For those vocalists who have contemplated joining a choir, now may be the time. Researchers in Sweden, led by Björn Vickhoff, found that singing in concert regulates heart rates among members of the group.
The study comes from the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, where a group of healthy 18-year-old boys and girls were asked to perform three singing tasks together:
- Hum a single tone and breathe as needed
- Sing a hymn and breathe as needed
- Sing a slow mantra and breathe only between phrases.
As the teens performed each of the tasks, researchers measured their heart rhythms.
The results show that singing in a choir regulates singers’ heart rates so that they increase and decrease at exactly the same time.
The researchers note that unlike a regulated music beat, our hearts do not keep a consistent rhythm. Instead, the heart rate is continuously accelerating and decelerating, and this fluctuation is called heart rate variability (HRV).
A good relationship between HRV and respiration – or breathing – has mentally and physically soothing effects, the study authors say. Vickhoff adds:
“Singing regulates activity in the so-called vagus nerve, which is involved in our emotional life and our communication with others. Songs with long phrases achieve the same effect as breathing exercises in yoga. In other words, through song we can exercise a certain control over mental states.”
In explaining the background to their study, the authors cite research showing the healthy heart has frequencies that are “phase locked,” enabling the heart to produce regular contractions.
Singing requires a musically regulated and slower-than-normal breathing rate, and the authors say this has a “dramatic effect” on the heart’s pattern of contractions. They hypothesize that this may be favorable to health.
Though the researchers admit the underlying mechanism for the harmonious relationship between lungs and heart is not completely understood, they do point to two possibilities:
- The interaction between “pulmonary stretch receptors” and the heart
- A “cardiopulmonary oscillator” that connects brainstem nuclei.
The findings from this study – the first to describe harmonization of the heart and breathing patterns across a group of people singing – could be used in rehabilitation and preventive healthcare.
The authors also raise some interesting, almost philosophical questions based on the biology:
“Eighty percent of the neural traffic between the heart and the brain goes from the heart to the brain. The natural question is how this affects the behavior of individuals and their perception of the world.
“Does choral singing produce a common perspective?”
The discussions in the research also pose questions about whether runners synchronize their breathing too – matched to their steps rather than to music. Could guided breathing help produce the “second wind” associated with long-distance running?
On the singing connection, the researchers are now interested in doing another study to test their idea that singing alone has different effects on the brain and body than singing in a group.
For now, singers can rejoice that they may be helping their hearts, especially if they are singing from the same song sheet.