On the steps of a Brooklyn brownstone in the Spring of 2020 stood a baritone.
He serenaded his neighborhood to music from Bizet’s Carmen while curious New Yorkers tiptoed to the curb to see what all the fuss was about. The baritone invited them to sing along, and soon the audience filled the streets of Brooklyn Heights with an echo that would rival any professional chorus.
This moment gave rise to a feeling of hope and community — something many of the residents were missing during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Peter Kendall Clark (who now proudly bears the moniker of the Brownstone Baritone) never stopped singing. Day after day, come rain or shine, he would be on those steps singing — and the community continued to listen and join in.
He’s not alone. Since the start of the pandemic people have found creative ways to connect to their community through the power of song — from Italians singing on their balconies to the global spasm of Youtube vocalists.
Why? Because music is medicine. When we take to singing in our showers, or belt along to Whitney Houston in our car, it creates a sensory response. We feel elated, and we may even feel the sensation of falling in love.
There’s a reason for that.
The Power of Resonance
At its core, singing is the manipulation of air, causing a vibration in the vocal folds (or vocal chords). This vibration produces a sound, which in turn bounces around the skull resonating with various frequencies, creating changes in pitch, intonation, and volume.
When these frequencies encounter a neighboring frequency (or waveform), the waves begin a dance, so to speak, and eventually entrain, that is, they resonate together.
Resonance is the experience one has when listening to or performing a piece of music. It is why we have such strong reactions to that music. When we hate it, we’re out-of-tune, and it irritates us to no end. When we love it, we’re in-tune. We connect. This connection is the reason the audience stayed to listen to Peter’s street performance: they resonated with the sound.
The Science and Benefits of Singing
Science has shown that when we sing the brain is on high alert, with both the right and left hemispheres activated. While listening to music has numerous benefits, such as fostering social skills, triggering memory, and boosting confidence, when we sing, the impact is much more powerful.
Singing Enhances Your Mood
Singing reduces the stress hormone cortisol and has the capacity to light up the pleasure center of our brain — the nucleus accumbens — responsible for the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a natural mood-booster, alleviating anxiety and aiding in the treatment of depression.
Singing Improves Lung Capacity
Controlled and regular breathing goes hand-in-hand with the art of singing. This relationship provides a sense of calm and relaxation in the practitioner, as well as a general sense of well-being. Improving lung capacity leads to better posture, improved sleep, reduced stress, improved blood circulation, and a healthier immune system.
Singing Improves Cognition
With so much of the brain working all at once, and with more oxygen flowing to the brain, the practice of music has proven to increase focus. For example, in students, continuous musical practice has resulted in better overall grade performance.
Singing Builds Relationships
Think of the feeling of falling in love — that tingly sensation that leaves you ooey-gooey on the inside. This feeling is the result of the release of oxytocin — something that also happens when we sing! Oxytocin is a neuropeptide within the brain associated with feelings of trust and bonding, aiding in relationship building.
Singing Aids in the Treatment of Neurological Impairments
Perhaps one of the most surprising benefits of singing is its ability to help us overcome neurological impairments. For instance, US Representative Gabrielle Giffords was left with severe brain damage in the left hemisphere — the side of the brain that controls speech and movement — after an assassination attempt.
As a result, she was diagnosed with non-fluent aphasia, which is a condition in which the patient’s speech is severely reduced. Through the use of music therapy, Giffords was able to retrain her brain to find new pathways to connect to speech.
“For patients with severe aphasia, singing trains structures and connections in the brain’s right hemisphere to assume permanent responsibility for a task usually handled mostly by the left,” explains professors William Forde Thompson and Gottfried Schlaug writing in Scientific American.
The same struggle is also common in stroke victims, and the use of singing has likewise shown overwhelmingly positive results.
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There is so much truth to the idiom, “music is food for the soul.”
It’s nature’s medicine — a remedy that we all have free access to whenever we use our voice. Perhaps the best news when it comes to the benefits of singing is that there is no requirement to be a professional. All you need to elicit these abundant benefits is the basic desire to sing your heart out.