Choral singing: the perfect tranquilizer?

Singing in a choir—especially a heritage choir—benefits every aspect of wellness

choral singing

Photo courtesy of Mark Agerter

Barbra K. Rostad

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Solvguttene. Sangerfest. Mannskor. Manitou Singers of St. Olaf College. For folks who lay claim to Norwegian heritage, these names call forth imagery of traditions long cultivated in Norway and in the United States. They mirror the magic of music.

While music’s beneficial effects on mental health have been known for thousands of years, it is only recently that modern research has produced results supporting such conventional wisdom.

Personal wellness goes beyond mental health. It is a balance of body, mind, and spirit. Music can tune in to all three of these areas.

Another way of looking at wellness divides it into five broad dimensions: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and social. The benefits of music to all of these are clear.

Music can be employed to boost your body’s performance during exercise by as much as 15 percent. Jazzercize is but one example of exercising that capitalizes on this phenomenon, thereby fostering physical wellness.

Music may be used to help change feelings, thus impacting emotional wellness. Choosing the right music can help a person feel validated or changed.

Lesser known may be that music dulls pain. Chronic pain may be reduced because music is so pleasurable. Furthermore, a 2015 review of research on effects of music and pain management found that patients who listened to music before, during, or even after surgery had less pain and anxiety than those who did not listen.

Dr. Catherine Meads of Brunel University said in a press release, “Music is a noninvasive, safe, cheap intervention that should be available to everyone undergoing surgery.”

Intellectual wellness is enhanced by music too. “What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in your head,” said Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California. “It calls back memories of a particular person or place and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye. Such associations help keep memories sharp.” It also follows that such memories can be part of emotional wellness too, helping us to process feelings.

Spiritual wellness can be promoted by using music to remind us of important values. “Fueling up on the right music is like injecting a multivitamin into your entire being,” says Jennifer Buchanan, owner of J.B. Music Therapy. She “aims to inspire you to use music with greater intention and knowledge.”

Music, including singing, impacts all these four dimensions. But listening alone to music, singing in the shower, or presenting solos, while beneficial, don’t offer all the same social benefits involved in group singing, which includes choirs of all kinds as well as community singing.

Professor Stephen Clift, director of research at the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts & Health, notes, “Our research has not only cemented previous studies that pointed to an increase in health benefits from community singing programs but also demonstrated that such programs are cost-effective.”

Dr. John Rodriguez, assistant director of public health, NHS Kent and Medway, added, “I’m delighted to see such world-class research in this field helping to provide evidence that singing programs present a viable additional means to promoting the mental health of older people.”

Community singing programs are on the rise, as is participation in choirs. Chorus America boasted in 2013 that there were over 32 million adults singing in choirs, up by almost 10 million from 2007. This group’s mission, as stated online, is “to build a dynamic and inclusive choral community so that people are transformed by the beauty and power of choral singing.”

“Singing in a choir is cheaper than therapy, healthier than drinking, and more fun that working out!”

This tongue-in-cheek remark succinctly highlights the key benefits of vocal music. But wait! Singing is exercise! In fact, it can be quite a workout. Bestselling author Daniel H. Pink stated in 2018, “Exercise is one of the few activities in life that is indisputably good for us. Choral singing might be the new exercise.”

Mark Agerter, current president of the Pacific Coast Norwegian Singers Association (PCNSA), learned about this benefit as a fifth-grader when his doctor advised him that singing could help alleviate his asthma. His physician said lung development and diaphragm control would be helpful and that “if you sing right, you get a good workout.”

Pink continued his comments online at CNBC.com, reminding readers, “Choral singing calms the heart and boosts endorphin levels. It improves lung function, increases pain thresholds, and reduces the need for pain medication.” Such singing, he explained, “also seems to improve one’s outlook, boosting mood and self-esteem while alleviating feelings of stress and depression.”

Scientists have been working hard trying to explain why singing has both a calming and an energizing effect on participants.

“What researchers are beginning to discover,” nonfiction author Stacy Horn wrote in 2013, “is that singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits.”

She added more good news, noting that the benefits are cumulative for regular singing and one need not be a good singer to experience such gains.

Pointing to yet another benefit of choral singing, Pink refers to researchers Baumeister and Leary, who in 1995 developed the “belonging hypothesis,” claiming that the “need to belong is a fundamental human motivation… and that much of what humans do is in the service of belongingness.”

Echoing this concept is a U.K. study by Shakespeare and Whieldon, who concluded in 2017 that “the combination of singing and socializing was key to optimizing mental health because it promoted ongoing feelings of belonging and overall well-being.”

choral singing

Photo: Hopkiner01 / Wikimedia Commons
Music may be used to help change feelings, thus impacting emotional wellness. Choosing the right music can help a person feel validated or changed.

Closely linked to this sense of belonging is the significance of social networks. Launay and Pearce, researchers from Oxford University, assert that “social connections can play a vital role in maintaining our health—a good social network, for example, can have more health benefits than giving up smoking.”

Community singing takes a variety of forms. One of these is “heritage choirs,” a term used by Marta Schee, president of the Swedish Singers of Seattle and national president of the American Union of Swedish Singers (AUSS). Heritage choirs may be composed of men, women, children, or a blend. While the Nordic countries tend to have more men’s choirs than women’s, all combinations are represented.

In research presented in the Journal of Public Mental Health, Livesey et al studied choral singers from the UK, Australia, and Germany. They found that “a clear, powerful benefit identified by singers was the joy and pleasure that singing gave them beyond the specific meetings of the choir. This was reflected in such comments as ‘the songs accompany me throughout everyday life and make me feel elated.’”

Norwegian-born Bjorn Heglie, who emigrated from Norway in 1951, soon discovered the Norwegian Glee Club associated with Grieg Lodge, Sons of Norway, Portland, Oregon. His enthusiasm for choral singing has been sustained across that 68-year span. Now in his 80s, he sings in the Portland Scandinavian Chorus, a group of 60 with members who have Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and Icelandic heritage.

Heglie said, “You’re in a choir because you love music. My roots are in Norway. I just enjoy it immensely. They just don’t make music like that anymore.”

His actions over the years also suggest he has gained many of the other benefits often associated with choral singing. Heglie literally went the extra mile for friendship, traveling weekly for two years in the 1960s from Portland to Eugene to direct that men’s chorus until they could find a replacement, traveling 110 miles each way.

Why would he do this? “I was the assistant chief director for the PCNSA,” he explained. “Howard Herbransen was my good friend. He said their choir would go down the tubes without a director. I couldn’t say no to Herbransen.”

And Herbransen, it turns out, is Agerter’s grandfather. When Agerter joined Eugene’s Norsemen in 1979, it was because he “wanted to do something with grandpa.”

Today, Agerter is president of the PCNSA. The Eugene Norsemen will celebrate its 80th birthday by hosting the Sangerfest this year. Agerter still sings in that chorus and has done so for 40 years, half the life of the group.

More than one study has put forth the idea that choral singing contains elements not present in other music or in soloists. Tom Jacobs, who writes for the Pacific Standard, offered this view in 2016, noting that “newly published research finds evidence that the well-being benefits afforded by choral singing could be distinct in comparison with other leisure activities.”

Narrowing their view to include only other music activities, Livesey et al. assert that “group singing may have particular and specific benefits for health over other music making and music listening.”

Why? “It involves the body to produce sound in a synchronized and coordinated way with other people,” they claim. Jacobs agrees, adding that “the synchronistic physical activity of choristers appears to create an unusually strong bond. Especially in our individualistic society, losing yourself in a choral group can be a uniquely satisfying experience.”

The role of the body and the intimacy achieved by standing next to each other, often synchronizing breathing, was also noted by Schee.

Livesey et al. conclude from all this that choral singing could be used to develop preventive health care. They state, “choral singing could make an increasingly important contribution to the promotion of public mental health.”

Heritage choirs, specifically those with a particular ethnic orientation, have an additional feature less apparent or even absent in other choirs. They help promote and sustain cultural traditions. One such tradition is the language. It is an element that other choirs lack and it can be one more strong tie binding the singer to the chorus, further strengthening the other bonds that develop among choristers.

It is Schee’s view that because language is both important and unique to a specific population, it is essential to make it a central feature of an ethnic choir.

Schee, who has a bachelor’s degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Minnesota and is a retired nurse, moved to Seattle eight years ago. Without a job or young children, she sought an avenue for developing a new social network. She joined the Swedish Club where she became president of the choir and now fills the role of national president for the AUSS.

Schee knows that a key issue for all choirs from Scandinavian countries is how to attract young people. She emphasizes the need to make it relevant to them.

Why would someone want to be in a Swedish or Norwegian choir? Focus on the one thing any other choir will lack: the language. In her eyes, the only way to get young folks is to sing in the language. She is adamant that this not be “here a song, there a song” in that language, but all songs.

She backs up her view with evidence from the choir in which she participates. Eight years ago there were 12 women and eight men; today, with only Swedish as their language, the choir has grown to 40 voices with a third of those younger than 40.

Heglie also addresses the significance of language. He sings in the 60-voice Portland Scandinavian Chorus, which sings the majority of its songs in Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish.

“We work very hard to learn the pronunciation for each of these,” he said. The choir put on a Christmas dinner for 200 people in December, alternately serving and singing. All four languages were sung during the program.

Ed Amundsen, choir director for the Eugene Norsemen, stressed the importance of continuing the language, in this case Norwegian. “As long as the language is perpetuated, it gives validity to Sons of Norway,” he said. “We constantly sing in Norwegian.” He believes the chorus is a visible extension of the lodge in the Eugene community. “It’s an enhancement,” he commented. “It’s a great tradition! I love it!”

Amundsen has been directing this chorus since 2002 but also held that position from 1978-1984. He began singing with the Norsemen in 1965 and has done so off and on for 54 years. Though he recently moved to Bandon, Ore., he still returns to Eugene twice a month to direct the choir. It’s 128 miles each way. On the other two Mondays, a local woman helps out with rehearsals.

When first asked about the health benefits of being in a Nordic choir, he joked, “Well, it depends on how much aquavit you drink.” Then he spoke of both social and physical advantages, citing camaraderie and friendship plus team effort plus the breathing. “I think it’s a very healthy thing,” he concluded. “We’ve had lots of fun over the years, that’s for sure!”

Barbara Rostad, a North Dakota Norwegian, has been writing for The Norwegian American since 2014. A versatile writer with degrees in journalism and sociology plus teaching experience in sociology, English, and speech, Barbara has published articles and poems, edited newsletters,  compiled a book about Ski for Light, and received writing awards from Idaho Writer’s League. A 45-year member of Sons of Norway, she’s often both newsletter editor and cultural director.

This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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