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For time immemorial, humans have connected deeply through singing with one another. We explore the science behind this, plus how group singing benefits other aspects of our health.
When was the last time you sang with another person? This week, we’re digging into the science of singing — and more specifically, the science of singing with others, with author Casper ter Kuile. Casper started hosting signing groups in his home as a way to feel connected to others and build a community after moving to a new city. He found that singing is a powerful mode of communication that’s entirely different from talking, by letting people have fun together before even learning what the other does for work. We also hear from psychologist Arla Good, about how group singing can act as a tool for social bonding through a mood-boosting oxytocin response.
Casper ter Kuile is an author and speaker who focuses on themes of community building, rituals and spirituality.
Read Casper’s book, The Power of Ritual: https://tinyurl.com/5653xymp
Learn about Casper’s latest project, The Nearness: https://tinyurl.com/yc76wjvj
Follow Casper on Instagram: https://tinyurl.com/muueecw2
Follow Casper on Twitter: https://tinyurl.com/mr2jsufk
Arla Good is a psychologist at Toronto Metropolitan University whose research specializes in the benefits of group singing on well-being.
Learn more about Arla and her work: https://tinyurl.com/3fxwsffs
Learn about Arla’s work with the SingWell Project: https://tinyurl.com/4acdhdc6
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
How Music Helps Us Be More Creative: https://tinyurl.com/4mj6vs44
Four Ways Music Strengthens Social Bonds: https://tinyurl.com/y257y25p
How Music Bonds Us Together: https://tinyurl.com/np3z3cnu
Five Ways Music Can Make You Healthier: https://tinyurl.com/4ckbtc2e
Where Music and Empathy Converge in the Brain: https://tinyurl.com/23tehxms
More Resources on Group Singing:
BBC -The world’s most accessible stress reliever: https://tinyurl.com/37atkk78
Washington Post - Singing is good for you. Singing with others may be even better: https://tinyurl.com/mv3a525d
Oxford - Choir singing improves health, happiness – and is the perfect icebreaker:
Ted - Choral Connections: The Surprising Benefits of Singing Together: https://tinyurl.com/y5yu236z
Have you ever sung with a group? Email us at email@example.com or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
Help us share The Science of Happiness!
Rate us on Spotify and share this link with someone who might like the show: https://tinyurl.com/yzazbec4
Casper ter Kuile: I moved to New York just before the pandemic, and so we had some friends here, but not “friends” friends.
I missed being with people. I missed the ease and the fun and the silliness that comes along with just being in a group of regular friends and so I remember very vividly I was like, “Something needs to change cause I’m really lonely.” And I was like, what do I know that will help ease that sadness, you know, that pain. I was like, I wanna sing with people. And so I just sent an email to a, you know, bunch of friends. And I honestly, I would meet someone, like, I invited an Uber driver, like I was just, do you enjoy singing? Like, please come here is my address.
People bring some food, people bring some wine, and then, you know, we do a quick round of names where everyone just says hello. And then I start singing with a simple round based on the poetry of Rumi and it goes:
Come, come whoever you are. Wanderer worshiper, lover of leaving ours is no caravan of despair. Come, yeah. Yet, again come.
And everyone joins in.
Group singing: Come yeah. Yet, again come. Yet again come.come whoever you are. Wanderer worshiper, lover of leaving ours is no caravan of despair. Come yeah.
Casper ter Kuile: It wasn’t about perfection, it was about participating.
Dacher Keltner: This is The Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome.
Today we’re talking about why singing with others is good for our health. We hear what happened when returning guest, and my dear friend, Casper ter Kuile started hosting monthly sing-a-longs at his Brooklyn apartment.
We also get into the science of singing together – how it affects our bodies, and how it compares to singing alone.
Arla Good: We know that there’s social bonding capacity in group music-making. So what’s happening in our biology that might be supporting that?
Dacher Keltner: All that, after this break.
Casper group Singing: Have you ever sung the Sunflower round? Sunflower’s a good one. Sunflower’s a good one…
Sunflower opens up underneath you have only begun…
Dacher Keltner: Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. This is Dacher Keltner.
Studies find that singing together makes us happier.
Our guest Casper ter Kuile found such happiness, or what I might call collective effervescence in the science of awe, through hosting singing parties in his living room.
Casper is a scholar of spirituality, and the author of one of my favorite books in recent times, The Power of Ritual, Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices.
Casper thanks so much for joining us again at the Science of Happiness.
Casper ter Kuile: I’m so glad to be back.
Dacher Keltner: Why’d you start inviting people into your home to sing together?
Casper ter Kuile: I was desperate. I missed being with people. I missed creating something. I just invited everyone who was interested so it really was a ragtag bunch of people who didn’t know each other. Some people haven’t sung since high school. Some people loved singing. And, you know, did it in even some professional context. We even have some friends who sing at the Metropolitan Opera here in New York, which is, you know, quite something, but even for the professional musicians, it was a joy just to do it for fun. You know, we’re not looking at notes, we’re are learning by ear. It’s my favorite day of the month. It’s on the third Monday of every month.
So many people have a really, actually, ashamed relationship with their voice because we are, we are told in choir, in school, like, “Oh, don’t sing.” or, “You’re not getting it right, or,” you know, there’s so many ways in which we kind of shut down our, our voices. But I always say, if you can hear a siren on an ambulance or a firetruck, you can hear pitch. This is a natural way our bodies are made. Like this is how we’ve always communicated. People sang together before we spoke together. I love the idea that, you know, we can’t all speak at once, but we can sing together.
Dacher Keltner: I’m curious, when you put together this ragtag group of singers, I mean, how did you loosen up the friends who are a little embarrassed about singing or, you know, find it sort of awkward or?
Casper ter Kuile: Well, mostly by making a fool of myself, you know, because I, sometimes I don’t hit the notes. Sometimes they sing it differently from how we did it last time. It really was about the joy of harmonizing together and a few weeks ago we had like 20 people. It was too big for my living room. I couldn’t hear the other side of the room. So it’s been so fun just to see how people kept coming back. And sometimes they’ll bring an instrument or two and we have a guitar or a ukulele. It just adds to the joyful noise.
So one of my favorite things to do is sometimes we sing some Shape note music, which is an American folk tradition where the point is to sing as loudly as you can. And so that’s a lot of fun to do as well.
It’s an amazing community building tool because it builds a connection between us. It’s done even faster than meeting people and having a conversation because if you are singing with 20 or 200 or 2000 people, you know, I think of the football stadiums that I, you know, went to as a kid cheering for my team. Once you’re singing those songs, you feel part of something bigger. And now that can be weaponized in a dangerous way too, but it’s a powerful spiritual technology to build connection.
Like my voice is present but it’s also part of this bigger thing that I could never make by myself.I think it gives us this beautiful paradox of many and one at the same time in the same moment.
I don’t know what science tells us about this, but something happens in a place when people make music in it, in a loving kind of community way. And you know, I feel very lucky that our living room is one of those places now for a year and a half. We also host a big black tie Christmas Carol Sing Along Spectacular.
So we have like 60 people crammed into our one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, all in black tie and my husband plays the piano, and so he accompanies us as we all sing, you know, four part harmony Christmas carols. And it just like, that’s what makes our house a home. It’s the act of welcoming people together and making something beautiful.
Dacher Keltner: And I know you started this group to build connection. How would you describe the kind of community that the singing you’ve practiced brings to you?
Casper ter Kuile: It’s funny, I don’t even know what most people in my singing group do for a living and I think that’s indicative of the different entry point into relationship that something like singing together offers versus, you know, maybe a more traditional social gathering or certainly a workplace, because it centers something else at the heart of the relationship. It’s about can you listen to each other? It’s about learning to trust each other and have fun together before you even really know much about that person’s circumstances in life or their status or you know, some of the usual markers of how we know how to relate to each other. And so I think that’s one of the gifts of something like music making is that it gives us a different pathway into connection, and a different rule book by which we get to establish how to be together.
And that’s one of the reasons why I like learning songs that other people sang in their childhood. Like it’s a window into the kind of core of their being in a way.
Dacher Keltner: You know, you began this practice of bringing people together once a month to sing out of a state of loneliness. Has it given you a sort of a deeper sense of belonging or home in Brooklyn, in New York City?
Casper ter Kuile: It’s definitely helped me feel more belonging in the city. You know,
I moved to New York just before the pandemic and the singing group has really, it’s been beautiful. There’s a couple folks that, you know, are always there with whom I now go to the theater or I go and play Mario Kart with, or you know, like it’s really developed into some lovely friendships.
Dacher Keltner: I want to thank you for your enlightening approach to how we rebuild community and find the sacred in today’s complicated world. Thanks for being here.
Casper ter Kuile: Thank you, Dacher.
You’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye, where me and my true love will never meet again, on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond….
Dacher Keltner: If we’ve inspired you to sing with others – and we hope we have – we’d love to hear it. Share with us by emailing Happinesspod@berkeley.edu or use hashtag happiness pod.
We’re gonna hear more about the science of singing along, after this break.
You’re listening to the Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Kelnter. Welcome back.
Study after study has shown that singing with others is good for you.
It can support your immune system and memory. It can trigger a release of dopamine. It helps your body relax. One study, and get this, even found that people who sing in a choir tend to snore less. Our podcast’s executive producer Shuka Kalantari spoke with psychologist Arla Good about her research on singing with others.
Shuka Kalantari: Arla Good has been researching what happens to our minds and bodies when we sing with others for over a decade. And she’s certain about one thing.
Arla Good: Music is a tool for human social bonding. When we move together, we feel similar, and we bond, and then we become more effective and efficient as a coordinated group. So that was necessary for our survival.
Shuka Kalantari: Good co-directs the SingWell Project at Toronto Metropolitan University. In one of her many studies on singing, she wanted to answer the question, could we reap the same benefits if we sang by ourselves? Like we do in the shower or in the car. So she did an experiment on an informal choir group at her university.
Arla Good: They mostly sing familiar songs. There’s Beatles tunes, old classics, things that they know and love to sing. So we went into this choir. We obtained consent from the participants and we looked at choir in its natural habitat.
Shuka Kalantari:Everyone filled out questionnaires about their mood before and after the choir session.
Arla Good: We collected saliva where we could analyze cortisol and oxytocin.
Shuka Kalantari: They also measured pain thresholds by applying pressure to their fingers.
Arla Good: And they told us when to stop when it felt uncomfortable, not pain, but discomfort.
Shuka Kalantari: Afterward Good brought those same people into her lab, one at a time, and had them sing by themselves.
Arla Good: We had them singing along to their choir director. We recorded the choir director and played the video and so they went through all the same warmups and vocal exercises and sang the same songs, but in a sound booth in the lab.
Shuka Kalantari: She again measured their mood, before and after they sang. As well as their oxytocin and cortisol levels.
Arla Good: When we see decreases in cortisol. This is evidence that it’s helping us with our stress regulation, which is what we saw both in the group singing and the individual singing. So there’s something to singing, you know, it’s the deep breathing. There’s a cardiovascular engagement.
Shuka Kalantari: So singing alone or with others can help reduce stress. Oxytocin is a bit more complicated.
Arla Good: Our understanding of oxytocin, how we’re measuring it through saliva is really in its infancy.
Shuka Kalantari: We know it’s a peptide that’s produced in the hypothalamus, deep in our brains. And when released, it tends to make us bond more easily with others.
Arla Good: So, we know it’s released during sex. We know it’s released during mother-infant bonding.
Shuka Kalantari: Also through listening to music and exercise.
Arla Good: We want to know if it’s released during group singing and that’s what we found in this study, which is really exciting.
But we didn’t see any change in oxytocin following individual singing. Our data showed that group singing improved the release of oxytocin, but individual singing did not.
Shuka Kalantari: People also reported that they weren’t in a much better mood after singing alone in the lab, but they were happier when they sang together.
Arla Good: The increases in mood correlated with increases in oxytocin. So this suggests to us that perhaps some of the mood boost we’re seeing might be underpinned by oxytocin and that social bonding capacity of group music making.
Shuka Kalantari: Good says the more we can understand the science of singing along, the more we can leverage it in different contexts.
Arla Good: Like for people who are socially isolated, for people who feel stressed.
Shuka Kalantari: Also for people who have difficulty with speech.
Arla Good: So, parkinson’s, aphasia, stuttering, hearing loss, lung disease. For example, someone who has Parkinson’s, when they sing, it’s helping to strengthen their vocal cords so that they can then produce speech more effectively.
Shuka Kalantari: Arla Good believes that singing together is medicine. And her goal is to bring it into the medical world.
Arla Good: What would it look like if doctors would prescribe singing, particularly for people who are going to their physician with depression and social isolation, and perhaps they’re being prescribed medication? But what if they were prescribed choir? Because we know that this works.
Shuka Kalantari: The thing is, most of us can sing. Some of us may not be very good at it, but we can sing.
Arla Good: We just are holding ourselves to the standards of like, the Celine Dions of the world, that that’s what, to be a singer means. But really it’s just, you know, we all have this voice box that we can use to sing.
Dacher Keltner: Thanks, Shuka.
I’m Dacher Keltner. As always, thanks for joining us on the Science of Happiness. And again, if you’re inspired to sing with friends, we’d love to hear it, and maybe share it on our show. Email us a firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our next Science of Happiness episode is all about kindness. What happens when we intentionally do good things for others.
Casper group singing: Grateful to sing with you, trying to get home. Grateful to sing with you. Grateful to sing with you. Grateful to sing with you, trying to get home.
Dacher Keltner: We’re grateful for you, our listeners. Have a great day.
Our Executive producer of audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studio is our sound designer. Our associate producer is Maarya Zafar. Executive director is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.