The Social Basis of Singing

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

According to Chorus America, a national research and advocacy organization, the United States is home to some 270,000 choruses. A large majority are “church” choirs (217,000), a species that presumably includes non-Christian denominations as well. There are also roughly 41,000 school choirs (K-12) and 12,000 independent community and professional choirs. Nearly a quarter of American households boast one or more choral singers, a figure accounting for an estimated 42.6 million people (32.5 million adults and 10.1 million children). Together with researchers from the National Endowment for the Arts, Chorus America confidently asserts that choral singing is the country’s most popular form of performing arts.

Surely, the numbers are too large and too steady to suggest a fad. Choral singing is as ancient as it is popular, and while endowments and advocacy groups can create opportunities for participation, they do not guarantee the participants’ dedication. Advertisements help get singers to the audition, but commitment is cultivated through the singing itself.

Author Stacy Horn compares singing to “an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirit.” This observation is rooted both in anecdotal experience and emerging science that demystifies that experience. The “tranquilizer” effect is partly attributed to two hormones released while singing: endorphins and oxytocin. Endorphins, known as the body’s “happy drug,” are chemically related to opium-derived narcotics, and induce feelings of pleasure and well-being. Oxytocin acts as a stress and anxiety reliever, as well as an enhancer of trust and bonding.

These latter results—trust and bonding—help explain why group singing is usually felt as the most exhilarating and transformative of song activities. From an evolutionary standpoint, the positive effects of singing can be viewed as a biochemical reward for coming together in cooperation—a social process essential to our species’ survival. It is plausible that endorphins and oxytocin were originally released to encourage group cohesion. Indeed, while solitary singing can have a similar effect, the difference in degree is telling. Almost without exception, the benefits are greatly amplified when singing with others.

This premise finds support in a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In a paper titled “Unraveling the Mystery of Music: Music as an Evolved Group Process,” neuroscientists Chris Loersch and Nathan L. Arbuckle suggest a tentative (but potentially once-and-for-all) explanation for our emotional response to music—an occurrence that has long baffled scientists and philosophers. Using seven studies, the researchers establish human musicality as a special form of social cognition, demonstrating that musical-emotional responses are tied to other core social phenomena that bind us together into groups. This evolutionary basis is still extant in the psychological pull of music, which remains linked to the basic social drives underlying our interconnected world. Put simply, music evolved as (and continues to be) a tool of social living.

Concepts like these are not unique in the scope of theories on music’s origins. Social conjectures comprise a major area of speculation in the field (the other being sexual selection). What is coming to light is scientific backing for such claims. The benefits have always been felt in choral and other group singing. Now we are beginning to understand why.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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