Why do we love to sing?
"I feel free when I sing", "it's a vital necessity", "singing is a form of communion..." Do you love to sing? Does it bring you a feeling of well-being like nothing else? Where does this feeling come from? The brain, of course! Let us attempt to understand its mechanisms.
Why do we love to sing? What motivates us to go singing in a choir on a Wednesday night after a hard day's work, or overcome our shyness and belt out a song in front of perfect strangers during a karaoke night?
For many, singing can give a unique sense of freedom, become a cathartic experience, help with stress, and create social bonds. It can help relax, raise your spirit, and even bring you closer to others, whether you sing in private or on-stage, as an amateur or a world-class professional: "When I sing the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss, which I’ve sung more than anything in my repertoire, in the last piece, I am in a meditative state", explains the American soprano Renée Fleming in an interview with Stanford Medicine. "My breathing slows down. I can suddenly lift out of my daily life, and that happens every time."
But where does this feeling of well-being come from? Singing sets off a complex network of circuits in our brain:
"Singing is a form of natural therapy", explains Sarah Wilson from the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. "When we put people in the scanner and look at their brains when they're singing, what we see is that large areas of the brain light up, or activate. Either thinking about singing, or singing itself. These include motor networks, auditory and listening networks, planning and organisational networks, memory networks, language networks, if they're singing with words, and also motion networks. They also improve social bonding and empathy. The complexity of singing is striking for the brain even though to us it feels like a relatively easy process", says Wilson. Singing seems pretty simple, and indeed it is accessible to everyone, and everywhere. But we do we love to sing?
Singing can turn you on
An addiction: that is the best way to describe it. You're addicted to dopamine, the neurotransmitter also nicknamed "the reward molecule" whose secretion generally follows sexual activity or drug-taking. In a study from 2013, Canadian researchers showed that the reward circuit is activated through anticipation, which pushes the subject to renew the experience again and again. For certain subjects, the emotional response felt is so strong that is can only be described as an orgasm, a physical state described by researchers as "musical chills" or goosebumps.
Singing can "strengthen" your brain
"For us singers, our instrument is inside our body, and very difficult to control", explains Renée Fleming. "This is due to the fact that it is primarily controlled by involuntary muscles. You'd be surprised to learn how many things are required of us with our voice (and without the help of a microphone) in a large space such as an opera hall." To control one's voice, whether you are Renée Fleming or an amateur chorister, requires a complex chain of events in our brain.
Similar to instrumentalists, by singing regularly, singers develop specific and necessary circuits for sound reproduction, notably those circuits linked to the micro-movements required to better control their vocal chords, according to a study published in 2009. According to researchers, such training helps to condition singers for a better stage concentration than their instrumentalist counterparts.
And that is not all: combining words with music, sometimes in a foreign language unfamiliar to the singer, adds greater mental gymnastics to the brain's circuits. The greater the challenge, the more our brain is satisfied. Another study also published in 2009 showed that singers have greater linguistic skills: boys that sing regularly possess a greater advantage in their grammar and linguistic-comprehension skills over their female counterparts (girls have a natural predisposition in this matter, according to researchers).
Singing is a rejuvenating experience
Everyone can sing, this has already been confirmed, but more importantly it is good for you no matter what your age! Singing may even help reduce the ageing of the brain's neurones, helping to protect them even longer from the effects of old-age. This is true whether you are a professional singer or a passionate amateur.
"Musicians are just as affected by hearing loss as non-musicians", wrote psychologist Isabelle Peretz in her book Apprendre la musique [Learning music]. "But as they get older, the musician's brain is better able to discern the sounds that it perceives." According to the researcher, it also builds a mental reserve that allows it to delay its decline in function, improving psychomotor abilities, maintain a good verbal memory, and an aptitude for reasoning: "_It is well known that intellectual activity, often associated with a high level of education, mitigates the negative effects of aging. The "higher trained" brain would have the capacity to improve the intellect despite signs of degeneration_", explains Isabelle Peretz.
Singing brings out the altruist in you
In stadiums or in a choir, we've all experienced those moments of collective joy where groups of people sing together, arm in arm, as if carried by a common energy. Countless studies have shown that the virtues of singing are multiplied when in a group.
"Singing is an activity that brings great joy", explains Isabelle Peretz . "Some even believe that singing in a choir is a form of collective grooming which releases endorphins in the brain and reduces stress hormones. The larger the choir, the greater the feeling of happiness and belonging".
A collective grooming, a sense of belonging like that between a mother and her new-born or two lovers created by oxytocin, the "love hormone": "the feeling of being in sync with someone through music deepens an altruistic sentiment", explains Isabelle Peretz. "Singing in a choir improves our trust in others and encourages cooperation rather than competition". And the reward circuit, associated with the feeling of well-being, is not only reserved for those singing, but also those in the audience:
"Music possesses an expressive structure powerful enough to evoke these common emotional states in many listeners. Music can bring together and unite an entire crowd".
Singing chases the blues away
Depression, solitude, anxiety, etc. According to researchers, singing can also help overcome certain hardships. Aside from the biochemical fireworks sparked by the act of singing, singing is intrinsically linked to our breathing. As countless yoga teachers will confirm, a controlled breathing can help control other physical, mental, and emotional elements.
A study from 2010 explains that "it is obvious that singing as an activity is powered by the lungs. [...] Breathing is also highly responsive to emotional states, and anxiety and stress can lead to rapid and shallow breathing, and relaxation can be induced by making an effort to breathe more deeply and slowly."
Furthermore, the effects of singing in a group are compounded: "Choral singing offers a sense of social support and friendship, which ameliorate feelings of isolation and loneliness", explains the study. "Just as singing is inherently dependent upon breathing, so membership of a group is intrinsic to choral singing, and group membership per se can be helpful in promoting a sense of well-being." Indeed, of the 600 choristers who partook in the study in England, a large majority confirmed that singing in an ensemble helped them feel happier, gave them a more positive attitude, and directly contributed to their well-being.
Singing makes you forget about your pain
Did you know that the brain can help us overcome pain? The simple act of singing can set off a wave of benefits. In a study from 2004, American researchers observed a higher tolerance in patients suffering from chronic pain just after singing.
As the French neurologist Pierre Lemarquis explained: "the pleasure and reward centres of the brain secrete endogenous morphine, better known as endorphins. When you listen to music that brings you pleasure, you are less receptive to pain". Such findings have already been used in maternity wards during labour, and even prenatal singing classes for pregnant women, organised by Judith Bloch-Christophe:
"Prenatal singing helps with breathing, and therefore increases relaxation and releases stress and other emotions. During the delivery, the effects of singing are truly felt: the patient now has the necessary tools to help manage the situation. The sound vibrations help deal with the pain, create a rhythm for the contractions, and even help improve the breathing during these contractions. Prenatal singing therefore raises the pain threshold of the patient, whilst remaining fully conscious and aware during her delivery", explains Bloch-Christophe.
And if all of these reasons are not enough, singing has even helped millions of couples save their relationship! According to a British study published in 2013 in the British Medical Journal, twenty minutes of singing per day could help reduce snoring and sleep apnoea. So, in the name of good mental health and a good night's sleep, start singing!