Can singing make us healthy? Not if you happen to be an operatic heroine it would seem, the most unfortunate example being that of Antonia from Les contes d’Hoffmann, who manages literally to sing herself to death.
Such cases aside, the consensus is that singing is good for us. Less, however, is known about the specific health benefits associated with singing, the focus of this weekend’s Chorus! Festival at the Southbank Centre.
Vocal performances will be combined with talks from musicians, experts and medical professionals. Workshops include ‘Singing and its impact on dementia sufferers’, ‘Singing and mental wellbeing‘, ‘The Impact of Singing on Children‘, and ‘Singing for Breathing’, the latter a chance to explore how singing benefits those with breathing and lung disorders. Meanwhile, singing events range from a new community cantata by John Browne, composer-in-residence at the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery at King’s College London, to a 'Massive Messiah' in which members of the public experience the benefits of singing for themselves by joining professional choirs for a 750-strong rendition of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus.
‘We wanted to pitch the idea of health and the voice from more than one aspect,’ says Mary King - director of Southbank Centre’s VoiceLab, and involved in the preparation of the festival. ‘We plan to look at the best way of optimising long lasting vocal health both as a singer and as a speaker and also to examine the other side of the sphere - the idea that through singing you can achieve a greater sense of health’. It’s an ambitious task, she acknowledges. ‘Because group singing is such a complex activity, it’s hard to determine the kernel of the thing that’s making people feel better. Is it the singing itself? Or the fact that people are communally engaged on one activity?’
Much of it, she says, comes down to the former: ‘There’s the fact that you’re using much deeper breathing that we usually tend to, that you’re using big muscle groups, you’re opening your throat, you’re relaxing your body.’ Then there’s the pleasure of producing the notes themselves. ‘When you’re singing it’s as if you’re actually inside the piece of music in a way that no other instrument can be, ’ says King. Add to that the feeling of social inclusion that comes hand in hand with group singing and you get ‘endorphins all over the place’.
But that’s only part of the story. Aside from the feel-good factor, singing also brings physical benefits. Increased lung capacity, increased immunity and greater oxygenation of the blood resulting in improved alertness are all effects that it has been claimed singing causes. What’s more, singing is good for the brain, as Dr Graham Welch, Professor at the Institute of Education maintains. ‘Singing is of great interest to neuroscientists as it would seem that there is more of the brain given over to the processing of music than almost any other activity.’ One recent study of four to five-year-olds found that those with musical training showed enhanced language abilities and memory for words, and there is evidence that taking part in musical activities improves certain aspects of non verbal reasoning, literacy and numeracy. Even infants benefit from exposure to musical stimulus: the pitch and rhythm of the speech used to communicate with infants are thought to be vital to their developing understanding of language.
Where singing can really make a difference, however, is in the management of specific conditions. Chreanne Montgomery-Smith, founder of 'Singing for the Brain' - a music programme for people with dementia and their carers - mentions one patient who no longer recognised members of her family, and was only able to remember them through song. ‘She had lost her memory of how people looked today, she only remembered how they looked a long time ago, so when the family sang songs from that time long ago - her childhood songs for example, and the courting songs that she and her husband used to sing to each other - she recognised who they were.’
Singing can also help to restore communication. Mr John Rubin, president of the British Voice Association and specialist in voice disorders and laryngeal surgery, says that he has occasionally sent patients with vocal weaknesses or vocal fold paralysis to singing lessons if he feels that speech therapy hasn’t given them enough benefits. Likewise, singing plays a useful role in stroke rehabilitation. Mary King remembers working with one particular stroke victim who had lost the power of speech. ‘He had been a keen amateur singer and when you sang him a song that he knew well you could see that his mouth was making the vowel shapes that were attached to the tune, so through singing he was able to access some part of his linguistic skill.’ Similar benefits have been noted in patients with Parkinsons Disease, which causes the voice to become defective. ‘You often see people with Parkinsons whose voice is very soft and hard to hear,’ says Dr Rubin, ‘but if you get them to speak a little bit beyond their comfort range they suddenly become a lot more audible. Singing is really good for that.’
It is arguably in its power to lift depression, however, that the value of singing for dementia sufferers really lies. Initiatives such as ‘Singing for the Brain’ provides these sufferers with the opportunity to socialise with those in the same situation. It also rebuilds a sense of self-belief. ‘There’s a huge stigma attached to dementia,’ says Montgomery-Smith, ‘But singing provides a chance to restore people’s confidence in learning new things.’ This confidence in itself, she claims, is a powerful protection against the effects of deterioration: ‘Helping people to believe in themselves allows for greater self stimulation. Greater self stimulation creates new neuronal connections, which in turn help to restore function.’
King is also keen to emphasise the confidence-restoring properties of singing. ‘I’ve done [singing] work in prisons in the past and have been told countless times that this is the first time that somebody has had their families witness something from them that was good. These are people who have been in trouble for their entire youth and adulthood and finally they’ve done something they can be applauded for,’ she says. ‘You can’t buy that.’
Chorus! takes place at the Southbank Centre, London, May 13-15