There used to be a slogan going around about music–maybe it came from MENC (now NAfME)–that was “music makes me smile.” Arts organizations, including symphony orchestras, have marketed themselves with various claims and slogans over the years. “Music for Life, ” “Do It To Music” “Life Is Better With Music,” “Priceless Music Absolutely Free,” “Got Music?” and “Share the Warmth” are among them. All of these slogans, and there are more, are about drawing our attention to value in music. The writers of these slogans are claiming that music has value and that value adds something beneficial and worthwhile to our lives if, and this is important, we make the effort to go and get the music; if we go to a concert, go sing in a choir, take music with us wherever we go. This makes for good marketing copy, but is there any support for these claims and any justification for these calls to embrace music in our lives? Yes, there is support and justification, and I would like to discuss a few of them today. I will limit myself to the benefits of singing, but my points could, I am convinced be applicable to other forms of music making as well.
One of the fascinating findings in recent research into benefits of music is that there are physical changes that occur in our bodies when we sing. Of course, we all know that our emotions are aroused, and that music is an excellent means of expressing emotions, both for creators and responders, but the physical changes I’m referring to go well beyond that. The rush we get from singing “comes in part through a surge of endorphins, which at the same time alleviate pain.” When the voices of other singers reach our ears, we are “bathed in dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with feelings of pleasure and alertness. Music lowers cortisol, a chemical that signals levels of stress. Studies have found that people who listened to music before surgery were more relaxed and needed less anesthesia, and afterward they got by with smaller amounts of pain medication. Music also releases serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of euphoria and contentment” (Horn, 2013). As I alluded to above, some of these benefits are realized during musical involvement other than singing, such as listening.
For those who are worried about missing out on the benefits of singing because they don’t sing well, research suggests that singing is what counts, not how well you sing. Researchers in 2005 found that group singing “can produce satisfying and therapeutic sensations even when the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.” The implications for the music classroom cannot be overlooked. When our students are singing in groups, whether in formal musical organizations such as chorus, or more informally in a general music classroom, there is a reinforcing and positive reaction in the body that motivates students to sing more and to participate more in singing. The more engaged in singing these students are, the more apparent to them these physical rewards will be. The “joy of music” goes beyond the aesthetic and expressive pleasure of music, and includes a biological certainty that singing will produce pleasure and reduce stress. This is great motivation for students who are new to musical performance to give it a try, and for music teachers who are keen on introducing these students to an aspect of music they might otherwise miss out on entirely on in part if they never discover the rewards of singing or otherwise making music.
I have often marveled, and I’m sure many of you have too, at the tired, worn out, cranky me that enters an evening or after school rehearsal, only to be transformed into an energetic, positive, invigorated me that leaves an hour or so later. That catching of a second wind isn’t just the residue of disciplined expenditure of what little energy we have left going in, but is the result of those hormones being released and transforming our physical and emotional state. The music really is overcoming exhaustion and depressing moods, and replacing them with an endorphins high that makes it hard to wait for the next rehearsal. Music is a healthy remedy for many of those things in our days that get us down.