Synchronised singing’s soothing effect

Oct 2 2013

Choir members have long attested to experiencing wellbeing benefits when singing, and a research project that HMRI Director Professor Michael Nilsson is involved with has shown why – song melody and structure influences breathing and heart rate to produce a biologically soothing effect.

The Swedish-based 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.

What they found was that when people sing in unison their pulses become synchronised.

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.

Singing also regulates activity in the vagus nerve running from the brain stem to the abdomen, which is involved in our emotional life and our communication with others. It can have the same effect as breathing exercises in yoga, so through song we can exercise control over our mental state.

HMRI researchers are so convinced of the power of cultural enrichment for positive health outcomes that they started a staff choir with the aim of increasing social interaction.

Researchers also know that musicians performing together have synchronised brain waves, and it will be interesting to see whether the biological synchronisation of choral singers can create a shared mental perspective that strengthens the ability to collaborate in a team environment.

The object of this research is to find new forms where music, exercise, rhythm and the arts may be used for medical purposes, primarily within preventive care.

In a country as culturally diverse as Australia it is a tragedy that disadvantaged children at primary schools often miss out on the opportunities that music and art provide.

HMRI’s proposal E2EEE (Enrich 2 Engage, Educate & Empower) seeks to develop and implement a cultural enrichment program for these youngsters. There is sound science behind it, as cultural enrichment has been shown to reduce obesity and increase intellectual functioning, and research also suggests it may slow the progress of cancers.

School Principals we have spoken to are all very supportive of the proposal.

You can help simply by voting in the Eftpos Giveback, with up to $2million going to a worthy cause. Please make sure that you highlight “Disadvantaged kids, families and communities”.

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