Singing and your health

If you ever feel like breaking into song, you should embrace it. It is said that singing in the car, shower or a karaoke night can make you feel good, and reduce feelings of pain.

Suzanne Hanser, chair of the music therapy department at Berklee College of Music says that "When we sing instead of speak, we have intonation, melody line, and crescendo, which gives us a broader vocabulary to express ourselves,"

Stress and pain

Studies have linked singing with a lower heart rate, decreased blood pressure, and reduced stress, according to Patricia Preston-Roberts, a board-certified music therapist in New York City. She uses song to help patients who suffer from a variety of psychological and physiological conditions.

"Some people who have been traumatized often want to leave the physical body, and using the voice helps ground them to their bodies," Preston-Roberts says. "Singing also seems to block a lot of the neural pathways that pain travels through."

Singing for seniors

Singing, particularly in a chorus, seems to benefit the elderly particularly well. As part of a three-year study examining how singing affects the health of those 55 and older, a Senior Singers Chorale was formed by the Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C.

The seniors involved in the chorale (as well as seniors involved in two separate arts groups involving writing and painting) showed significant health improvements compared to those in the control groups. Specifically, the arts groups reported an average of:

  • 30 fewer doctor visits
  • Fewer eyesight problems
  • Less incidence of depression
  • Less need for medication
  • Fewer falls and other injuries

Even lead researcher Dr. Gene D. Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., was surprised at how big of an effect the seniors' arts participation had on their health.

"My surprise was not a factor of whether the intervention would work, but how big an effect it would have at an advanced age," said Cohen. "The average age of all the subjects was 80. This is higher than life expectancy, so, realistically, if an effect were to be achieved, one would ordinarily expect to see less decline in the intervention group compared to the control. The fact that there was so much improvement in many areas was the surprise factor."

The seniors themselves also noticed health improvements, said Jeanne Kelly, director of the Levine School of Music, Arlington Campus, who led the choral group. The seniors reported:

  • Feeling better both in daily life and while singing
  • Their everyday voice quality was better
  • The tone of their speaking voice did not seem to age as much
  • Easier breathing
  • Better posture

Singing boosts the immune system and well-being

Several studies have found that singing also enhances immunity and well-being. One, conducted at the University of Frankfurt in Germany, found that choral members had higher levels of immunoglobulin A and cortisol -- markers of enhanced immunity -- after they sang Mozart's "Requiem" than before. Just listening to the music did not have this effect.

In another study, members of a choir filled out questionnaires to report their physical and psychological reactions to singing. The choristers reported:

  • Improved lung capacity
  • High energy
  • Relieved asthma
  • Better posture
  • Enhanced feelings of relaxation, mood and confidence

Singing and the arts becoming a widely accepted health tool

The arts are showing up as a treatment tool in hospitals across the country. In fact, a survey by the Society for the Arts in Healthcare (SAH), Americans for the Arts and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations found that 68 percent of the hospitals surveyed incorporated some form of arts therapy into their treatment option.

"The arts helped the hospitals to humanize their facilities," said Naj Wikoff, president of SAH. "It's good community relations, and it improves the way the patients feel about their care -- it clearly increases customer satisfaction."

And, if you're thinking of volunteering, singing at a hospital may be a good choice -- not only for the patients but also for yourself.

"Hospitals are often glutted at holidays with people wanting to sing, but we need more people year round," Wikoff said.

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