Updated: Oct 3, 2022
This article is the first in our four-part series on “The Magic of Vocal Harmony” where each week we briefly explore an aspect of choral singing that sparks the imagination to learn more about the science behind why we sing together. Disclaimer: these articles may evoke more questions than they attempt to answer.
September marks that time of year when choirs peddle their wares to entice singers to join their ranks for the upcoming season. Luckily, the redeeming qualities of singing in choirs is enormous, from encouraging self-growth with improvement of vocal skills to cultivating a sense of purpose through accomplishing a collective goal and fostering a sense of belonging and connection. The benefits of choral singing also extend beyond the social-emotional. Researchers have theorized the physical benefits of choral singing could include the release of endorphins (the feel-good chemical in your brain), improved lung function, and lowered cortisol (the stress hormone) to name a few. One fascinating study concluded that the heart rates of choral singers became synchronized when singing together, which suggests the physical byproducts of choir could encourage a social bond. The science behind choral singing is continuing to unfold through research, but a similar theme is starting to emerge: singing with others is not only good for our mental and physical health, but we are drawn to communal singing. Why? One study suggests that good feeling elicited from group singing could be our “evolutionary reward” for cooperating, which is a compelling theory. Where does that “good feeling” originate?
Singing is vibration.
Exploring the psychobiological connection to communal singing may help us transform the choral experience as we embark on yet another season in a pandemic. Have you pondered why singing in a protective face mask is not as enjoyable as singing without? Surface level, the mask constricts freedom maneuvering the vocal tract, complicating the execution of singing comfortably. On an acoustical level, singing in a mask dampens the vibrations of the voice as it reaches our ears. As singers, we have adapted the mechanics of singing in a mask, but I personally miss the energized sound of singing without a face covering. As a result, less enjoyment is derived with the lack in vibration and resonance in the voice. Could our physical and emotional response to the vibrations of singing be a factor in what draws us into the choral rehearsal room?
Singing is vibration. Air passes through the larynx and the vocal folds vibrate to create sound. The speed/rate of this vibration is referred to as frequency. The frequency of the harmonic being generated by the vocal folds determines the pitch (or note) being sung, then the resonator amplifies the sound. The vocal tract (head, mouth, lips, etc.) serves as a resonator to the vibrations created by the vocal folds, much like a trumpet acts as a resonator to the air blown into the mouthpiece. (Fun fact: the vocal tract is the only instrument that has a resonator that can change shape and has a shape unique to each person.) The soundwaves then travel through the air and vibrate the ear drum, which we interpret as speaking/singing. This explanation of vocal acoustics is extremely basic, but it is intended to illustrate the role of vibration in singing (not to be confused with “vibrato”.)
Our individual voice resonates within our vocal tract and the room we sing, but these resonant vibrations are also connected to others singing in the same room. When any sound source vibrates, the energy passes through the air and causes another nearby object to vibrate. Remember the water cup scene in Jurassic Park?
Another example is if you’ve ever heard an instrument played near a snare drum. The vibrations coming from the played instrument engage the snare drum, causing the snare to vibrate without being touched. If singing is vibration and I sing next to another person who is singing simultaneously, how do our separate vocal vibrations interact, affect one another, and create a harmonious whole sound? The role of acoustics and physics in harmony will be explored in the next post in this blog series, “Drawn to vocal harmony”. But for purpose of this conversation, locking into vocal harmony with others is an invigorating experience that feels good. Numerous cultures utilize sound and vibration as therapy in their spiritual and meditative healing practices (yoga, Tibetan singing bowls, chakra, etc.), so it makes sense that our bodies process the vibrational properties of singing, especially group singing, in a positive manner. A study out of MIT is experimenting with the idea that “the singing voice can influence mental and physical health through physicochemical phenomena” by exploring the resonant vibrations of the voice and its relationship to human physiology.
For singers, this brief exploration serves as a catalyst to engage in your own experimentation of the “good vibrations” of singing with others by joining a choir (Luckily, I happen to know of a few good choir you can join). For choral leaders, if vibration is the originator of the beneficial properties of choral singing, it would follow that focusing rehearsals on vocal technique that supports a free and resonant tone could enhance the choral experience. Our evolutionary survival just might depend on it.
Articles in our four-part blog series on “The Magic of Vocal Harmony” where each week we briefly explore an aspect of choral singing that sparks the imagination to learn more about the science behind why we sing together.
1 – Choir invites Good Vibrations
2 – Drawn to Vocal Harmon
3 – The Ghosting Soprano
4 – Choral Goosebumps
Disclaimer: these articles may evoke more questions than they attempt to answer.
This series is presented by Sarah Kaufold, Artistic Director of Consonare Choral Community, who holds a BA in Psychology and MM in Choral Music. It was in her undergrad studies where she first began to explore the connections between psychology and music.