The science behind why choir-singing is good for you

Group bonding, synchronized brain waves, and mood elevation. Psychology professor Daniel Levitin explains why the 3.5 million Canadians singing in choirs are doing it right.
St Paul's Choristers rehearse at St Paul's Cathedral in London, England. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
CBC's Kathryn Marlow meets people who love their choirs, discovers why that's good for them, and shares some music too.
Whether amateurs or professional, young or old, people all across Canada are coming together to sing — and science suggests it's doing them even more good than you might first suspect.

There are 28,000 choirs that gather in schools, churches, and community spaces throughout the country. Research done for advocacy group Choral Canada suggests 3.5 million Canadians currently lend their vocal cords to a choir. 

"All those moments of singing together with other people created in me a feeling of peace, a feeling of unity, a feeling of belonging, and connection that otherwise in the world is challenging," Hussein Janmohamed, a PhD in choral music, told the CBC's Kathryn Marlow of his choir experiences. 

Daniel Levitin, psychology professor at McGill University and author of This is Your Brain on Music, says group singing isn't just good for the soul — it's good for the body. 

By analyzing the changes in people's brain activity when they sing together, he's come to the conclusion that feelings of belonging and mood elevation are biologically ingrained to surface with communal singing.

Vancouver Youth Choir has the whole audience singing along in their rendition of On Top of Spaghetti.

Evolutionary history

Levitin says group singing has been an essential human trait for tens of thousands of years.

It was traditionally a community building exercise that everyone participated in.

"Still today you can go to hunter-gatherer societies, pre-industrial tribes, and everybody sings, everybody dances," he told Marlow.

That communal approach changed in most of Western society, however. Levitin traces it to the first concert halls in Europe from about 500 years ago.

"The audience was meant to sit there with their hands politely folded in their laps and their mouths shut" while onstage performers sang, Levitin told Marlow.

Singing was now something that specialists did, while others watched. It became an exclusionary act, rather than a communal one.

It effectively silenced those who didn't think they had a special talent.

"You hear people say all the time, 'Oh, I can't sing' or 'I'm not good enough to sing,' and I really think that's a shame. It goes against our evolutionary history."

Choir! Choir! Choir! performs at Massey Hall. Built in 1894, Toronto's Massey Hall is one of Canada's oldest surviving performance venues.

Group singing makes you feel closer to others

Levitin points to a wealth of neurological research that suggests our brains release oxytocin when we sing with others.

"That's a chemical that's involved in social bonding and it's believed to give rise to the feelings of togetherness and friendship that comes from singing together," he said.

Group singing, in other words, scientifically strengthens a community.

Levitin also says the act of listening when singing in groups causes participants' brain responses to synchronize with one another.

"If your brain waves themselves are synchronized, that would sure be a way to make you feel closer to others wouldn't it?"

Inuksuk Drum Dancers, a school choir based in Iqualuit, perform both traditional and contemporary Inuit music as well as throat singing and drum dancing.

Choir-singing as an anti-depressant ?

Singing in choirs doesn't just connect us with others, it also has the powerful capacity to elevate our mood. 

"I can go into a rehearsal feeling gross, or having like a really bad mental health day, and I will leave there feeling uplifted, and elated, and grounded, and comforted," singer Alexis Hillyard of Kokopelli Choir Association told Marlow.

"It's pretty fantastic."

As Levitin explains, the healing potential of singing is due in part to deep breathing. As an aerobic activity, singing increases the amount of oxygenated blood rushing to the brain.

"We feel good after breathing, and breathing deeply, and controlling our breaths in the way that we do when we're singing," he said.

The Kokopelli Choir Association in Edmonton perform Baby Shark, complete with a wading pool, costumes, and a re-enacted shark attack.

Research suggests choir singing changes our neurochemistry as well. When singing to music you enjoy with other people, the brain sees an uptick in two powerful neurotransmitters called serotonin and dopamine.

Dopamine activates the brain's pleasure centre, while serotonin is commonly deployed to ward off depression.

"Serotonin is kind of famous because there's a whole class of drugs that by some estimates 20 per cent of Canadians are taking — we call them SSRIs or anti-depressants — and the second 'S' in that word is serotonin," said Levitin.

And Levitin stresses that we can't forget about the power of engaging in a musical experience when considering a choir's ability to make us feel good — regardless of whether it's tied to neurotransmitters or something more ineffable.

"You've been singing for a couple hours, you've been listening to music for a couple hours — that's known to improve mood," he said.

'Don't be judgy'

But how do us normal folks suspend our fear of singing beyond the shower and welcome the potential of group singing in our lives?

In his clinical opinion, Levitin argues we shouldn't be "so judgy" about whether or not we're pleasant to listen to.

"Who cares if you're Ella Fitzgerald, or not? Leonard Cohen certainly didn't care. And you know thankfully he didn't. He gave his songs to us in spite of having a rather unusual voice," he said.

"To not [feel] judged about it is important. It can free us up to participate."

Levitin himself has taken the plunge, performing in front of massive audiences, even alongside some of the greats.

Last May he performed at the Kennedy Center with Renée Fleming.

"We sang Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah and we had the whole audience singing in," he recalled.

"Twelve hundred people and Renée Fleming to sing with. That was great … that was powerful."

Daniel Levitin joins Renée Fleming in performing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah at the Kennedy Center.

Listen to the full special Singing Together at the top of this post. CBC's Kathryn Marlow meets people who love their choirs, and shares some music too.