I'm not a talented singer at all. I'll sing in the shower or at a loud concert, but I try to spare anyone from actually having to hear my off-key performances. But according to a new study, I've been doing it all wrong. Researchers from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, say that singing is good for your mental health, but there's a catch — you have to sing with other people. It's not shocking that singing can be beneficial — mental health professionals often recommend music therapy, something that's been shown to relieve stress and help treat depression and anxiety. But when I think about singing with a bunch of strangers, I feel an extreme level of nervousness.
The study doesn't recommend you try out for American Idol, and you don't have to go Christmas caroling, either. The research team studied a singing workshop called Sing Your Heart Out, which was specifically created for people with mental health conditions. They interviewed people who attended the program for six months, and the study says that everyone "reported improvement in or maintenance of their mental health and well-being as a direct result of engagement in the singing workshops." Some participants said the singing group was the "only and sufficient component in their recovery and ongoing psychological stability," according to the findings.
So what makes singing so effective at improving moods? It seems like it has to happen in a non-competitive setting to really help you. Singing in a choir doesn't provide the same benefits as attending a singing workshop, according to the study, because the environment needs to be inclusive and nonjudgmental. Even people who can't carry a tune might feel better after a class or workshop where everyone sings together for fun and no one's judging anyone's voice or talent. "The combination of singing and social engagement produced an ongoing feeling of belonging and well-being. Attendance provided them with structure, support and contact that improved functioning and mood," the study says.
Tom Shakespeare, a professor at Norwich Medical School and the study's lead author, said in a press release that "singing as part of a group contributes to people’s recovery from mental health problems." Shakespeare described the impact of the group in a statement.
“The main way that Sing Your Heart Out differs from a choir is that anyone can join in regardless of ability. There’s also very little pressure because the participants are not rehearsing towards a performance. It’s very inclusive and it’s just for fun. The format is also different to a therapy group because there’s no pressure for anyone to discuss their condition. We heard the participants calling the initiative a ‘life saver’ and that it ‘saved their sanity’. Others said they simply wouldn’t be here without it, they wouldn’t have managed — so we quickly began to see the massive impact it was having. All of the participants we spoke to reported positive effects on their mental health as a direct result of taking part in the singing workshops. For some it represented one component of a wider progamme of support. For others it stood out as key to their recovery or maintenance of health. But the key thing for everyone was that the Sing Your Heart Out model induced fun and happiness.”
I'm still not going to sing in front of anyone unless it's karaoke night or I'm yelling the lyrics to my favorite song, but this research suggests that it has some amazing advantages. Attending a singing workshop sounds like a unique form of punishment, but I'm glad it works for so many people. Maybe one day, I'll be brave enough to join them.