Online music editor Oscar Davies looks at choral singing, an activity as beneficial to our health as yoga ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼.
I sing in the King’s College Chapel Choir. As entry to the choir is based on receiving a choral scholarship, the standard is high and rivals many of the Oxbridge choirs.
For those of you who don’t know it, we rehearse Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the chapel: boasting an ornate red and gold décor, the chapel is hidden away on the second floor of the Strand Campus – you should go, if not for the singing, at least for the architecture.
There is something profoundly therapeutic in singing as a group. It allows you to create something that no individual can: harmony. In King’s Chapel Choir a large part of repertoire is renaissance polyphony (16th century), David Trendell’s speciality.
There can be several interweaving vocal parts, as many as 40 in the case of Tallis’ ‘Spem in alium’. I think it is amazing how a piece can start with a single line, a modest motif, and gradually grow, forming a rich wall of sound including melodies, countermelodies and accompaniments. When the parts all finally come together at the end, a homogeneous sound is created and it is hard not to feel a sense of achievement. In London’s ever-changing state of flux, I can assure that this unity is most welcome.
However, the most therapeutic thing for me about singing is how emotive it can be. On the one hand, there is something supremely uplifting in singing a ‘Magnificat,’ the first words being ‘My soul doth magnify the lord.’ Although I am not religious, you can still sense the feeling of elation that one must get from praying to God and believing that something greater than yourself really does exist.
On the other hand, the sadness expressed in a piece like ‘Tristitia et anxietas’ can be heart-wrenching if it is sung well and with the right dynamics. The point is, singing music can provide you with a release of genuine emotion, which I find refreshing in a world where a ‘like’ or a ‘tweet’ is meant to express something so complex, impossible to do accurately with so few words.
In a way, the act of making music transcends expressing emotion through language: while linguistic manipulation distorts emotion, music seems to bridge the gaps between emotions and human physiology.
Indeed, science has been hard at work explaining the calming yet energising effect of singing on people. The elation may come from endorphins, a hormone released by singing and associated with feelings of pleasure. Additionally, a hormone called oxytocin is released while singing which alleviates anxiety and stress, which explains why many studies have found that singing lessens feelings of depression and loneliness. Group singing is cheaper than therapy, healthier than drinking, and certainly more fun than going to the gym.
A study from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found that choristers’ heartbeats may synch up during group singing, bringing about a calming effect that is as beneficial to our health as yoga. The more structured the work, the more the singers’ heart rates increased or decreased together – slow chants produced the most synchrony.
When I told a friend I sang in the chapel choir, their reply was something like “Wow, so you’re part of those angelic voices I hear on the way to my lectures?” Although angelic is probably an overstatement, singing allows you to access another realm of consciousness, always ethereal and always otherworldly.
Why don’t you come to our Christmas concert at St John’s Smith Square on 13th November? You will certainly get into the festive spirit and can then decide for yourself whether listening to choral music is therapeutic or not!