I started going to group singing classes by accident thirty years ago. I turned up to do a drumming class but they said, “Wrong week mate, but look, it’s cold out, why don’t you stay and watch for a bit?” Ninety minutes later I was hooked.
By the time the summer came I’d learned all the songs and harmonies of that particular teacher and a friend said, “I’m going to a festival at the weekend, I’m on the organising team and there’s this really good vocal facilitator coming, I can get you in for free if you bring your drum”.
So it was that a few days later she was leading me to the edge of an expectant circle in a huge white marquee. There must have been two hundred people there.
“Here’s the guy I was telling you about!” she announced to the delighted crowd.
“Not only is he going to teach you to sing, he’s going to drum at the same time, so it’s a great opportunity for us to dance as well. Can we please have a big festival cheer for Mister Tom Morley!”
And with that I was thrust into the centre of the circle where my harmony singing career began. It went better than even my friend expected, and they insisted we carry on singing while we crossed the field to the lunch marquee. I’ve often since been referred to as The Pied Piper, that’s where it all began.
Singing in groups triggers the communal release of serotonin and oxytocin, the bonding hormone. I remember, back in Stone Age Brighton where I was born, group singing literally incentivised my tribe over the “each cave dweller for themselves” approach. I watched as they sang together and became strongly bonded. The good feelings we still get from singing in a group are a kind of evolutionary reward for coming together cooperatively. There’s even more shared accommodation in Brighton now, so the good vibes continue.
Singing in groups even synchronises our heart beats so creating music together evolved as a tool of social living. Groups and tribes sang and danced together to build loyalty, transmit vital information and ward off enemies. The neuroscience of singing shows that when we sing our neurotransmitters connect in new and different ways. It fires up the right temporal lobe of our brain, releasing endorphins that make us smarter, healthier, happier and more creative. When we sing with other people this effect is amplified.
In her book ‘Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others’, Stacy Horn calls singing, “An infusion of the perfect tranquilliser – the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirit”.
Singing releases endorphins and oxytocin – which in turn relieve anxiety and stress. They’re also linked to feelings of trust and bonding. Singing helps people with depression, reducing feelings of loneliness, and helping them feel connected again, even if only for a short time. But then the benefits of singing regularly are cumulative.
One of the great things about singing is that you can receive the wellbeing benefits even if you aren’t any good. Group singing can produce satisfying and therapeutic sensations even when the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.
Tania de Jong, singer and founder of ‘Creativity Australia’ has effectively harnessed this ability of group singing to lift every member of her group up, no matter their singing ability.
Tania says, “One of the great things about singing is that is connects you to the right side of your brain. This is the side responsible for intuition, imagination and all our creative functions. It connects us to a world of possibilities. In modern life we’re constantly bombarded with so much information that we process and analyse. We tend to get stuck in the left, processing side of our brain. So it becomes fundamentally important to nurture the attributes of human beings that set us apart from machines. The best way to do that is singing”.
Some claim, huh?
There was a time when we all used to sing. We sang at school, at parties, around camp fires. But at some stage someone told us to be quiet or judged our imperfect singing voice. Sophia Efthimiou suggests that singing is very personal, an expression of sound coming from within us, so we cannot help but take this criticism very personally. Yet, people who claim they cannot sing because they are tone deaf are more likely to be very unfamiliar with finding and using their singing voice.
Tone deafness is comparatively rare and means that you would be unable to recognise a song. If you can recognise a song you are not tone deaf, you are just unpractised. Sophia clarifies, “When your voice makes the wrong note you can feel terrible as though it is a reflection of your self worth”.
I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to BBC’s Radio 4 show, ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’. There’s a game they play called ‘Pick Up Tune’ where guests are individually asked to begin singing along to a popular song, then the backing track is turned down and they have to carry on unaccompanied until the song is brought back in, about thirty seconds later. These are not professional singers and they sometimes make the most terrible hash of it, but whether they come back in on time or not they get THE most enormous amounts of applause for trying.
US opera singer Katie Kat wishes to encourage all of us to sing far more often regardless of our perceived skill. She says, “Singing increases self-awareness, self-confidence and our ability to communicate with others. It decreases stress, comforts us and helps us to forge our identity and influence the world.”
When you sing, musical vibration moves through you, altering your physical and emotional state. Singing is as old as the hills, the chalk hills. It is innate, ancient and within all of us. It really is one of the most uplifting therapeutic things we can do. Katie continues, “However, society has skewed views on the value of singing. Singing has become something reserved for elite talent or highly produced stars with producers, management, concert dates – leaving the rest of us with destructive criticism of our own voices”.
She claims that singing is instinctual and necessary to our existence. You do not have to be an amazing singer to benefit from the basic biological benefits and with practice the benefits increase.
So, in tune or out of tune, I’ll carry on being The Pied Piper, leading people back to themselves.