The Neuroscience of Singing

By Cassandra Sheppard on Sunday December 11th, 2016

Singing together Brings Heartbeats into Harmony

The neuroscience of singing shows that when we sing our neurotransmitters connect in new and different ways. It fires up the right temporal lobe of our brain, releasing endorphins that make us smarter, healthier, happier and more creative. When we sing with other people this effect is amplified.

The science is in. Singing is really, really good for you and the most recent research suggests that group singing is the most exhilarating and transformative of all.

The good feelings we get from singing in a group are a kind of evolutionary reward for coming together cooperatively.

The research suggests that creating music together evolved as a tool of social living. Groups and tribes sang and danced together to build loyalty, transmit vital information and ward off enemies.

Alt text hereSinging in a group has been a part of tribal traditions for thousands of years.

Science Supports Singing

What has not been understood until recently is that singing in groups triggers the communal release of serotonin and oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and even synchronises our heart beats.

Group singing literally incentivised community over an “each cave dweller for themselves” approach. Those who sang together were strongly bonded and survived.

In her book Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, Stacy Horn calls singing:

An infusion of the perfect tranquiliser – the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirit.

Alt text hereGroup singing not only brings happiness but deeply connects people.

Singing Makes You Happy

For a decade, science has been hard at work trying to explain why singing has such a calming yet energising effect on people. Numerous studies demonstrate that singing releases endorphins and oxytocin – which in turn relieve anxiety and stress and which are linked to feelings of trust and bonding.

Singing helps people with depression and reduces feelings of loneliness, leaving people feeling relaxed, happy and connected. What’s more, the benefits of singing regularly are cumulative. People who sing have reduced levels of cortisol, indicating lower stress.

UK singer, singing teacher and choir leader Sophia Efthimiou describes singing as a process of consciously controlling our breath and larynx to create and sustain certain pitches and we blend that with rhythm and poetry to create songs.

In a group setting, each group member feels the musical vibrations moving through their body simultaneously. Our heartbeats become synchronised. Sophia explains:

We literally form one unified heart beat.

Alt text hereSinging together synchronises heartbeats so that they beat as one.

Anybody Can Sing

One of the great things about singing is that you can receive the wellbeing benefits even if you aren’t any good. One study showed that:

Group singing can produce satisfying and therapeutic sensations even when the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.

Tania de Jong, singer and founder of Creativity Australia, has effectively harnessed this ability of group singing to lift every member of the group up, no matter their singing ability.

The organisation’s project With One Voice puts a diversity of people together regularly to sing. The group euphoria is harnessed allowing people’s natural creativity, triggered by the group singing session, to generate new levels of community support, connection, and opportunities. Tania says:

One of the great things about singing is that is connects you to the right side of your brain. This is the side responsible for intuition, imagination and all our creative functions. It connects us to a world of possibilities. In modern life we are constantly bombarded with so much information that we process and analyse. We tend to get stuck in the left, processing side of our brain. So it becomes fundamentally important to nurture the attributes of human beings that set us apart from machines. The best way to do that is singing.

Alt text hereIf you have a voice then nothing can stop you from singing your heart out.

Sing Anywhere, Anytime

These benefits are free and accessible to all. We all have a voice. We can all sing, even if we don’t think we can.

There was a time when we all used to sing. We sang at church, around campfires, at school. While group singing is experiencing a resurgence, not so many of us sing anymore. At some stage, someone told us to be quiet or judged our imperfect singing voice. Sophia Efthimiou suggests that singing is very personal, an expression of sound coming from within us, so we cannot help but take this criticism very personally and it sticks.

Yet, people who claim they cannot sing because they are tone deaf are more likely to be very unfamiliar with finding and using their singing voice.

Tone deafness is comparatively rare and means that you would be unable to recognise a song. If you can recognise a song you are not tone deaf, you are just unpractised. Sophia clarifies:

When our voice makes the wrong note we can feel terrible as though it is a reflection of our self worth. But – if you can talk, you can sing.

Alt text hereEverybody can sing so let the songs flow out wherever you are.

Raise Your Voice

US opera singer Katie Kat wishes to encourage all of us to sing far more often regardless of our perceived skill.

Singing increases self-awareness, self-confidence and our ability to communicate with others. It decreases stress, comforts us and helps us to forge our identity and influence our world.

When you sing, musical vibration moves through you, altering your physical and emotional state. Singing is as old as the hills. It is innate, ancient and within all of us. It really is one of the most uplifting therapeutic things we can do. Katie continues:

However, society has skewed views on the value of singing. Singing has become something reserved for elite talent or highly produced stars with producers, management, concert dates – leaving the rest of us with destructive criticism of our own voices.

She claims that singing is instinctual and necessary for our existence. You do not have to be an amazing singer to benefit from the basic biological benefits and with practice the benefits increase.

Alt text hereSinging in a group brings joy to people of every age.

Singing Creates Connection

I have fond memories of hearing my grandmother singing throughout the day and of large group singing sessions with her friends.

One of my favourite memories of group singing is the old Scots tradition on New Year’s Eve of singing Auld Lang Syne. My grandmother and all her friends would stand in a big circle just before midnight.

Everyone would hold hands, and then at the beginning of the final verse we would cross our arms across our bodies so that our left hand was holding the hand of the person on our right, and the right hand holds that of the person on the left. When the song ended, everyone would rush to the middle, still holding hands. It was beautiful fun and as a young girl, I felt so safe, included and loved within that singing circle.

The phrase “auld lang syne” roughly translates as “for old times’ sake”, and the song is all about preserving old friendships and looking back over the events of the year.

A tradition worth resurrecting, considering the benefits of singing in a group.

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

Words By Cassandra Sheppard

Passionate community development worker who has lived and worked in Asia and Africa and created a thriving grass roots community centre in Democratic Republic of Congo.



hearing the music of the plants

Hearing the Music of the Plants

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82 Responses to The Neuroscience of Singing

  1. Thank you, I enjoyed your article Cassandra.
    I am interested in quoting some of your words in a book I am writing and would like very much to ask your permission. Would you mind contacting me via a private email? I sure would appreciate that. Thank you so much.
    Penny Jauregui

    • Unfortunately this article is from our archives Penny, and we no longer have contact info for Cassandra. Perhaps try googling:

      Cassandra Sheppard
      Passionate community development worker who has lived and worked in Asia and Africa and created a thriving grass roots community centre in Democratic Republic of Congo.

      Maybe you’ll be able to track her down that way? Best of luck 🙂

      Team UPLIFT

    • If you are deaf you can sing as well. You just can’t hear the sound you are singing. But everyone can sing and it always sounds beautiful!!

    • Thanks you Monica! We are so humbled that our article has resonated wiht you and you feel called to share. Much love, Team UPLIFT.

  2. In the tiny towns of Underhill and Jericho Vermont, we have been coming together to sing for years. First with the a gospel group with many people who had to learn to clap off beat 😉 Now we have a community of singers who sing one night a week in a “drop in” chorus. You come when you want. We NEVER ask you why you were not there and the ONLY requirement is that you can “assemble your instrument” – pretty easy for a singer. We have people of ALL types some who have sung their entire lives, some who only sing in the shower, and people who just love to vocalize with a group. (We DO ask that the shower singers remain clothed) — it IS cold in Vermont.

    • This is so wonderful and uplifting to read Douglas, thank you so much for sharing! 😀

      Blessings to you and your (fully clothed) choir and keep it up!
      Team UPLIFT

  3. I love to sing, particularly with other people, always have. In the Master and his Emissary, Ian McGilchrist observes that western culture has been shifting from a right brain dominant (holistic) to a left brain dominant (mechanistic) orientation. In the science half of the book he touches on the role singing may have played prior to the localization of vocabulary based speech in the left hemisphere of the brain. Some evidence points to pre homo sapiens, homo habilis, having used singing as communication. This matches how deeply ingrained singing feels to me so I wrote a poem about it.

    The Machine can’t Hear Our Song

    The machine gone deaf
    Now thinks a world apart
    Making power
    For its own sake
    Can’t hear our beating heart

    The science now is in
    You should surely know
    Our singing first
    Your words came late
    Then they both did grow

    A problem you can handle
    To you it so must seem
    Without our song
    The world you make
    Is nothing but a dream

    Come back to life
    And hear our song
    Music always in your ear
    Without communication
    A troubled path is clear

    Will you hear an old song?
    Is a new one what you need?
    To break the spell
    Of isolation
    Loneliness and greed

    We’ve lost some skill in singing
    Our songs may not be right
    Your strength has grown
    Into a thing
    Of awesome fright

    Our song can’t be a solo
    Together it must bring
    The song of modern humans
    With the songs
    Of living things

    We live and die together
    Two worlds we bring to view
    The lead must now be taken
    By our singers
    Singing true

    It used to be this way
    The long passage of our time
    Is held much more closely
    In rhythm
    Song and rhyme

    Melody and harmony
    Sung close and clear, on pitch
    Can dance the mind
    Machine to heal
    Lead by songs deepest wish

    The words we live in song
    A flowing signing bridge
    Find it now
    And join us
    Just beyond the ridge

  4. The site is called UPLIFT, people. Please don’t be so critical and unkind of others. If this article is not your cup of tea, then go to Google Scholar and look for academic peer reviewed papers on the therapeutic benefits of group singing. BTW, I am a therapist and a singer and I loved this article!

  5. RE :Seratonin and Oxytocin – Many people will not draw or sing because of comments made in a judgemental environment during early development . Dont touch the stove , its hot , Dont draw , your picture looks like a scribble … Words are formative , and caution should be used when using them … when people do not turn to song and singing for artisitic expression , they should be encouraged to perceive music and singing as medicine – they will take their medicine , especially when it is the best medicine in the world . I do not know about Seratonin , except that I do know that music washes through the entire brain , as the breath washed through the entire body , so music and breath , become an energy overhaul. Oxytocin , I do know about , in my independant study – Oxytocin is the hormone of forgetting , and is created by spiraling increase of sensations . The body reaches a limit , and releases oxytocin , which allows the situation to re start . In classic hymn and chants , the melodies are repeated in every expanding spirals , you know how at church , the last verse is usually played really loud by the organist — the song format is actually a replica of a spiral , and this creates the forgetting , and the unity that then arrives – forgetting / forgiveness . I always wanted to experience a three day chant in India , only have ever done three hour session . As a song writer , I take the science of it all very seriously , we live in a world where science IS our religion — as well is should and can be ! Praise god !

    • You sound very passionate about music Jennifer, how wonderful. Thank you for sharing your joy 🙂

      Team UPLIFT

  6. As a psychologist and a singer, music and singing has to involve our brain. So whether we are conscious that it is mostly right hemisphere of the brain with some left brain when we listen to music or sing. Or that it involves the limbic system our emotional centre. The word identification, the timing, the reading of music notes and translating it into the correct shape of the mouth and tongue and where to pitch the breathe to produce the right note are all complex and done by various parts of the brain. But the amazing thing is that the more you practice the more muscle memory will remember these complex computations and it will seem effortless.
    I guess the important thing to remember is to sing, to hum because it makes us feel good or expresses an emotion we feel.

    • I disagree – music goes into the entire brain , it all lights up , there is no split in music – Music is math . Its not logic . its fact .

  7. I have been singing in a choir for 31 years now, and I loved this article! Everything it says is true! So sing, sing, sing! Who cares about references? Don’t be so left-boring-brained!

  8. Strong singing (not crooning) stimulates the Vagus Nerve that is involved in the viscera (abdominal area) by vibrating the neck where the nerve is easily activated. Various cultures use singing for aesthetic and physical stimulation, such as plainsong (chant) in the Catholic monastic traditions, and Tibetan monk solfeg for men. Women ululate with high trills in the Arab cultures. The aesthetic (beauty) sense is felt so intensely that in many people a climax that coincides with the production of oxytocin. The aesthetic senses melody, harmony, tonal color, rhythm and all combinations including the story and emotional moment in opera. Some persons sense individual aspects/facets more or less than most (as some are tone deaf). Just as we are brought to tears with a deep sense of joy, pathos, irony or ecstasy, we are brought to the climax emotional explosion that is physically sensory with motoric responses (reflexive shudders). Singing has many dimensions of understanding and appreciation and is more than a feast or banquet in savoring the many possible aspects when we allow our bodies to feel the full physical acoustical massage.

  9. Singing has been a part of my life since I can remember. I have had some voice training, but just love to sing with or without music and with or without someone else,

  10. I absolutely love to sing and my dog stares at me with so much love when I sing to her, lol. I love almost all genres of music, thank God I don’t have a horrible voice because my poor neighbors have to hear it pretty much every day and you’re absolutely correct I’m on top of the world when I have my music cranked up and singing just as loud as possible!

  11. Start singing with a group and see if you feel better.

    Or, visit the website below to learn about how one man made a difference in the lives of hundreds of young people in the turbulent 60s and 70s by combining singing with traveling the world.

  12. With a day job for twenty years of singing and playing for a diverse population of patients in the hospital, from pediatrics to geriatrics, from waiting rooms to the ICU, I have studied and been asked to participate in numerous research projects. We are constantly striving to validate our practice by doing research. But, here’s the thing: There are so many factors involved in music making that it is quite difficult to measure in specific ways–although of course there is some great research about brain activity, helping with memory disorders, pain management, the value of community, who else is in the room (Will we be having a singalong?)etc. In addition to taking “requests”, I enjoy making up interactive chants, like call and answer, that people can easily respond to and sing with. But when people ask me, “What’s the best kind of music to play in the hospital?” My answer is “what the patient wants to hear.” That may vary according to: their mood, their medication, whether their relationship to a certain song has changed, whether there is a desired outcome (relaxation, energy, distraction) … so many factors. So, I am in agreement that research is valuable, but also that it is worth sharing anecdotally the stories of how music has helped people in various ways, how singing together creates community and erases boundaries, etc. Someone might get something from this information.

    • Just came back from a visit with Sam Levine – 94 who loves to tell jokes … “The guitar player went to the local hospital to play some music for the sick people. After an hour of entertainment , he said – Well, thats all for today , folks, I hope you get better – they replied – “We hope you get better too ! “

  13. Sadly, I guess there have to be haters even with an article about something that makes people happy. The article puts together ideas supported by research in a way that the general public might enjoy reading it.

    For those who complain there is not enough research listed in this online article, that is what Google search is for. Doing a Google search for ‘The Neuroscience of Singing’ yields about 2,950,000 results. Is that enough?

    For me, singing makes me happy, and I love all the people I sing with. That’s all the proof I need.

  14. Actually, there’s much info on singing loudly stimulating the vague nerve>>>parasympathetic nervous system>>> rest and repair

  15. A great musician said some eighty years ago, “Sing, Sing, Sing”
    To which I might add I never left a choir practice with a frown on my face.

  16. A good reminder, although the Bible already confirmed it for over a thousand years. Many positive effects in singing, even miracles can happen when people sing praises to God. No wonder!

  17. I do not wish to throw cold water on a fire that may be warming some, but the chemicals touted here are not understood sufficiently to give them qualities only magical to some and mis-applied to most. They throw science in a game of scrabble and come up with cures. The comment by Schleisman should be fair warning.

    • As an individual: What I know for certain. Most music, with the exception of certain laments; funeral music; music with violence; degradation, etc., dirge; makes me feel good. To me, as an individual, this translates to having more energy and enjoyment (can be accompanied by the “happy dance”) I also know that there is such a thing as a “gifted listener.” That music is a form of therapy already has been proven and valid research continues. Music has great potential and it’s good to have open discussions about research. Keep the music living.

  18. Well my Mum wouldn’t have called it this but she was always singing – in the church choir, in The Brentwood Operatic Society, choral societies in her younger days and most of all at home! She was always bursting into song, this is how I remember her the most. And with Auntie Vera from a few doors down, practising for the operatic societies next production, sometimes in full costume! Great times Mum, although maybe a bit embarrassing as I got older! Not really, love and miss you loads xxx

  19. I love this. I was expecting more scientific reference that would have been interesting to learn, but the anecdotal stories of its effect, particularly with group singing are a motivator for me. I will look for ways to do that!

  20. So encouraging – wonderfully inspiring. I now live alone – is singing alone beneficial to me, or must it be in groups like your article says?

  21. No citations will ever come about. Miguel Indurain had a heart rate of around 30 or 40 while some people with fybromialgia can have heart rates over 100. Age, heart size physical conditon rested or not rested effect the heart rate. Its not possible. There is no research. This all BS

  22. I like the gist of the article, but I’d sure like to see a citation to the research that shows heartbeats become synchronized.

  23. “Por favor meu mano’ (coro)
    Sabe’ apanha mais joga’

    ‘Por favor meu mano’
    em dentro dentro corpo limbra-a’

    Por favor meu mano’
    Na passagem do valao’

    Por favor meu mano
    O concela de cidade’

    por favor meu mano
    ginga do corpo, na rabalente do chao

    por favor meu mano’

    E de ioio, e de iaia

    por favor meu mano’
    saia pra ilha de mare

    por favor meu mano
    de Irmao e irma e-e’

    Por favor meu mano
    eu giola em meu casa

    Por favor meu mano
    anui nao conto giola

    Por favor meu mano’
    tem pode com mandinga

    por favor meu mano
    na correga patua

    por favor meu mano

    I ia ia ia

    Sao Bento me Chama

    I ia ia ia

    Caichoeira Saltao

    I ia ia ia

    es bera Mar

    I ia ia ia

    Sao Bento meu Corpo

    I ia ia ia

    Com jogo de fora

    I ia ia ia

    e mais jogo de dentro

    I ia ia ia

    Com Malandrade pra feliz

    I ia ia ia

    Eu Foi eu foi

    I ia ia ia

    Cassadora’s maldade

    I ia ia ia

    Capoeira me chama de lecencia meu Senhor(a)

  24. One way that your heart beat gets in synch when you are singing the same song, is that you tend to breathe at the end of a line, so you all breathe in the same place, you are singing the words at the same speed, and your hearts fall into the same rhythm. Also, if you have perfect pitch, and you are near someone singing the same part, who also has perfect pitch, the exhilaration and enjoyment is multiplied! This has happened to me on several occasions, and you just want to keep singing; it feels really great. I think that might have to do with wave theory. If you and someone else are on the exact same pitch, then you are technically emitting the same wave lengths (I think), and the harmonics just naturally feel good!
    I haven’t read through all the other comments yet, so if someone has already brought this up, sorry!

  25. When I was scared walking in the city at night I would sing, when my daughter was a newborn and cried so much I didn’t know what to do I would sing, and last night as I was getting my kids ready for bed I became frustrated and wanted to yell I sang instead. The effect was transformative on all of us. Yes! I love this article! thank you!

  26. Absolutely correct!
    the (un)described emotions and feelings we get
    participating in a chorus or a band or just singing all together in a party or sited around a table
    make us feel better at the end of thw day.
    let ‘s keep singing!

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  28. I totally agree that singing is good for you. I think I am a good example
    i have sung all my life I cant remember ever not singing.. My biggest draw back when I was young was shyness. I sung at my grandmothers farm every Sunday we would sit round the fire and sing I cant remember how I started to sing but I just sang. Church;s junior choir, school choir, just around the house. Gave away choir when I had my children but still sang around the house and at parties. I took up singing in a choir when my husband took ill and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s This was.on the advice of a Physiologist. The best advice anyone has ever given me. My husband died over 10 years ago after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, he was diagnosed in the early 1990’s so it was a long journey. I put my good health and sanity down to my singing it has given me so much enjoyment. I wouldn’t have a clue if it is Neuroscience of Singing I’m not that clever. However I’m still singing loving it and still learning. I agree anyone can sing, for some it may take a bit more time but eventually they will be able to hold a tune.
    You make friends with people from all walks of life, you bond , you laugh and you cry when things go wrong but you pick yourself up put a smile on your face and get ready for the next rehearsal or concert.

  29. This article should NOT be titled “The Neuroscience of Singing” It both lacks any discussion of neuroscience research (the link “numerous studies” takes you to another uplift article that’s also completely void of research) and propagates the myth of right brain=creativity left brain=analytical thinking. As a cognitive neuroscientist myself I’m tired of reading this kind of fluff that uses the word “neuroscience” as click bait. There’s a ton of easily available and interesting research on music that could have been included, if the author had taken more than 10 minutes to write this article.

    • I agree that the neuroscience is absent in this article, rendering it mostly – as you say – clickbait. Would you care to share links to a few of the articles on this topic that you find most useful? The topics is fascinating from many different perspectives.

    • The tittle is attractive, but, I agree with you, there is a lack of references. I would have been happy to share it with my community of singers, choir directors, solists, … but as it is, it’s not serious enough

    • Katrina, agreed. Would you care to take a few moments to see what we are doing at Cymatrax, both the web site and the Facebook page, where we are funding clinical trials to be written by the chief pediatric neurologist at the major children’s hospital here in Dallas? 99.5% of people are attached to music because of emotions, not the science of energy transmission through the central nervous system with cellular transduction and signaling the brain. Real neuroscience comes from trials and clinical testings like this one from the Morgan Freeman hosted show, Through the Wormhole.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Az9BxFu5VIE

    • Agreed, this is a classic (if pernicious) example of citogenesis.


      At any rate, you would not believe how many other articles out there reference this one as a definitive source for saying that the brain’s chemistry is reshaped by singing…

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