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The World's Most Accessible Stress Reliever

Whether you have the voice of a songbird or sound like some ball-bearings in a blender, singing can have some remarkably positive effects.

Originally written by By Sarah Keating 19th May 2020 for the BBC WEBSITE

During a morning shift change at St Marcy Mercy Livonia Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, the medical staff were feeling weary. Their surgical floor had been converted into a department for coronavirus patients and spirits were low.'

Nurse Lori Marie Key was asked if she would sing Amazing Grace for her colleagues during the morning briefing. So she did. As her voice soared, one of her fellow nurses filmed her, put it online and it went viral.

There was something about the solidarity and togetherness of that moment that personifies a lot about the power of song. But it wasn’t just something abstract and ethereal happening, there are scientific reasons for why singing feels good.

Perhaps that’s why, as most of the world went into lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, there were countless examples of people turning to song as solace. Italians belted arias from their balconies, famous musicians performed mini concerts from their living rooms and choirs took their sessions online to become virtual virtuosos.

When we sing, large parts of our brain “light up” with activity, says Sarah Wilson, a clinical neuropsychologist and head of the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. She led a study which looked at how the brain reacts when we sing by giving volunteers of varying vocal ability MRI scans as they warbled.

“There is a singing network in the brain [which is] quite broadly distributed,” Wilson says. When we speak, the hemisphere of the brain dealing with language lights up, as we might expect. When we sing, however, both sides of the brain spark into life.

“We also see involvement of the emotion networks of the brain,” adds Wilson. Regions that control the movements we need to produce sounds and articulation also light up.

Body and mind

The physical exertion involved in singing – filling of our lungs, the firm control of our vocal chords, the movements of our mouth and body – is among the reasons why it can boost our mood. Singing is an aerobic exercise which sees the release of endorphins, the brain’s ‘feel-good’ chemicals, says Baishali Mukherjee, the Southeast Asia regional liason for the World Federation of Music Therapy.

“Endorphins [are] related to an overall lifted feeling of happiness, it gives a feeling of euphoria so it’s all associated with a reduction in stress,” she says. “In any situation whether it is under stress or [with] any physical ailments, illness, psychological deprivation, music has the potential to affect our body and mind.” 

Focusing on controlling your rate of breathing – a key skill in singing – activates parts of the brain that are linked to emotion

And not surprisingly, being in a better mood has all sorts of benefits says Mukherjee. “When your mood is up, you [strengthen] your immune system…, you respond to stress factors in a more positive way [and] enhance sleep patterns.”

It also engages what is potentially the body’s greatest stress-reliever – breathing.

Anyone who has ever experienced a panic attack will be all too familiar with the terrifying feeling of not being able to catch your breath. This short, shallow breathing leads to a decrease in carbon dioxide in the bloodstream as you expel more of the gas than your cells make. This imbalance in carbon dioxide can cause dizziness and anxiety among other symptoms. Conversely, deep or diaphragmatic breathing allows a full oxygen-exchange to occur in the lung’s cells, activating the body’s parasympathetic nervous system which then slows the heart rate and dilates the blood vessels which lowers your blood pressure.

While deep breathing has long been used in therapeutic practices, the neurophysiology behind it has only recently been explored. In a recent study, researchers found that focusing on controlling your rate of breathing – a key skill in singing – activates parts of the brain that are linked to emotion, attention and body awareness.

Sense of connection

But do you have to be any good?

Well, yes and no. In Sarah Wilson’s study at the University of Melbourne, singers were grouped by ability – professional singers, everyday (or shower) singers and those who didn’t think they were any good. 

When the non-singers were scanned, the researchers found they were only using their language brain network to sing, and didn’t venture into their singing networks at all.

But when the everyday or “shower” singers and professional singers were scanned “we saw increasing differentiation between the singing and the language networks of the brain”, Wilson says. So, the better you are at singing, the more pronounced your specialised singing network.

“What we are doing when we practise and engage in singing is developing this specialised network, which gives us that physiological reward hit, the chills, the dopamine release, the sense of feeling good,” says Wilson. The more we sing, the more we develop this network in our brains, and the better it feels.

While the act of singing in itself activates several things in our bodies and brains, when we engage in it with others, it adds another layer to this.