Choir singing synchronises the heart, soothes the head

Jul 19 2013

Director Michael Nilsson

A newly published study showing the cardiovascular impacts of choir singing may have important implications for stoke and brain injury recovery, according to Hunter Medical Research Institute Director Michael Nilsson.

With choir singers having long attested to experiencing wellbeing benefits, the Swedish research project involving Professor Nilsson has shown why – song melody and structure can influence breathing and heart rate to produce a biologically soothing effect.

In a study titled “Music determines heart rate variability of singers” published in Frontiers Aud Cogn Neurosci, researchers from the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg found that when people sing in a choir their pulses become synchronised.

The researchers believe that singing demands a slower than normal respiration, which is coupled with heart rate variability known as Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA). RSA is seen to be more marked during slow-paced breathing and at lower respiration rates.

“Previous research has found that musicians performing together have synchronised brain waves and now we’re seeing it with the heart rate,” Professor Nilsson, a neuroscientist, said.

“The object of this study is to find new forms where music may be used for medical purposes, primarily within rehabilitation and preventive care.

“To give a local example, HMRI’s Brainwaves Choir for stroke survivors has shown that participating in music and being in a happy environment has important benefits for mental health and may help the language centre recover as well.”

Professor Nilsson has more than 20 years’ experience in researching brain plasticity and stroke recovery, exploring the concept of enriched environment through cardiovascular exercise, music and rhythm.

The latest study comprised a group of healthy 18 year olds who were asked to hum a single tone, sing a hymn with free breathing, and sing a slow mantra while breathing solely between phrases. Their heart rate, respiration, skin conductance and finger temperature were monitored.

Lead author Björn Vickhoff said singing regulated activity in the vagus nerve running from the brain stem to the abdomen.

“The vagus nerve is involved in our emotional life and our communication with others, and it affects our vocal timbre,” Dr Vickhoff said. “Songs with long phrases achieve the same effect as breathing exercises in yoga, so through song we can exercise control over mental states.”

The next step for investigators is to see whether the biological synchronisation of choral singers can create a shared mental perspective that strengthens the ability to collaborate. Details:

In the video below, Newcastle conductor Dr David Banney discusses the finding during the first rehearsal of the HMRI Choir today.