Could these notes save your life?

The impulse to sing was once irresistible - at home, in the factory, down the mine. Now we leave it to the professionals - except at moments of desperation

SO EXTRAORDINARY is the story of Laura Isabel Arriola de Guity that one aspect of it might easily be overlooked. Washed out of her Honduran village by the floods caused by Hurricane Mitch, she clung to palm branches for several hours before constructing a 4ft-by-4ft raft from tree roots, branches and a mortar board - her floating home for the next six days. How did she survive? Drifting coconuts, pineapples and oranges gave her physical sustenance, but what about mental comfort or spiritual aid, which she sorely needed, her husband and three children having all died in the flood? Here is the interesting bit: she kept herself going by singing.

Ms de Guity's great escape story wasn't the only one to appear last week. On television and in newspapers, veterans of the Somme spoke of being the luckiest men alive - grand old men of 100 or more who by rights should never have reached 20. For them, too, singing was an important part of surviving. One recalled singing "Nearer My God to Thee" to a dying friend at Passchendaele. Another remembered a tenor voice rising from the German lines during a stormy night: "He was singing 'Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken'. I didn't know then that this was their national anthem, but it made a big impression on me. If a German can sing so beautifully under such miserable conditions, I thought, they can't be all that bad."

Songs could also serve more combative purposes. "I have got a select little party together," wrote Lt Edward Hulse of the Scots Guards. "Led by my stentorian voice [we] are going to take up a position in our trenches where we are closest to the enemy, about 80 yards, and from 10pm onwards we are going to give the enemy every conceivable song in harmony, from carols to Tipperary." Thus was the raucous might of Deutschland uber alles drowned out. But in a week when homage and reconciliation have been the prevailing note, it's more fitting to remember the singing exchanges that took place during the famous Christmas truce of 1914, when alternate verses of the same hymn ("Hail thou once despised Jesus", for example) would be sung from opposing trenches in different languages.

AS Ms de Guity's story and these trench tales serve to remind us, we don't sing aloud like we used to. Once, singing was an integral part of British life. Children did it, at morning assembly or in the playground. Workers did it, down pits or over the grind and hum of their machines. In pubs or clubs, joining in with songs - rather than merely listening or dancing to them - was part of everyone's weekend. And then there was church (which has gone, too, more or less), and there were weddings and parties, and always that damned national anthem: like it or not, you had to sing.

It's not that we've become a less musical culture. There's greater opportunity to hear music than ever before. There are more radio stations, more concerts. Recordings proliferate in handy forms, on cassette tape and CD. Thanks to Walkmans and car radios, we need never move an inch without the accompaniment of song. In public spaces, music is piped with insidious ease, as if silence meant death or failure. But this isn't DIY music. Most of us nowadays are passive consumers, leaving the business of making sounds to bands of enthusiasts or professionals. On those rare occasions we're asked to join in a song, we do so reluctantly and with embarrassment, even if we usually find that (as with dancing, or swimming in the sea) it's enjoyable once we've taken the plunge. There are karaoke bars, it's true, for the more adventurous. There are football grounds (though not Old Trafford) where singing, not all of it obscene, is still common. And for those who prefer to do it at home, the bath and shower are as ever, it seems, the favoured venue. But for the average citizen in the company of others, the preferred mode of singing is in the head. That way, you need never feel shy or get a note wrong. The inner voice is tuneful, perfectly pitched.

Yet the instinct to sing aloud is a deeply rooted one, and reasserts itself at moments of stress. When a Church of Scotland minister was trapped overnight on a mountain near Glencoe five years ago (see below), he kept himself going by singing songs by Tina Turner, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (personally, I'd have thought Cohen a bit of a downer on the spirits, but never mind). Likewise, five climbers stranded on a mountain on the Isle of Skye earlier this year belted out a series of old favourites - "Hole in My Bucket", "Amazing Grace", "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" and (clearly it was this that brought the rescue teams) the Beatles' "Help!".

It's not only extreme cases like these that illustrate the therapeutic effects of singing. I spoke to a lawyer last week who described it as his gym: after a hard day in court, he likes to work out through choir practice at night. The benefits are not only psychological but physiological. At its most basic, singing exercises the lungs and muscles that might otherwise go unflexed. Some experts say it can do more. In 1938 a doctor called Ernest G White propounded his theory of "sinus tone production", arguing that "the failure to cause an air movement in the frontal sinuses is the root cause of more disease than is likely to spring from any source". By applying the same principles to patients as those used with singing pupils, he claimed to have cured both catarrh-sufferers and stammerers. If this sounds cranky, there are also the exotic cases cited by Dr Oliver Sacks, who has used music on patients with neurological disorders and achieved some remarkable results.

BUT AS societies become literate rather than oral, the traditional uses of collective song, to transmit memory and foster solidarity, tend to die out. In former times, singing used to go with the job. It's said that Henry VIII once visited a spinning-room where "200 girls sat singing like nightingales as they worked". And from the age of the Industrial Revolution, as the great historian and anthologist of folk song, AL Lloyd, records, come countless stories of singing in the factories, with the women in particular lifting their voices above the clatter of the looms". Lloyd was able to gather hundreds of songs made not for the people but by them, out of their own mouths and expressing their own experiences and aspirations. In today's service industries, e-mail is the nearest equivalent, voicing what employees feel about themselves, each other and their bosses. But the voice is a silent one.

When Richard Hoggart published The Uses of Literacy in 1957, he lamented the "glutinous" American influences newly heard in working-class pubs and clubs. All the same, he listed a huge repertoire of songs - from sentimental ballads ("If You Were the Only Girl in the World", "Roses of Picardy", "Danny Boy", etc) to what he called "ain't-life-jolly songs" ("Who Were You with Last Night?", "Where Did You Get That Hat?", "Hello, Hello, Who's Your Lady Friend?"). And so potent still was the tradition of choral societies that he estimated "you would find 50 people who could take up the 'Hallelujah Chorus' with you from any moderate-sized working-class crowd in Hunslet".

You wouldn't today. But you might find 500 who know the words of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive". No harm in that: whether the tunes people know are highbrow or popular isn't the point. The question is: will they sing them aloud? Emboldened by alcohol, or on Ecstasy, or stranded in the mountains, probably. But sober, at work, to friends and family, probably not. Which is a pity. A nation that doesn't sing aloud has severed an artery of self- expression. And forgotten one of the secrets of staying alive.

The stricken vicar who sang to stay alive

The Rev Robert Anderson, 41, is director of St Colms International House in Edinburgh. In January 1994, while skiing, he was trapped for a night on Glencoe.

I got lost at about 1pm. There was a complete white-out, and by 6pm I had no option but to try and dig a snow hole and stay the night. I dug a hole with the heel of my ski and settled down and tried to keep myself awake. That's when I began to sing. To begin with I'd tried shouting, but not getting any reply was quite depressing, whereas you could pour all your feelings into singing - all your hopes of staying alive, all your memories of people and places that mattered to you. I sang songs from the tapes I had in the car - Tina Turner and some Leonard Cohen songs, which, in spite of what some people might think, I find very life-affirming. I didn't particularly sing hymns. I sang some African songs I knew that had simple repetitive choruses and were quite meditative and you could keep singing for long periods. As well as keeping me awake, singing was very important emotionally and spiritually. It kept me connected to the world of people that I was cut off from, and it fed the will to survive. It kept despair at bay. Stopping singing led to thinking about the situation I was in, which was pretty hopeless. There was also the physical aspect of it: it was rhythmical breathing, rather than the breathing of panicking. I was eventually rescued at 9.30 the next morning. I think another half an hour and I would have died.

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