Singing in a group can help lift people’s mood and enhance their recovery from depression and other mental health illnesses, according to a study by British researchers.
The benefits appear to result not just from the making of music, but also from the socializing that occurs when people get together regularly to sing.
“The combination of singing with an inclusive social aspect was regarded as essential in effecting recovery,” the study’s authors conclude.
As background information in the study points out, previous research has shown an association between singing with others and an improvement in social and mental well-being. Community singing programs have been found, for example, to enhance the quality of life and the social and emotional well-being of adults living with chronic conditions.
Evidence also suggests that group singing helps some people, including military veterans, cope with stressful life events by promoting social engagement and connection.
The British study’s findings are based on a community-based program called Sing Your Heart Out, which was launched in 2005 in Norfolk, England. It began in a psychiatric hospital, but was then moved into the community. At the time of the study — 2015 — about 120 people were participating in four different 90-minute singing workshops each week. The workshops are free, and anybody can join. During the study, about two thirds of the participants were being treated for a mental health problem.
The researchers, led by Tom Shakespeare, a professor of disability studies at the University of East Anglia, were asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the Sing Your Heart Out program in 1) promoting well-being for everybody and 2) helping with the recovery of people receiving services for a mental health problem. To do this, they followed the program’s participants for six months, conducting interviews and focus groups with them, as well as with the program’s organizers (who themselves had a history of mental health problems) and workshop leaders.
The study found that the program had a profound effect on its participants:
The combination of singing and social engagement produced a feeling of belonging and wellbeing that often lasted for more than a day and, as a weekly engagement, gave ongoing structure, support and contact that keep [the participants] at a higher level of functionality and their moods better than they would be without. More specifically, participants explained that singing was, for instance, a form of communication that was safe, that it enabled them to express emotions in a supported environment and communicate in a socially unthreatening way. For many who had a history of social anxiety, this was highly valued and the majority of interviewees reported a significant improvement in social skills and confidence.
As Shakespeare notes in a released statement (with British spellings), “All of the participants we spoke to reported positive effects on their mental health as a direct result of taking part in the singing workshops. For some it represented one component of a wider programme of support. For others it stood out as key to their recovery or maintenance of health.”
“We heard the participants calling the initiative a ‘life saver’ and that it ‘saved their sanity,’ ” he added. “Others said they simply wouldn’t be here without it, they wouldn’t have managed — so we quickly began to see the massive impact it was having.”
Some participants claimed that singing had also led to physical benefits: It reduced their need for asthma medication, for example, and helped them relearn speech after surgery for a brain tumor.
“But the key thing for everyone was that the Sing Your Heart Out model induced fun and happiness,” said Shakespeare.
Limitations and implications
This study comes with many caveats. Most notably, it evaluated a single program involving a relatively small group of people. Furthermore, all the people interviewed for the study were those who stayed in the program. The researchers did not talk with people who dropped out after attending the singing sessions once or twice.
Still, the findings support other research that has shown that participation in community arts programs — including group singing — can help some people with depression and other psychological disorders.
It’s important to point out, however, that the Sing Your Heart Out groups are not traditional choirs.
“Specifically, the workshops did not rehearse towards performances, so there was no expectation or pressure to perform to any particular standard on any given day,” Shakespeare explains in the study. “Singing was central to the workshops, but the quality of sound produced by the group was considered only in terms of the best the group could achieve on that day, rather than according to standards of musical excellence.”
The program also has some other important characteristics that participants said were essential to its effectiveness. The participants were not required, for example, to attend the weekly sessions — or even to stay to the end of a session if they weren’t feeling up to it emotionally. In addition, no one in the program was “labeled.” In other words, student doctors and nurses who attended and sang along with the groups as part of their training were not identified as such. So no one knew who were the professionals and who were the patients.
The Sing Your Heart Out sessions also have a quintessentially British feature that participants cited as essential for the program’s success: a tea break.
“The tea break halfway through the workshop was an important part of the structure,” writes Shakespeare. “It allowed people to engage socially with low intensity on ordinary matters.”
“There was initially some resistance from the organisers to a refreshment break, due largely to logistics, but the original coach insisted and it was swiftly recognized as an essential aspect of the workshop,” he adds.