By Wendy Hargreaves and Melissa Forbes University of Southern Queensland
On a December night 50 years ago, Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crashed in Florida’s Everglades. Miraculously, 77 people survived the initial impact, but then endured a traumatic wait for rescue in an alligator-infested swamp surrounded by debris and jet fuel.
To lift their spirits, they sang Christmas carols.
What made these survivors sing in such dire circumstances? What is it about group singing that has the remarkable ability to bring people together, express deep emotions, and feel connected to each other?
United into a song
It is no coincidence that the shared moments of life are often accompanied by singing together. As a recreational activity, group singing involves many beneficial biological, psychological, behavioral, and social processes.
For example, when we sing, we consciously control our breathing, unlike when we speak or are at rest. Controlling our breathing while singing affects heart rate variability, and research shows that group singing can synchronize singers’ heart rate and breathing patterns. To borrow a line from a famous song, when we sing in a group, it’s like “our hearts beat as one”.
This physiological synchronization may partially explain the positive subjective effects of group singing, such as bonding and social bonding. Singing together increases the feel-good hormone oxytocin and improves mood, helping us bond with our fellow singers while we “perform” a healthy relationship.
Group singing also has psychological benefits for people living with a number of health conditions. Such benefits include resilience, enhanced mood, creating a sense of belonging and purpose, improving quality of life, and promoting flourishing and well-being. Research shows that group singing can improve personal and social well-being for people with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers, mothers with postpartum depression, and people living with cancer, to name just a few examples.
Although many of us think of singing as performance, these studies show that singing is an enjoyable activity that is available to anyone willing to try it. With this in mind, singing is no longer about “sounding good” but becomes a widely available and easily accessible tool for creating well-being and belonging.
The origins of step music
The Christmas tradition of singing together to cheer yourself up has been around for centuries. English historian Professor Ronald Hutton traced the origins of chanting to the followers of St. Francis of Assisi in the 15th century. Motivated by the need to lift spirits during the long, bleak winter months, these monks sang the first Christmas carols while holding hands and dancing in a circle.
The spread of hymns expanded during the Reformation of the 16th century, replacing the Latin text in church music with the language of everyday people. This helped introduce singing into church services, allowing everyone to join in congregational singing.
In the 20th century, community singing took on another form, leading to one of Australia’s favorite Christmas traditions. On Christmas Eve in 1937, Melbourne radio host Norman Banks saw an old woman from his window on his way home. He was sitting alone in the candlelight singing Away in a Manager on the radio.
It inspired her to create the first Carols by Candlelight to help lonely people share the joy of Christmas time. In 1938, 10,000 people gathered for the inaugural celebration. Since then, community caroling events have expanded across Australia and attracted some of our most famous Australian vocalists, including recently lost legends Olivia Newton-John and Judith Durham.
As we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, community connection and comfort are needed more than ever. Group singing suffered during the epidemic.
Lockdowns have prevented groups from meeting around the world, with many turning to virtual sessions instead of face-to-face gatherings. Recent research suggests that while singing with others via Zoom is better than not singing at all, the psychological benefits may not be quite the same as singing in person.
On the plus side, the uncertainty surrounding in-person group singing has spawned some wonderful online events like Couch Choir and The Sofa Singers. Others saw the humorous side, satirically calling for consonants like “p” and “b” to be banned because they increased the risk of proliferation. Covid?.
What is really under the Christmas tree?
While new variants of COVID continue to proliferate, you don’t need to be singing in the park with thousands of others at Christmas to reap the many benefits of group singing.
This Christmas, or whatever you celebrate, why not take the opportunity with friends and family to belt out favorite carols to experience the positive impact of belonging and sharing with others.
When you sing carols together, what you’re really getting at Christmas isn’t just stockings or the latest techno gadget, but the true gift of joyous human connection.
Wendy Hargreaves is a senior teaching advisor and Melissa Forbes is an associate professor of contemporary singing, both at the university. University of Southern Queensland.
This article is reprinted from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.