Singing for health: The power of music as medicine

Singing for health

In a fascinating discussion at the Cheltenham Science Festival, three experts talked about the growing body of evidence showing that singing is good for our health.

For anyone who loves singing, the news that it’s not just enjoyable but beneficial for us probably won’t come as a surprise.

If you’ve experienced the joy of performing with a choir, or collaborating with musicians, you will know the rush of endorphins that comes with singing with others or for others.

Now a growing number of scientists, doctors and therapists are working to pinpoint exactly how singing is good for us and demonstrate why it should be incorporated it into our healthcare models.

The discussion at the Cheltenham Science Festival included Gloucestershire GP Dr Simon Opher, UCL Senior Research Associate Dr Daisy Fancourt and singing therapist Maggie Grady – three people who are advocates of singing for health.

If you want to hear the whole conversation, you can listen to it HERE. Alternatively, we’ve summarised the key talking points.

Social prescribing

Imagine going to see your doctor and leaving not with a prescription for medication but a recommendation to take up singing, gardening or pottery.

That’s just what Dr Simon Opher, a GP in the village of Dursley, has been doing for years. Dr Opher has been at the forefront of “social prescribing” and has gathered plenty of evidence to show that it’s more than just a touchy-feely gesture.

He stressed social prescribing is not a cure-all but can provide enormous patient benefits.

Of singing, he said: “People see me less if they start singing. They tend to use less of health resources generally.”

Dr Opher said singing was particularly beneficial for people with dementia.

“When you hear a song it does something weird to you, doesn’t it? It does something really strong and visceral – and that feeling is really important. It really awakens patients with dementia and makes them feel more involved.”

It can be a challenge though convincing patients to try something new. “Usually, I say, ‘try it once’ and most people stick with it.”

Getting the medical profession on board is an important step too.

“If doctors are listening, it’s really important you start thinking about these types of remedies because it makes a patient better in lots of generalised ways, as well as in these specific ways of breathing and dementia.”

The numbers tell a story

Dr Daisy Fancourt, Senior Research Associate in Behavioural Science at UCL, has spent many years researching the role the arts play in health around the world.

She said singing has been shown to improve mental health, heart rate, blood pressure, mood and depression.

“In the last few decades research into the links between singing and health has grown. We are really starting to understand a lot more about the psychological, biological and behavioural mechanisms that link these aspects of singing with health.”

When it comes to singing, it’s not just about the music – the social interaction is valuable too. That’s why choirs are so important. But there is a place too for virtual choirs, like the one run by Eric Whitacre, as well, she said.

“You get stronger results being in a live choir, but there still benefits if you sing and connect virtually.”

Music therapy

Maggie Grady is a singer and director of music therapy for Mindsong, a Gloucestershire based charity helps people with dementia. It has a network of volunteers who go into care homes to promote singing and uses musical therapy to help people with dementia and their carers. The charity also runs Breath In Sing Out, a singing group for people with lung conditions.

Grady said shared singing at a personal level can be an uplifting experience, with carers reporting that it lifts their mood immediately and provides a boost that carries through the whole next day.

In terms of Breath In Sing Out, participants have reported an increase in their peak flow measurement (the strength of their exhalation). After attending six or seven sessions their peak flow is consistently improved, she said.

“Creativity is so intrinsic to good mental health,” Grady said. “We need opportunities to tell our story, say who we are, express how we’re feeling and what it is to be human. Music and the arts have been doing this throughout human existence.”

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