Opinion: What singing can do for your mental health
27 September 2022
Opinion: Singing is good for our well-being as Dr Suzanne Purdy and Alison Talmage, and members of the CeleBRation Choir, can testify.
As most of us know, there is something about music, that moves us, uplifts us, brings us together, makes us feel better about ourselves. Music is a big part of most people’s lives, and our ability to make music – to sing, for instance – often survives when other abilities fade.
That singing is good for our well-being is well-known, and as members of the CeleBRation Choir, set up for people with neurological conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s and dementia, we would testify that to be so.
The CeleBRation Choir was initiated by the University’s Centre for Brain Research and was the first neurological choir in the country. Through our team’s research and the advocacy of choir members, similar choirs have now been formed around the country, in Orewa, Tauranga, Christchurch, Wellington and Nelson. These initiatives reflect local and international interest and growing research investigating the potential of singing in neurorehabilitation.
Mental Health Awareness Week 2022, which runs from 26 September to 2 October, has a theme of “Reconnect with the people and places that lift you up” – and for that, we’d thoroughly recommend joining a choir.
Our choirs survived and thrived during the pandemic, with members gathering on Zoom to sing together. Our various choirs are now attracting new members, as well as fielding enquiries from people who would like to join.
Whether they had sung in community choirs in their younger years or hadn’t sung with others since they were a child or had been told as a child that they couldn’t sing, our choir members are finding their voices, and advocating for more choirs for more people like themselves.
A neurological condition can affect mobility, communication and all aspects of daily life. The CeleBRation Choir brings together people who are experiencing the same fears and challenges in a community of mutual support.
Neurological choirs are not your average community choir: they are social singing groups particularly aimed at addressing voice, speech, and language difficulties. We include warm-ups, breathing and vocal exercises, less complex arrangements and part-singing songs for enjoyment and to work on our members’ voice, speech, language and memory goals.
There are psychological, well-being benefits of bringing people together to have fun, but also physiological benefits. Singing and speaking share overlapping neurological networks and use the same physiological processes of breathing, vocalisation and articulation. Many stroke survivors struggle with aphasia, a problem with word-finding and speech. Some new choir members are surprised that they can sing or learn a new song, when conversation is so difficult for them; others haven’t been able to talk fluently, but they retain the ability to sing.
People with Parkinson’s often develop dysarthria, an inability to control the muscles used in speech resulting in a quiet voice and unclear speech, but research here and internationally has shown that singing regularly helps people with Parkinson’s maintain or improve the strength of their voice.
Our research team recently published a study of 90 adults who belonged to either a community choir or a neurological choir and were pleased to find that choir participation benefits people living with a neurological condition as much as those who didn’t have such conditions. As expected, people with neurological conditions scored lower in the physical domain than other participants when they completed the World Health Organization’s quality of life questionnaire. However scores for psychological, social relationships and environmental questions were similar across all participants, supporting links between choir membership and general well-being.
Neurological choirs are bringing researchers together from different disciplines – music therapy, speech science, psychology and neuroscience. While neuroscience researchers extend their knowledge, understanding and treatment options for neurological conditions, allied health professionals, including music therapists and speech-language therapists, play important roles in rehabilitation and psychosocial wellbeing.
Our research has shown that our choir members value choir for improvements in their mood, speech, communication, and breathing: for friendship and social interaction, for the no-pressure environment, and the challenge that choir provides, of learning lyrics, tunes, and then singing them.
Neurological conditions can affect people of all ages, but predominantly older generations. Shifting population demographics throughout the world mean an increase in the proportion of older people and an increase in the prevalence of acquired health conditions.
In an ideal world we would have neurological choirs in centres throughout the country, to offer people living with the neurological conditions the psychosocial and physiological benefits of coming together to sing together, to help people who may face an uncertain future to live as well as they can, and with joy in their lives.
Alison Talmage is the co-founder of CeleBRation Choir, a music therapist, teacher, musician and doctoral candidate at the School of Music. Dr Suzanne Purdy is the head of School of Psychology, Faculty of Science.
This article reflects the opinion of the authors and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.
First published in Newsroom, How singing can improve mental and physical wellbeing, 27 September 2022
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