July 9, 2013
Find The Rhythm: Choir Singers’ Hearts Beat As One
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
As a choir sings, they take care to breathe in unison in order to sound as one large voice. Scattered breathing can distract the listener and disrupt the harmony of the group. This collective breathing binds the choir together in both timing and tempo.
Now researchers in Sweden report choirs do more than perform better when they breathe in unison; their heartbeats also beat in time, accelerating and decelerating in tempo with the music. The study, from the Sahlgrenska Academy at University of Gothenburg, is a part of a larger research project called "Kroppens Partitur," or "The Body's Musical Score." Here, the Swedish researchers are looking for ways music biologically affects the body. The researchers hope to find ways to integrate music and what they learn from this study into medical procedures, specifically rehabilitation and preventative care.
Dr. Bjorn Vickhoff from the Sahlgrenska Academy at Gothenburg University in Sweden led the research and found that the unified breathing is what keeps choral members' heartbeats in rhythm with one another. In his own words: "The pulse goes down when you exhale and when you inhale it goes up.
"So when you are singing, you are singing on the air when you are exhaling so the heart rate would go down. And between the phrases you have to inhale and the pulse will go up," explained Vickhoff in an interview with the BBC.
With this understanding, Dr. Vickhoff and team set out to find a choir willing to have their heart rates measured. He and his team found a choir of fifteen 18 year-olds at Hvitfeltska High School in Gothenburg and asked them to perform a set of three tunes.
First, the choir simply hummed together in monotone with no inflection, no tempo and no movement. Next, the choir sang a Swedish hymn called "Haerlig aer Jorden" ("Lovely is the Earth"), a song with moderate movement and tempo. Finally, the choir chanted a slow mantra.
During each of their performances, the teens' heart rates were monitored to measure when they decreased and increased in speed. After analyzing the data, Dr. Vickhoff and his team found the heartbeats of the individual members of the choir became synchronized as they sang together - a result of the unison breathing exercised by choirs.
"Singing regulates activity in the so-called vagus nerve which is involved in our emotional life and our communication with others and which, for example, affects our vocal timbre. Songs with long phrases achieve the same effect as breathing exercises in yoga. In other words, through song we can exercise a certain control over mental states," said Dr. Vickhoff.
Going further, the researchers also found singing in a choir encourages steady and regulated breathing which, in turn, could lead to a steady heartbeat and a calming effect.
In conclusion, the Swedish researchers found there are several benefits to singing together in a choir or even as an informal group in a public setting. Singing together naturally encourages unison breathing, which in turn regulates our heart beat and leads to favorable health effects. Singing together can also bring people together into social bonds as well, forming groups and expressing goodwill.
"One need only think of football stadiums, work songs, hymn singing at school, festival processions, religious choirs or military parades," said Vickhoff. "We are now considering testing choral singing as a means of strengthening working relationships in schools."