside, it seems “easier” to join a choir as a child rather than as an adult. But, for those curious about the feel-good benefits of singing together, Olson says joining a choir as an adult is simpler than we think.

“Many communities have local choirs, or if there’s a college nearby, the college often has a community group,” Olson says. “Churches, of course, have choirs and love new members. You can always contact a local voice teacher or school music director and they can probably point you in the right direction.”

And ultimately—whether you want to join for health benefits or just to try something new—Olson offers a quote that hangs above her desk to inspire you. The framed words were given to her by a middle-school student, from a novel called The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery: “Everyday life vanishes into song, you are suddenly overcome with a feeling of brotherhood, of deep solidarity, even love, and it diffuses the ugliness of everyday life into a spirit of perfect communion.”

Caryn Rivadeneira
Caryn Rivadeneira
Caryn Rivadeneira is the author of five books and is a columnist for Her.meneutics and ThinkChristian. She lives outside Chicago with her husband, three kids, and one red-nose pit bull. Visit her at carynrivadeneira.com.

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