'He Who Sings Drives Away Sorrow'—Italian Proverb
Singing can be traced back nearly as far as the transition from ‘Neanderthal’ to ‘Human’. In fact, in his famous book ‘Language: its nature, development and origin Danish linguist Otto Jespersen argues that before humans developed the ability to talk, they engaged in ‘singing’,1 albeit not singing like we know today but more of a basic communicative tool before the expression of thoughts, feelings, words and instructions were possible through formative language use. Since then, societies have long celebrated those considered, at the time, to have a good voice and singing has been a central element to many religious and community groups throughout the ages. From the Egyptians in the New Kingdom (1700-1500 B.C.), to the Ancient Greek poet Sappho, singing has always been a central element to human existence. Indeed singing as a resource has been said to bring communities together in times of war, whilst also being used in times of peace and celebration. Depending on your definition of what constitutes ‘singing’, it can be said that people from all walks of life regularly engage in the practice without necessarily being aware they are ‘singing’, be it in the shower on their own, on the terraces at a football match, or in silence when the latest pop song with a catchy tune rings around their head in the most inappropriate places.
So why then has singing been central to human existence for such a long time? Here we need to turn to the growing body of research highlighting the positive effects of singing. For example, in a large-scale UK-based study it was found that participating in a singing group was perceived by participants to be of significant benefit to their well-being, with the singing groups seen to be a key way the individuals coped with life events and challenging personal situations.2 Another study highlights how singing as a practice has the ability to counteract anxiety due to the focus on breathing and deep breathing when singing.3 In research 1 ooking at the impact of a scheme introducing singing workshops into the workplace,
Purcell and Kagan show clear well-being effects of the singing workshops including making employees happier, less stressed, more confident and more engaged with their fellow employees, and improved perception of their physical health.4 Further, Skingley and Bungay undertook research looking at the effect of a UK-based singing club on elderly people and found that participation in the club had a positive effect on their mental health and well-being, social interaction, physical health, memory and recall, and their general cognitive abilities.5
However, such findings are not specific to research in the UK; in Australia, for example, researchers examined singing groups in Victoria and found that engaging with a singing group improved people’s feelings of connectedness, sense of belonging, stress management and emotional well-being.6 In addition, they argue that such benefits are not contained to the individual but that singing groups have a positive impact on general social capital and thus such benefits filter through to the relational and community levels. Also in Australia research has uncovered the benefits of singing groups on dementia clients and their caregivers; such benefits included increased communication, better memory recall, enhanced social interaction and positive feelings in relation to the enjoyment felt whilst participating in the singing group.7 Similar findings have also been found in the UK.8 In Glasgow, Sue Hillman offers a comprehensive account over a 12-year-period with elderly people participating in the ‘Call That Singing?’ group.9 Her research not only finds that elderly people participating in the singing group receive all of the benefits mentioned above in previous studies (e.g. improved well-being) but also takes the argument further to show that:
Participants reported no overall deterioration in their perception of health over the 12-year period since the project started: this is despite the high recorded incidence of illness and bereavement during the same period to be expected of people of this age (p. 163)
Such findings are corroborated through a range of additional research examples including boys in church choirs,10 disadvantaged adults,11 the general public,12 people with a chronic respiratory disease,13 people with Parkinson’s disease14 and young people with cystic fibrosis.15