FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 03/07/2012
March 6, 2012 Volume 5, Issue 4
Faith + Ideas= an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College
By Susan Brooks
When two politicos sing in public in the same two-week period, you know something unique has happened. People—that is, normal people—just don’t sing these days, especially in front of cameras. But President Obama did just that on January 19 at New York’s Apollo Theater with Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” (He followed up in February with “Sweet Home Chicago” at a White House event.) And Mitt Romney led folks through “America the Beautiful” January 31 at the Villages Retirement Center in Florida.
Sure, candidates might do just about anything these days to get elected or (in Obama’s case) re-elected. But do these two know something we don’t? Neither is considered to be a highly trained singer. But that’s okay. They were singing publicly. And it made the news and caught our attention.
Were they trying to garner votes? Who knows? What we do know is that singing—alone, in a group, for an audience, even just experimenting with sounds at home—is enormously beneficial, especially for the singer himself.
In other words, we were born to sing, hard-wired to do it. Before we talked, we sang. Babies sing and they sing a lot. They soothe themselves with singing. They sing themselves to sleep. They sing when they play. They do it because if feels good. And now scientists know why.
Singing triggers positive physical responses and is a veritable fountain of youth. For instance, research is showing that people who sing tend to live longer while enjoying a higher quality of life. They have better posture; increased muscle tone, especially in the torso area; larger lung capacities; higher energy; fewer asthma attacks; stronger immune systems. And if those were not enough reasons to burst into song right this minute, how about these? Those who sing average fewer doctor visits, less frequent eye sight problems, less need for medications, and fewer falls and injuries.
In a culture where health care and health costs trump so many other social concerns, then, we’d do well to invest in the therapeutic and even aerobic benefits of singing. One scholar in music education maintains that when we sing, our chests expand and our backs and shoulders straighten. In the process, our mood lightens as anxieties subside because endorphins—those natural feel-good pain relievers that are free and don’t need prescriptions—are produced. As we keep singing, our circulatory systems are stimulated, oxygenating our cells. A vocal workout, experts say, even boosts our immune systems.
That’s not all. Unlike simply speaking, singing affects us psychologically in numerous ways. If we make it a habit to sing even a little each day, we reduce stress, build confidence and self-assurance, and fight off depression and other mental health challenges.
But doesn’t talking, which we all do every day, give us the same rewards as singing? Aren’t we engaging and communicating with all the same organs: the brain, the windpipe, the larynx, the throat, and the mouth?
Yes, the mechanical ‘sound makers’—the lips, tongue, vocal folds and so forth—do produce both speech and song. But researchers have discovered that areas in the brain that produce speech (the left side of the brain) seem to work quite differently from those that allow us to sing (right side). This right brain singing motivates us to tap into a wide spectrum of creativity, expressiveness, and freedom that nothing else—including speech—can quite evoke.
And the imaginative exploration that singing sparks brings emotional release and a sense of well-being that lasts long after the song is over. In other words, we feel happier, less anxious and worried, and mentally stimulated after singing. We’re healthier, more productive and we even sleep better.
Maybe the best news is that to reap the benefits of singing we don’t even have to sound good. We just need to open up and let it out, raspy sounds, off-key tunes, and all.
Unfortunately, few of us do. In today’s world only young American Idol wannabes or high-end opera singers dare to open their mouths. Most of us have a phobic aversion to hearing ourselves sing, or especially allowing others to hear us. Too many of us are voice-shy and proud of it, convinced that we sound awful, can’t carry a tune, and since we’ll never be “stars,” why even try?
But all of us need to be singing, all the time, anywhere. It’s good for our lungs. Good for our brains. Good for our muscles and nerves and hearts. In other words, good for what ails us. Or what might ail us if we don’t sing.
Imagine what might happen to our overly medicated country if more people joined a chorus, or simply began to sing alone. If we learned to sing when celebrating the good, or even when we’re in the dumps, if we made up our own songs or learned new ones, the result would be exhilarating. And given today’s political climate, singing might be the one solution that really could fix some major problems.
Susan Brooks is professor of music at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. She and her family live in Nashua, New Hampshire.