Why singing is good for you, even if you think you’re bad at it

Apologies to our neighbors, but all that singing is medicinal.

I can’t begin to count the number of people over the years who’ve told me they can’t sing, or have no talent for musical instruments. Pish. It doesn’t matter whether you’re gifted. Even if you think you’re terrible at music, can’t carry a tune, have no rhythm, you should sing and play, and teach your children to do the same, unabashedly. It will improve your mood and your health and boost your brain’s performance.

I play the piano or guitar and sing something almost every single day. Not because I’m disciplined or gifted, but because I crave it. I don’t play long, usually, sometimes just for ten or 15  minutes, and not with any structured practice goal. When I’m dealing with big challenges, stressed out, or feeling down, I play longer, lost in the, piano working out chord voicings and runs, and trying (usually without success) to hit all the vocal high notes in the Billy Joel songbook. You’ve gotta hear me endeavor to sing “New York State of Mind.” Then again, maybe it’s best if you don’t.  

Why do I do this? I’m not really getting better, my nights of playing guitar in bar bands are behind me, and I don’t have any illusions that I’m doing great art when I bang out “Let It Be” for the thousandth time.

Sure I want there to be music in the house for the kids’ sake, I want them to be exposed to the idea that we can make it for ourselves, not simply rely on our iPhones to deliver it to us pre-packaged. But that noble intent is… well.. too noble for it to be the driver of a such a consistent habit. No, for playing and singing to have been so deeply ingrained in the flow of my life, an unconscious habit, there has to be a different kind of itch being scratched.

And even if this were entirely about the noble aim of inculcating a love of making music in the kids, and empowering them to do so without embarrassment, the question would remain: why? Why do I want them to care about playing and singing? What value does it bring to someone’s life if he’s not a professional musician?

There are many high-minded, philosophical answers to that question, enough to fill tomes. But lest you think, duh, everyone knows music is good for you and the reasons for instructing your children in it are self-evident, I assert it is a valid question to ask. Aristotle did, writing “It is not easy to determine the nature of music, or why any one should have a knowledge of it,” before going on to break those reasons down for us.

But you don’t have to get all Aristotelean to answer the “why do I do this” question. The short answer is: almost every time I rise from the piano bench, I feel better than when I sat down. And as it turns out, it’s not just because I enjoy playing. There’s a medical explanation.

An image meme flowing through my Facebook newsfeed caught my eye recently, and led me to some deeper reading on this topic: “Singing daily for at least ten minutes reduces stress, clears sinuses, improves posture, and can even help you live longer.”

My first thought was, “that sounds true.” Because I wanted it to be. My second thought was, “what’s the source for that statement?” (The search for some confirmation was the catalyst for this blog post.)

Because if this was true, scientifically valid, then I finally had a practical justification and explanation for my endless infliction on my family and neighbors of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” belted out top voice. Yes, it’s a warm day, yes the windows are open, and yes dear friends across the street, that’s not cats fighting; Burden is singing again.

And whether the claims of that Facebook meme were strictly correct, the idea behind them, that singing and playing music effects physical changes on body and brain, are certainly true. References abound, in blogs, the mainstream media, and medical journals.

Writing for HowStuffWorks.com, Julia Layton says: 

“All types of singing have positive psychological effects. The act of singing releases endorphins, the brain’s ‘feel good’ chemicals. Singing in front of a crowd, a la karaoke, naturally builds confidence, which has broad and long-lasting effects on general well-being. But of all types of singing, it’s choral singing that seems to have the most dramatic effects on people’s lives.

“Choral singers need to concentrate on their music and technique throughout the singing process, and it’s hard to worry about things like work or money or family problems when you’re actively concentrating on something else. So choral singers tend to have a built-in “stress-free zone.” Learning is also part of the process — learning new songs, new harmonies, new methods of keeping tempo. Learning has long been known to keep brains active and fend off depression, especially in older people.”

Sarah Rainey wrote for The Telegraph (UK):

“Over the years, scientists have found that crooning has a number of health benefits. The Gothenburg researchers proved that with singing we can train our lungs to breathe better; similarly, a study at Cardiff University in 2012 found that lung cancer patients who sang in a choir had a greater expiratory capacity than those who didn’t. Singing has also been shown to boost our immune system, reduce stress levels and, according to a report published in the Journal of Music Therapy in 2004, help patients cope with chronic pain. A joint study by Harvard and Yale Universities in 2008 went one step further, claiming that choral singing in a Connecticut town had increased residents’ life expectancy.”

Music rewires your brain, so much so that the practice is used for treatment of psychological and neurological disorders. But you’ve got to make the music, not just listen to it:

“Unlike music listening, active music making places additional demands on the nervous system, leading to a strong coupling of perception and action; processes that are mediated by sensory, motor, and multimodal integrative regions distributed throughout the brain. This integrative fronto-temporoparietal network overlaps with components of the putative mirror neuron system, which is important in the perception and execution of actions.” (“The Therapeutic Effects of Singing in Neurological Disorders,” Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal.)

Performance Boosting Power of Music

And music-making won’t just cure what ails you, it’ll also take your performance up a level.

Alzheimer’s patients, “have enhanced mental performance after singing classic hits and show tunes from movies and musicals.” (“5 Reasons Why Music Boosts Brain Activity,” Alzheimers.net)

Music training for can boost the power of memory,  and enhance literacy, reasoning, and math skills.   (How Music Affects Us and Promotes Health, eMedExpert.com)

So what should you take away from all of this? Everybody needs to sing for ten minutes a day? You need to treat music like fitness and schedule workout regimens? I don’t think so (unless that appeals to you). The takeaway is, whether you think you have musical gifts or not, you probably enjoy singing, and maybe or plucking away at that old guitar you bought but never really learned how to play, or tinkering around on the piano. You enjoy it but refrain because you don’t think it’s a productive use of your time, or worse, because you have to have achieved some degree of skill before you should be allowed to participate.

Not so. You’re good enough to start right now, and you probably have  been since you were a baby. And now you know that it’s doing you some good to boot.

So go ahead. Sing.

For more references for the claims of physiological and psychological benefits of making music, the citations at the end of this PubMed paper are a great starting place.