With 2018 underway, you may be looking for ways to brighten your year that don’t require cutting calories or hitting the gym.
Turns out, exercising your vocal chords may do the trick. At least, that’s what a recent study says.
The research was based on 20 interviews with participants of The Sing Your Heart Out (SYHO) project in the United Kingdom, a community-based network of singing workshops for people with mental health conditions, as well as the general public.
In the study, all interviewees reported improvement in or maintenance of their mental health and well-being as a direct result of the singing workshops.
“Definitely, being in the group was the key aspect,” Tom Shakespeare, PhD, a professor of disability research at Norwich Medical School and author of a paper that evaluated the singing program, told Healthline. “Singing is good, but singing with others is better.”
What’s so special about groups?
While SYHO began at a psychiatric hospital in 2005, it eventually moved into a community setting.
Professional musicians lead the group. The weekly 90-minute workshops are offered for free to anyone who wants to participate.
While Shakespeare notes that people with all kinds of mental health issues have benefited from the workshops, he says there isn’t evidence about who benefited most or what conditions are most helped.
Jay Anderson, a certified neurologic music therapist in California, says there is no doubt singing in groups can lift and modulate moods and emotions.
First, he explains, the act of singing has physical benefits. We breathe differently, more deeply and rhythmically while singing, which in turn delivers more than our normal oxygen to the brain.
But we also feel connected with those we are singing with.
“And most likely a joyous, positive, and successful experience occurs. A sense of accomplishment, particularly to those who are coping with mental health conditions, occurs,” Anderson told Healthline. “Singing in a group can lessen overall anxiety, make us feel more comfortable in social situations, and bring a sense of ‘doing’ and accomplishment.”
Shakespeare’s evaluation of SYHO found similar sentiments. He stated the combination of singing and social engagement produced a feeling of belonging and well-being that often lasted for more than a day.
When participants went to workshops weekly, they felt that the ongoing structure, support, and contact kept them at a higher level of functionality. In addition, their moods were better than they would be if they hadn’t gone.
Participants also commented that singing was a form of communication that allowed them to express emotions in a supported environment and communicate in a socially unthreatening way.
This was valued by those who experienced social anxiety, as it helped them improve their social skills and gain confidence.
“Providing appropriate and safe social interaction is a by-product of the group singing,” said Anderson.
Still, he adds that singing by yourself has its benefits, too.
“Singing solo before an audience or even alone at home or in the car is courageous and bold. It can be exhilarating, cleansing, joyous, and extremely expressive, no matter the quality,” he said. "Process is more important than product, or it’s the journey that is the joy.”
Does the type of music matter?
Both happy and sad songs are in the repertoire of SYHO. However, Shakespeare says that he cannot say if one type of song is better than the other.
“It is the experience of singing together which is the main thing,” he said.
However, Anderson says the songs chosen can contribute to the emotional experience.
“The song lyric message as well as the melody and rhythm can most definitely modulate moods,” Anderson said.
Aspects of the music, such as tempo, harmonic complexity, rhythmic complexity, melody, lyrics, and instrumentation can all modulate mood.
As far as genre, Anderson says some kinds of music tend to have a more monochromatic effect on moods and psyche than others.
“Lyrics with a message of inspiration [and] hope have more of a chance to modulate moods in that direction as opposed to lyrics with a more superficial or base message. Also, harmonies and melodies are imbued by the composer to elicit certain emotions and mood that he or she felt the need to express through song,” noted Anderson.
Is singing a cure for mental health?
While the SYHO study was conducted on a group of people who predominantly had been patients in secondary mental healthcare settings, it was not music therapy and it was not conducted in a clinical setting.
The paper states that this type of recovery approach is not about curing symptoms of mental health issues, but more about giving people a means to live a satisfying and hopeful life with mental illness.
The paper authors state, “For many, this represented a chance to feel good and express happiness with others. The focus on singing rather than therapy allowed participants to use it as a resource and interpret it however they wished. Some saw it as a fun, low-key opportunity to sing. Others saw it as a crucial component to the maintenance of their well-being.”
While singing and music therapy are not cures for mental illness, Anderson points out that neither are common therapies, such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), psychoanalysis, or psychopharmacology.
“What works well in one case may fall short in meeting the needs of another. All therapy modalities need to be explored,” said Anderson.
When it comes this expertise, music therapy, which incorporates music activities such as singing, Anderson says it can be a powerful and curative complementary therapy in a person’s journey to wellness and recovery.
“Most all people love their music,” Anderson said. “Quantifiable research demonstrates music and music activities effect positive changes in a person’s physiological, psychological, and cognitive well-being.”