Can music really benefit your mind and is there any proof that regular singing will make a difference to your mental health?
Experts agree – singing is good for your mental health, as well as your physical wellbeing. It helps anxiety and depression, relieves stress, makes you happier and even smarter. Taking up singing or joining a choir is a great way to improve your mental health.
Read on to find out how it works, what the benefits are and discover more about the science behind the claims that singing will improve your mental health.
Why singing is good for your mental health
Singing actually changes your brain. And while it’s always been recognised that it’s good for you, the advent of MRI scanners and imaging have enabled scientists to prove the results. Musical frequencies travel through your body – and the more people who are singing with you, as well as the more instruments playing with you, the larger the impact. This is why people are often advised to take up singing in a choir, as a way to improve mental health,
Mental health benefits of singing daily
Whatever your age and stage in life, you can enjoy the benefits of singing and music – and you don’t have to be good an amazing singer for it to aid your mental health (although if you do it a lot, chances are you will get very good). The key is in breathing well while you do it and enjoying yourself. More and more research is being carried out on this topic and it all points to the many benefits of singing. Best of all, singing daily won’t cost you a penny.
The benefits of singing – research
But don’t just take our word for it or even the word of thousands of singers who all extoll the benefits of singing on mental health. There are lots of clinical studies carried out by scientists to prove and explain exactly how it all works.
#1 Singing helps anxiety
Singing is proven to help with anxiety in several ways. One of the first things people experiencing anxiety are advised to do is to breathe slowly and deeply. It is the process of exhalation that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (this is the part of the body that enables you to rest and digest, as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system that enables you to react.) Often those with anxiety will have an overactive sympathetic nervous system, so long exhales – or the sustained and lengthy release of breath while singing, helps to rectify this naturally.
“Singing is a form of regular, controlled breathing since breathing out occurs on the song phrases and inhaling takes place between these. It gives you pretty much the same effect as yoga breathing. It helps you relax, and there are indications that it does provide a heart benefit.” Dr Björn Vickhoff, a musicologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden
Can singing help anxiety?
Have you ever heard the phrase: ‘worrying is a misuse for imagination’? If it is, then music is a fantastic way to occupy the imagination, so it has less space for worry. If you’re extremely anxious, it can be tough to concentrate on anything at all, however much you may want to. Don’t worry if you struggle to sing as a result. Take it in short bursts and be kind to yourself – never beat yourself up for feeling anxious or down.
Performing live can be one of the few experiences that override the kind of concentration struggles associated with generalised anxiety. It may sound counter-intuitive, but having to do something that scares you a little bit, can in many cases (although not all) be good for anxiety. The need to focus that comes from being faced with a live audience, can be amazingly distracting and weirdly calming. If it’s the prospect of performing that is causing the anxiety, then this needs to be approached differently to more generalised anxiety.
Singing and brain activity – oxytocin and the vagus nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body and is connected to the vocal cords and the back of the throat. It’s also connected to other organs and plays an important part in the parasympathetic nervous system, affecting your heart rate among other things. Singing stimulates the vagus nerve causing the heart rate to slow (your heart rate increases when anxious, so this is an antidote). A 2010 study showed that the more you increase your vagal tone the more your mental health improves and you can recover from situations of heightened anxiety.
Studies have found there’s a release of oxytocin into the body when singing. This too has a calming effect on the body and promotes psychological wellbeing, as well as a sense of connectedness with others.
#2 Singing is good for depression
Singing releases endorphins, feel-good hormones that help combat depression and it is often recommended by mental health professionals and doctors. A tiny organ in the ear called the sacculus responds to the frequencies created by singing. This, in turn, creates an immediate sense of pleasure, regardless of whether the sound is deemed good or bad by the listener.
If you are experiencing clinical depression, it is important to speak to a doctor, especially if it’s affecting your ability to function normally and having an impact on your day to day life. Don’t struggle alone and without help and don’t feel bad if singing alone doesn’t cure your depression.
How is singing good for depression?
Did you know that learning helps ward off depression? So when you’re picking up a new song, getting to grips with a tune or harmony, you’re working against low mood and depression. This is especially the case for older people and is the reason music is such a vital part of activities in care homes and nursing homes.
Singing and health research
Apparently, birds singing to one another to make them happier – even the world of nature recognises the importance of the song. And singing has even been found to improve the mental health of cancer patients.
#3 Singing reduces stress
One of the best ways to combat stress is to take up mindfulness. There are many activities that can be classified as mindful past times and singing is on one of them. Mindfulness works because it helps you focus on one thing, rather than mentally multi-tasking.
Screens and modern life mean that we often have lots of metaphorical browsers open in or minds at any one time. This takes it’s toll and can lead to higher levels of stress. By focussing in on one thing, we are able to restore a sense of calm.
How does singing reduce stress?
Singing requires concentration. You must be totally in the moment to practice proper technique, follow the music and remember your words. It helps you forget all about the other stresses and problems you may have going on in life. It’s a form of escapism, but it’s also constructive, as you’re achieving in the process.
How else does singing help with stress?
When we are very stressed, our bodies release a chemical called cortisol, the flight or fight hormone. This is what causes our hearts to quicken and adrenaline to rush.
Too much of this is unhealthy, however, and leads to us feeling stressed, anxious and depressed. It can even weaken the immune system, making us more prone to illness. The act of singing lowers the levels of cortisol in the system creating a healthier balance.
#4 Singing makes you happier
Have you found that you feel happier and more positive after time spent singing? Well, it’s not just your imagination, there are scientific reasons you feel this way.
To sing means you have to release tension in your body, which instantly makes you more relaxed and at ease. Plus singing, like exercise, releases a feel-good chemical called endorphins.
Does singing make you happy?
The act of breathing for singing releases oxygen into the blood, improving your circulation and lifting your mood. Some people may be more prone to feel unhappy when struggling with a physical issue. A study among sufferers of chronic pain showed that they coped better, had a happier outlook and experienced less physical issues after participating in nine 30 minute sessions of singing (the rest of the group listened to music while exercising).
So it’s not just the exposure to music and release of endorphins that does the trick – singing itself makes you happier.
Singing is good for the soul
A study carried out at the University of Newcastle in Australia, found that choral singers had a higher than average level of satisfaction life, even when their problems were more substantial than those faced by the non-singing general public.
So singing produces an emotional resilience to life’s challenges – and contentment doesn’t lie in having the best life and easiest circumstances, but in the knack of finding happiness whatever your lot.
#5 Singing improves cognitive function
When you practice correct diaphragmatic breathing, you take in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. This increases brain circulation, improving its function. So in the longer term, singing can even help guard against dementia and Alzheimers. Act now to help your future brain work better.
What does singing do for the brain?
You may be wondering how cognitive function impacts your mental health. Everything is connected and that includes your brain, mind and body. Sing regularly and your memory and focus will improve. But how and why does this happen?
The neuroscience of singing – what happens in the brain when you sing?
When we sing, our neurotransmitters connect in new ways, firing up the right temporal lobe of the brain. The effects of this make us smarter, healthier, happier and more creative. Neuroscientist Nina Kraus tells us more about this here…
#6 Singing brings people together
According to a survey run by The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2018, more than 23% of adults the United Kingdom say they always or often feel lonely and isolated, lack companionship, or feel left out. To create a choir, band, group or to take part in jam, you need to be with others. The music world is super social.
When you sing in a group, you have to synchronise your harmonies and rhythms. But not only that, according to a study by Frontiers in Psychology in 2009, by breathing together, your heartbeats synchronise too.
How does singing build community?
Even if you’re a solo artist, you’ll be collaborating with other musicians and meeting singers at gigs and shows. The music community is just that, a community, and as a singer, you get to be a part of it. If you’re struggling with mental health, this is a great form of therapy. Here are some places you can meet others while singing:
- By joining a choir – this is especially good if you’ve just moved to a new area
- Taking part in jams
- Attending open mic nights
- Signing up for competitions and contests
- Taking part in workshops and group classes
- Going to networking events
- Learning at a music school or academy
The importance of community singing
Add to all the other benefits of singing, the fact that it helps you form a community with others. Join a band or choir to banish loneliness along with all the psychological perks of singing – this is a real all-round winner for your psychological wellbeing. Most choirs are free or very inexpensive to join. Find one that caters for your level – some are audition only for accomplished singers, while others are open-to-all and just for fun.
This study shows the results of group singing and its effect on cortisol levels in the body…
#7 Singing boosts self-esteem
When you feel good about yourself it can give your mental health a boost. Social media is known to have a negative impact on self-esteem when overused, or when we compare ourselves to others through an Instagram lens.
By getting off tech and getting singing, you can re-centre yourself and feel good about achieving and improving on this skill. And you learn to communicate through singing, a skill that enhances self-esteem and social mobility, with the knock-on effect of improving mental health.
Does performing make you more confident?
Yes! Even if you don’t feel confident just before going on stage – and many performers do not – you can’t help but increase in confidence when singing regularly and performing in front of audiences. In fact, the feeling of overcoming pre-show nerves or performance anxiety will boost your confidence two-fold.
Singing and wellbeing
What’s not to love about singing? There really are no negatives, as long as you’re using the correct technique and breathing properly from the diaphragm to avoid any vocal strain. It can only be good for your body, mind and soul to belt out a few tunes! It also means that even if you don’t hit the big time as an artist, none of your efforts is wasted, as the benefits of mental wellbeing are huge. So whether it’s in the shower, the car or at a gig, get singing today and boost those endorphins to feel happier and more relaxed.
However, sometimes lifestyle changes and self-help just are not enough. And it’s very important to know that reaching out, speaking to someone and asking for help is not only ok but a brave and valuable step. If you’re struggling, don’t hesitate to contact one of these organisations, or book an appointment with your GP.
Samaritans has a 24 hours a day, 365 days a year helpline. Call 116 123 free from any phone, especially if you’re experiencing suicidal feelings.
Mind has a helpline, crisis and listening service and lots of great advice for when and where to get help.
NHS has extensive information for specific needs, people groups and conditions.
- Does singing increase dopamine?
Yes! This is a naturally occurring feel-good chemical and transmits neurons in the brain. Along with other hormones and chemicals in your body, it helps you feel a sense of happiness and contentment.
- Can singing improve your health?
Improving your mental health will, in turn, improve your health. This is because when you are less stressed and happier, your immune system functions better. Additionally singing tones muscles, increases stamina and helps with better breathing.
- Does singing make you smarter?
It sure does. It helps more oxygen stimulate those brain cells, helping them to grow while learning music helps mathematical skills and learning lyrics increases memory function – when you remember more, you’re smarter.
Do you think that singing is good for your mental health? How has music helped you? Let us know about your experiences in the comments below.