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THE BENEFITS OF SINGING

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.

Singing 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.

Group 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 heart beats become synchronised. Sophia explains:

We literally form one unified heart beat.

Singing 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.

If 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 camp fires, 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.

Everybody 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 to our existence. You do not have to be an amazing singer to benefit from the basic biological benefits and with practice the benefits increase.

Singing 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.

Musical Training Optimizes Brain Function

Musical Training Optimizes Brain Function

 

Musical training before age 7 can benefit brain function for a lifespan.

(From an article posted Nov 13, 2013)

Neuroscientists are discovering multiple ways that musical training improves the function and connectivity of different brain regions. Musical training increases brain volume and strengthens communication between brain areas. Playing an instrument changes how the brain interprets and integrates a wide range of sensory information, especially for those who start before age 7. These findings were presented at the Neuroscience 2013 conference in San Diego.

In a press briefing on November 11, 2013 Gottfried Schlaug, MD, PhD—who is an expert on music, neuroimaging and brain plasticity from Harvard Medical School—summarized the new research from three different presentations at the conference. These insights suggest potential new roles for musical training including fostering plasticity in the brain; have strong implications for using musical training as a tool in education; and for treating a range of learning disabilities.

Playing a musical instrument can cause fundamental changes in a young person's brain, shaping both how it functions and how it is physically structured, researchers say. "Listening to and making music is not only an auditory experience, but it is a multisensory and motor experience. Making music over a long period of time can change brain function and brain structure," Schlaug said. 

Three Brain Benefits of Musical Training:

  1. Musicians have an enhanced ability to integrate sensory information from hearing, touch, and sight.

  2. The age at which musical training begins affects brain anatomy as an adult; beginning training before the age of seven has the greatest impact.

  3. Brain circuits involved in musical improvisation are shaped by systematic training, leading to less reliance on working memory and more extensive connectivity within the brain.

"Music might provide an alternative access into a broken or dysfunctional system within the brain," said Schlaug. Adding, "Music has the unique ability to go through alternative channels and connect different sections of the brain."

Three New Studies on the Brain Benefits of Musical Training

The first study, conducted by researchers at the University of Montreal, asked trained musicians and non-musicians to respond to sound and touch sensations at the same time. Two sounds were delivered at the same time a person received one touch sensation, which was intended to create the perceptual illusion that the person actually had received two touch sensations. 

Since musicians have to simultaneously work their instrument, read sheet music and listen to the tones they produce, the researchers predicted that they would be better at differentiating sound from touch. Their hypothesis was correct. Non-musicians fell for the perceptual illusion, but musicians did not, according to researcher Julie Roy from the University of Montreal. "Musicians are able to ignore the auditory stimuli and only report what they are feeling," Roy said, adding "that this is solid evidence of an improved ability to process information from more than one sense at the same time."

 

The second study involved brain scans of 48 adults aged between 19 and 21, who had at least a year of musical training while growing up. The researchers discovered that brain regions related to hearing and self-awareness appeared to be larger in people who began taking music lessons before age 7.

These findings seem to indicate that musical training can have a huge impact on the developing brain, since brain maturation tends to peak around age 7, said lead researcher Yunxin Wang, of the State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning at Beijing Normal University. Specifically, these areas tended to have more gray matter leading to a thicker cortex, which is the outer layer of the cerebrum.

The third study found that brain circuitry can be reshaped by musical training through neuroplasticity. For the study, Swedish researchers analysed brain function of 39 pianists who were asked to play a special 12-key piano keyboard while having their brain scanned in an MRI. Ana Pinho, the lead author of the study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, reported that systematic training actually helped improve brain areas related to music improvisation. The ability to improvise improved brain connectivity resulting in less dependence on working memory.  

“Pianists who were more experienced in jazz improvisation showed higher connectivity between three major regions of the brain's frontal lobe while they improvised some music,” said Pinho. “At the same time, they showed less activity in brain regions associated with executive functions such as planning and organizing, which could mean that trained improvisers are able to generate music with little conscious attention or thought,” Pinho said.

Playing an Instrument Before Age 7 Benefits Brain Architecture for a Lifespan

The findings presented at the conference are backed by multiple previous studies. In particular, a January 2013 study titled “Early Musical Training and White-Matter Plasticity in the Corpus Callosum: Evidence for a Sensitive Period” published in the Journal of Neuroscience earlier this year reported that musical training before age 7 helped brain development. Children who started taking music lessons early had better connections across the corpus callosum which connects the left and right hemispheres of the cerebrum.

A variety of studies have suggested that early training might be related to greater amounts of white matter in the corpus callosum. This study compared white-matter organization using diffusion tensor imaging in early- and late-trained musicians matched for years of training and experience.

The researchers found that early-trained musicians had greater connectivity across the corpus callosum. Musical training and practice at a young age improved due to the sensorimotor synchronization required to play an instrument. They concluded that training before the age of 7 years results in changes in white-matter connectivity that may serve as a solid scaffolding upon which ongoing experience can maintain a well-connected brain infrastructure into adulthood.

 

My 6-year-old daughter is lucky to take bi-weekly piano and violin lessons. In addition to practicing a musical instrument, my daughter's daily activities include a broad range of athletics that bulk up the gray matter of both hemispheres of her cerebellum and improve motor skills. Schoolwork and making art increases brain volume and connectivity between both hemispheres of her cerebrum. This combination of activities strenghtens the connectivity between all four hemispheres of her developing brain which optimizes brain function.

Some of the brain changes that occur with extensive musical training are reflected in improved automation of task—much as one would recite a multiplication table—and the acquisition of highly specific sensorimotor and cognitive skills required for various aspects of musical expertise.

Conclusion: Musical Training Increases Brain Volume and Connectivity

"Playing a musical instrument is a multi-sensory and motor experience that creates emotions and motions—from finger tapping to dancing—and engages pleasure and reward systems in the brain. It has the potential to change brain function and structure when done over a long period of time," according to Gottfried Schlaug. "As today's findings show, intense musical training generates new processes within the brain, at different stages of life, and with a range of impacts on creativitycognition, and learning," he concludes. 

"All these findings ultimately could lead to improved therapies for people with brain injuries or learning disabilities," Schlaug said. Adding, "Music might provide an alternative access into a broken or dysfunctional system within the brain. Music has the unique ability to go through alternative channels and connect different sections of the brain. sections of the brain."

Why Do the Songs from Your Past Evoke Such Vivid Memories?

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Why Do the Songs from Your Past Evoke Such Vivid Memories?

Listening to music engages large scale neural networks across the entire brain.

Posted Dec 11, 2013

We all know the power of an old song to trigger vivid memories that seem to transport us back in time and space. What songs bring back emotional memories from your past? The songs we love become woven into a neural tapestry entwined with the people, seasons, and locations throughout our lifespan. What is the neuroscience behind the ability of music to evoke such strong memories of the people and places from our past?

This morning, I was standing in line at the convenience store and the song Please Come to Boston from 1974 came on in the background. I hadn't heard this song in years. Suddenly, I was overcome by flashbacks of people, places, and strong emotions linked to that song from many stages of my life. In particular the song reminded me of someone that I fell in love with during my adolescence. The deep neural connection that music creates to romance, heartbreak—and a wide range of other joyful and painful memories—is a universal phenomenon.

Has a song on the car stereo, or in a store, recently caught you off guard and brought back a tidal wave of memories? Why do autobiographical memories linked to music remain so rich and textured? Interestingly, it appears that if you haven't heard a song in years, the neural tapestry representing that song stays purer and the song will evoke stronger specific memories of a time and place from your past. The memories linked to overplayed songs can become diluted because the neural network is constantly being updated.

The Neuroscience of Vivid Musical Memories

A series of recent studies have found that listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain, including brain regions responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity.

In the first study of its kind, Amee Baird and Séverine Samson, from University of Newcastle in Australia, used popular music to help severely brain-injured patients recall personal memories. Their pioneering research was published on December 10, 2013 in the journal Neuropsychological Rehabilitation.

Although their study only involved a small number of participants, it is the first to examine ‘music-evoked autobiographical memories’ (MEAMs) in patients with acquired brain injuries (ABIs), rather than those who are healthy or suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

In their study, Baird and Samson played snippets from "Billboard Hot 100" number-one songs in a random order to people with ABI. The songs—taken from the whole of the patient’s lifespan from age five—were also played to control subjects with no brain injury. All participants were asked to record how familiar they were with a given song, whether they liked it, and what memories the song evoked.

Interestingly, the highest number of MEAMs in the whole group was recorded by one of the ABI patients. In all those studied, the majority of MEAMs were of a person, people or a life period, and were typically positive. Songs that evoked a memory were noted as being more familiar and more well liked than songs that did not trigger a MEAM. This is common sense.

Two previous studies identified the broad range of neural networks that are engaged when we listen to music. A 2009 study from the University of California, Davis mapped the brain while people listened to music and found specific brain regions linked to autobiographical memories and emotions are activated by familiar music. The UC Davis study titled, "The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories," was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

 

Familiar songs light up areas in green.

The discovery may help to explain why music can elicit strong responses from people with Alzheimer's disease, said the study's author, Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at UC Davis' Center for Mind and Brain. The hub that music activated is located in the medial prefrontal cortex region—right behind the forehead—and one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy over the course of Alzheimer's disease.

"What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person's face in your mind's eye," Janata said. "Now we can see the association between those two things—the music and the memories."

To assure the best chance that students would associate at least some of the tunes with memories from their past, Janata also chose songs randomly from "Billboard Hot 100" charts from years when each subject would have been 8 to 18 years old. After each excerpt, the student responded to questions about the tune, including whether it was familiar or not, how enjoyable it was, and whether it was associated with any particular incident, episode or memory.

The study revealed that, on average, a student recognized about 17 of the 30 excerpts, and of these, about 13 were moderately or strongly associated with an autobiographical memory. As in the recent Australian study, songs that were linked to the strongest, most salient memories were the ones that evoked the most vivid and emotion-laden responses.

When Janata studied the fMRI images and compared them to these self-reported reactions, he discovered that the degree of salience of the memory corresponded to the amount of activity in the upper (dorsal) part of the medial prefrontal cortex. This correlation supports Janata's hypothesis that this brain region helps link music and memory.

Janata was also able to create a model for mapping the tones of a piece of music as it moves from chord to chord and into and out of major and minor keys. By making tonal maps of each musical excerpt and comparing them to their corresponding brain scans, he discovered that the brain was tracking these tonal progressions in the same region as it was experiencing the memories: in the dorsal part of the medial prefrontal cortex, as well as in regions immediately adjacent to it. And in this case, too, the stronger the autobiographical memory, the greater the "tracking" activity.

Music Engages Brain Regions Linked to Motor Actions, Emotions, and Creativity

In a 2011 study, Finnish researchers used a groundbreaking method that allowed them to study how the brain processes different aspects of music, such as rhythm, tonality and timbre (sound color) in a realistic listening situation. Their study was published in the journal NeuroImage.

The researchers discovered that listening to music activates wide networks in the brain, including areas responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity. Their method of mapping revealed complex dynamics of brain networks and the way music affects us. For this study participants were scanned with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) while listening to a stimulus with a rich musical structure, a modern Argentinian tango.

 

Music lights up the entire brain.

The Finnish researchers correlated temporal evolutions of timbral, tonal, and rhythmic features of musical stimulus. While timbral feature processing was associated with activations in cognitive areas of the cerebellum, and sensory and the default mode network gray matter of the cerebral hemispheres, musical pulse and tonality processing recruited cortical and subcortical cognitive, motor and emotion-related circuits.

The researchers found that music listening recruits the auditory areas of the brain, but also employs large-scale neural networks. For instance, they discovered that the processing of musical pulse recruits motor areas in the cerebellum and cerebrum, supporting the idea that music and movement are closely intertwined.

Limbic areas of the brain, known to be associated with emotions, were also found to be involved in rhythm and tonality processing. Processing of timbre was associated with activations in the so-called default mode network, which is assumed to be associated with mindwandering and creativity.

"Our results show for the first time how different musical features activate emotional, motor and creative areas of the brain," concluded Professor Petri Toiviainen from the University of Jyväskylä. "We believe that our method provides more reliable knowledge about music processing in the brain than the more conventional methods."

Conclusion: Music Has Broad Therapeutic Potential

In sum, the Finnish researchers combined neuroimaging, acoustic feature extraction and behavioral methods, and revealed the large-scale cognitive, motor and limbic brain circuitry is engaged while listening to music. In addition, their study has practical and potential therapeutic relevance because it creates a way to observe individual neural processing based on how someone responds to music based on his or her unique history.

As a potential tool for helping patients regain their memories, Amee Baird and Séverine Samson conclude that: “Music was more efficient at evoking autobiographical memories than verbal prompts of the Autobiographical Memory Interview (AMI) across each life period, with a higher percentage of MEAMs for each life period compared with AMI scores. Music is an effective stimulus for eliciting autobiographical memories and may be beneficial in the rehabilitation of autobiographical amnesia, but only in patients without a fundamental deficit in autobiographical recall memory and intact pitch perception.”

Petr Janata concludes that because autobiographical memories linked to music seem to be spared in people with Alzheimer's disease, one of his long-term goals is to use this research to help develop music-based therapy for people with the disease. He said, "What's cool about this is that one of the main parts of the brain that's tracking the music is the same part of the brain that's responding overall to how autobiographically salient the music is.

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