Anne Karpf: Musical or not, you can't beat belting out a good tune

What really brings us together - and offers real health benefits - is a sing-song

Share
Related Topics

I shouldn't have done it – dragged a reluctant 13-year-old to a carol service in a draughty church hall on a cold, wet Monday evening, just because her father was singing in the choir.

At first, she sat grumpily reading her novel and resolutely ignoring the massed ranks singing alongside her. But something seemed to stir when "Silent Night" started up – teenage lips were moving slowly, if my peripheral vision was to be believed. By the time we reached "O Come All Ye Faithful", there was no denying it: she was standing with me and singing lustily. Relief, she claimed later, that the ordeal was at an end, but I have my doubts. No, communal singing had got to her, as it gets to us all.

Even the most diehard non-singers find themselves mouthing the odd hymn or ditty at this time of year; Scrooge himself probably couldn't have resisted a round or two of "Santa Is Coming to Town". But singing isn't just for Christmas, and something extraordinary seems to have occurred in Britain over the past couple of decades: an all-year-round explosion of communal singing.

Last week, in Sing for Your Heart week, a profusion of sponsored sing-songs, karaoke, gigs and concerts raised money for heart research. Just under 4,000 people sang, unrehearsed, in Messiah from Scratch at the Royal Albert Hall last month – the 35th annual event organised by The Really Big Chorus. Meanwhile, the joint BBC/English National Opera's Sing Hallelujah project is encouraging people to discover the joys of singing through tackling Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus", while Sing Up, the government-funded programme to get all primary school children singing, is well under way. There are now an astonishing 2,546 choirs with websites. Forget "Bohemian Rhapsody" in the shower: today, it seems, we're all singing in public and in unison.

Those who sing in choirs agree on what they find most compelling: that it connects them to a wider group of people and a shared goal. Patrick Maynard, 48, has belonged to a choir for 10 years. "There's nothing quite like being in the middle of a sound that you're contributing to – there's a kind of physical, emotional and cognitive skill that all comes together in a performance. Often, I feel quite low after a day at work, but I always feel revived after choir. For some members, it almost functions like a singles club." One woman who'd been in an abusive marriage believes her life completely changed when she joined a choir. "People say I look like a different person and I've grown in confidence," she says.

Until I met my husband, I was frankly sceptical about all this amateur music-making. My mother was a virtuoso concert pianist, so for me music was associated with professionalism and excellence. Why do it if you couldn't excel? In my case, clearly I couldn't: my mother used to quip that I had a voice like a ballet dancer – a translation from the Polish and not, I think, a compliment.

I had my first stirrings of the pleasures of singing with others back in the 1980s at Greenham Common: collective singing made us feel as powerful as any cruise missile, something that the civil rights marchers of the 1960s had already learned. And then I discovered Frankie Armstrong.

Armstrong had been singing in public since the days of skiffle, but in 1975 she had an epiphany: in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, at a folk festival, 70 people – most of whom declared "I've always been told I've got a terrible voice" – were, by the end of the workshop, singing in three-part harmony. Armstrong came back to Britain and started running workshops of her own – workshops where no one worried if they were singing "incorrectly".

She argues that Western Europeans, in contrast to people in more traditional societies, have been "systematically robbed of their voices" and birthright – the ballads, harvest and mining songs that were passed from generation to generation, and that spread beyond the confines of one social class. Through workshops such as Armstrong's, ordinary people recover this lost something and say that they feel more connected. What's more, according to Armstrong, once they stop worrying about it, they all seem to end up singing in tune.

Today, in addition to the more traditional choirs, you can take your pick from a multitude of "community choirs". Most are "open access", ie, you don't need to audition. They also teach by ear, so that you don't have to know how to read music. Many make a point of being reassuring, emphasising that everyone is welcome "regardless of experience". Some, such as the University of Limerick's group, give the game away in their name – Lunchtime Singing for the Terrified. The repertoire of community choirs is broad – anything from gospel and folk to world music and chanting. And most pride themselves on their democratic organisation, stressing that they are "not led" – no patronising choirmaster to point out that your F sharp is actually flat.

Why has communal singing become so popular? Recent research has confirmed what most non-professional singers had already clocked intuitively – that singing improves your health. According to Graham Welch, chair of music education at London's Institute of Education, singing is an aerobic activity that increases the amount of oxygen in the blood, and exercises the major muscle groups of the upper body. Singing can also help reduce the symptoms of colds and flu by improving airflow in the upper respiratory tract. Breathing deeply also releases tension. And a study at the University of California found higher levels of immune-system proteins in the saliva of choristers after singing a complex piece of Beethoven.

According to research by Dr Neil Todd at the University of Manchester, the sacculus, part of the vestibular system in the inner ear, is stimulated by large groups of people singing or chanting together. Since the vestibular system is also connected to the part of the brain responsible for registering pleasurable responses to food and sex, perhaps Shakespeare was on to something when he juxtaposed music, food and love, after all.

Does this mean karaoke and football chants are just as life-enhancing as a Mozart Requiem? Karaoke has had a bad press. But recent studies have found that karaoke singing brings some of the same benefits as singing in a choir and shouldn't just be a guilty pleasure. Regular karaoke performers form bonds, just like choir members, and gain confidence from singing out: they literally gain a voice. And I can personally testify that singing on the football terraces gives you a sense of belonging like no other.

In the end, it's this combination of relaxation and concentration in communal singing, along with being part of a collectivity, that is most important. We bang on about "finding oneself", but isn't "losing oneself" as important? In her recent book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (Granta), Barbara Ehrenreich claims that we've privileged individualism over collective endeavour, and as a result have become preoccupied with fighting depression instead of finding joy. Where, she asks, is what the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called our "collective effervescence", the ritually induced ecstasy that cements social bonds, and enables us to lose ourselves in communal festivities?

The answer surely lies in communal singing. One study found that a community choir provided homeless men with stability, comfort, social skills and a sense of hope. A women's choir in a maximum-security prison in Israel helped develop inmates' listening skills, cohesion, ability to manage their anger and self-control, and gave many their first experience of working towards a long-term goal.

The London Sing for Joy choir, started by Nina Temple when she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, now brings together people with chronic and degenerative illnesses. Not only do they discover physical invigoration in singing together, but they also find a freedom from the isolation of their illnesses.

Whether we know it or not, we are rhythmic creatures: even in the womb we attune to our mother's voice. Singing in unison – even if it's just joining in with Damon Albarn at Glastonbury, or singing along to Karaoke to the Sound of Music – powerfully bridges mind and body, self and other. It allows us to transcend our daily worries and reminds us that we're alive. Perhaps the moment has come for me to form a choir of people who sing like ballet dancers.

Anne Karpf is the author of The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent, published by Bloomsbury

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Pay between ?110 - ?130 Day: Randstad Education Cardiff:...

SAP Deployment Manager

£480 per day + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Deployment Manager-Ta...

Microsoft Dynamics CRM Consultant

£50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Urgently seeking a Dynam...

Test Lead - Financial Reporting - Banking - London

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Test Lead, London, Banking, Financial Reporting, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Are we politely looking the other way when it comes to Kate, the ever-shrinking Duchess?

Grace Dent
 

The daily catch-up: art of the unapology, a bet on UKIP and printer ink molecules

John Rentoul
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game