Poster eric whitacre in studio
Eric Whitacre in the studio at Classical MPR.
MPR photo/Nate Ryan

Health benefits of singing -- and listening to singing

Earlier this year, a research team from the Royal College of Music's Centre for Performance Science gathered data from a concert of music by Eric Whitacre. There were two primary questions for which the research team hoped to find answers:

1. How does singing affect the health and well-being of professional musicians?

2. How does listening to singing affect the health and well-being of audience members?

So the team hooked up electric nodes and breathing belts to 15 singers to see how their bodies behave during both a rehearsal and a concert. In addition, 49 audience members were wired up to gather physiological data. Saliva samples were also gathered, as were questionnaires. Some of the notable findings include:

• Stress hormones (cortisol and cortisone) decreased in audience members watching a concert.

• Watching a concert also led to reduced negative mood states (afraid, tense, confused, sad, anxious and stressed) and increased positive mood states (relaxed and connected).

• Singing in a low-stress situation (a rehearsal, for example) reduced levels of cortisol and cortisone and didn't affect anxiety, but doing so in a high-street situation (like a concert) increased both stress hormone levels and anxiety.

• Overall, the act of singing reduced the cortisol-cortisone ratio, implying that regardless of how stressed people feel, singing has an inherently relaxing effect.

Aaron Williamson, the Centre for Performance Science professor who led the research team, states:

"This is the first time participation in a cultural event has been shown to have significant psychobiological effects, and the implications are hugely exciting, particularly when taking into account previous research by the Centre for Performance Science which links reduction in stress hormone activity with increases in immune function. This preliminary study provides several new avenues of further investigation of how making and experiencing music can impact on health and well-being."

And the composer says:

"Singing is something that many people inherently feel is good for them and relaxes them. But to actually show biologically (and demonstrate scientifically) that it can reduce stress is very exciting. The Royal College of Music team with whom we have been working has also been collecting extraordinary data working with Tenovus Choirs, seeing measurable benefits in singing among cancer patients, for example. Reducing stress has a direct benefit not only in general terms in our home lives and the workplace, but also in pain reduction, recuperation and even the advancement of some diseases."

The study was replicated at a concert of Whitacre's music last month at the Cheltenham Festival in the UK, with an accompanying discussion with the composer and members of the research team.

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