Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Using Singing to Create a Positive Emotional Benefit

We haven't had a TASE (Talk About Something Else) Day in a while. We're overdue.

A friend is teaching a child how to master their emotions. Like all good researchers, she asked her peers for their experiences.  I suggested singing as a quick and immediate method the child could use to get themself out of an emotional rut like frustration or anger.

I've always known singing to be a positive mood-lifter, far more effective than just listening to music. I've taught classes in using singing for optimism, and often teach my regular music students how to use music for their emotional benefit. (A bit of a selfish purpose behind this one as well, for if a child learns to love creating music, they'll be more likely to practice.)

Not everyone is a musician, but I believe everyone is capable of singing. You might be a bad singer and woefully out of tune, but you can still sing, and you will still receive the benefits I list below. Never let anyone tell you you shouldn't sing. I refuse to oppress a singer just because they might not have learned to master their pipes yet.

Anyone who's sung out loud may have noticed the centering effect music has. Really, it works, so here I go hardcore with research to explain how this works.

Singing can alter your mood through:

  • Employing deep and focused breathing. To sing, one must first draw breath, then release it in a focused and controlled manner to make sound. This deep breathing can also slow heart rate and neural activity. It also provides re-focus, as the brain must concentrate on producing music. Also, the vibrations of music has an effect on the autonomic nervous system. (Clark & Tamplin 2016)  
  • Triggering endorphin release. While merely listening to music can make us feel better, the actual performance, whether playing an instrument or singing, has the greater benefit. It requires the singer to be active and not just passive, as a listener would be. This activity stimulates greater endorphin release. (Dunbar et al 2012)(Kreutz G et al 2004) 
  • Using a different part of the brain. This disengages the "stuck" brain and engages fresh thinking, which will be less likely to get stuck in a feedback loop. Singing also engages the same part of the brain that processes emotions. Take that over, and the negative emotions are easier to deal with and get over. (Chanda et al 2013) Also helps with stuttering and emotion-related speech issues, like an inability to explain oneself when upset.
  • Familiarity. As our common rituals and favourite things soothe us all, the familiarity of a favourite song can also bring us back to ourselves when we feel out of sorts. (Ibid)

So, how does one get this singing schtick to beat off the black dogs?

  • Before you find yourself in an emotional bucket o' crap, choose a positive song or ten to be part of your emotional first-aid kit. I've got several, but one that works really well for me is "Before the Parade Passes By" from the musical "Hello Dolly".  Get in the habit of singing your first-aid kit songs now and then so you can get used to how they feel in your chest.
  • When you find yourself down or frustrated or angry, pull out the song that "feels right" for the moment, and start singing, even if you don't feel like it. If you're not really in a place you can sing out loud and can't get to one, humming is also acceptable. But if you can do some proper out-loud singing, the deep breathing will do you much good.
  • Do not let whatever harshed your original mellow steal the focus from your song. You're here to beat the grief, not let it beat you.  (3/4 or 4/4 are good beats.)  Singing won't solve your original problem, but it will resettle your brain enough for you to have more spoons with which to cope.

Barbara Streisand singing "Before the Parade Passes By".

I am interested to hear results from anyone who's willing to experiment on this method and report back.


Clark IN & Tamplin J (2016) "How Music Can Influence the Body: Perspectives From Current Research" Voices, 16, 2

Dunbar RI, Kaskatis K, MacDonald I, Barra V (2012) "Performance of music elevates pain threshold and positive affect: implications for the evolutionary function of music", Evolutionary Psychology, 10, 4

Kreutz G, Bongard S, Rohrmann S, Hodapp V, Grebe D (2004) "Effects of choir singing or listening on secretory immunoglobulin A, cortisol, and emotional state" Journal of Behavioural Medicine, 27, 6

Chanda ML & Levitiin DJ (2013) "The neurochemistry of music (A meta study)" Trends in Cognitive Science, 17, 4

Her Grace is a Coloratura Mezzo-Soprano by training, though her voice has gone a little smokier with age.

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