Trevor Hancock: Singing together is good for our health

One of the characteristics of this festive season is choirs. It seems everywhere you go, people are singing together.

Indeed, I have just been doing that with friends and neighbours, as part of a Solstice event on the Gorge here in Victoria. Which got me thinking about the importance of singing together for our personal and collective health.

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Music is a very ancient art form. So ancient that we should think of it as being of fundamental importance to humans, part of our evolutionary history. Indeed, some theorize that “song-like communication” might have evolved before speech.

The oldest known musical instruments are bone and ivory flutes found recently in Germany. They are at least 35,000 years old, and while we don’t know if they sang together 35,000 years ago, I bet they did. When we consider that modern humans only emerged 200,000 years ago, this makes music pretty central to our humanity.

Every culture has music. Anthropologists tell us that music, especially singing and dancing together, is important for building group identity and cohesion.

Music’s importance is also obvious today. It’s a major industry; one might call it a universal language — perhaps the only one we have. But sadly, it’s become more of a mass spectator sport these days.

From a health perspective, anything so central to our biological and cultural evolution as music is probably important to our well-being, so let’s look at what music in general — and making music and singing together in particular — does for our health and well-being.

At an individual level, listening to music can be arousing, restful or anything between. Music therapy is thousands of years old — it is probably no coincidence that the Greek god Apollo was god of both music and medicine. Today, it is one of the health professions, used for treatment and rehabilitation of people with physical and mental-health problems.

Music is effective in reducing symptoms and increasing socialization among people with schizophrenia, and for treating depression, anxiety and chronic pain. In people who have lost language skills due to a stroke, brain injury or dementia, songs can be a useful way to recover language.

But as a public-health practitioner, I am more interested in how music can help prevent problems in the first place, and make us healthier. A growing number of studies have been finding that music education can make an important contribution to healthy child development.

Last spring, the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto summarized the latest research. The conservatory’s report points to evidence of lasting changes in the brains of children who study music. They perform better academically and are more likely to win awards.

So music education should not be seen as some sort of frill, an indulgence to be discarded in the budget cuts, but as a central part of a child’s education, alongside maths and reading.

But it was another of the findings that interested me most: Music education helps children gain a sense of empathy for others. Others have examined the “prosocial” benefits of making music together. In a study published in 2010, two German researchers found that a group of four-year-olds who had jointly made music together had a much higher rate of “spontaneous co-operative and helpful behavioUr.”

A similar study in England found helpful behaviours increased as much as 30 times and co-operative behaviours by six times.

Those are important behaviours if we want to create healthier communities.

But it is at the group level that we really see the power of music. Right here in Victoria, there are many groups who just get together to sing. There are folk music groups, karaoke, and then we have the Getting Higher Choir, an inspirational choir that is all about building community. Anybody can join — no audition, and no vocal experience is required. And it’s cheap; you don’t need an instrument — you are the instrument.

So make a joyful sound — together. And not just at this time of year, but throughout the year. Find a local song group. Or start one. Join a choir, even if you think you can’t sing.

There is an African proverb that might help: If you can walk, you can dance; if you can talk, you can sing. So walk, talk, dance and sing — together. It’s good for your health — and the health of your community.

 

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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