What’s Happening With Our Bodies When We Join In Song?

It’s probably inevitable that when you put a bunch of self-confessed musical theater nerds in the same room, you’ll hear a lot of talk about feelings, but there’s something else happening here when they cover their favorite numbers.

Professor Sarah Wilson, who is a clinical psychologist and pioneered the field of music neuroscience research in her native Australia, describes this as an internal therapy tool, engaging several regions of the brain simultaneously.

Wilson describes a “singing network”, engaging areas of the brain responsible for complex motor activity, auditory processing, as well as those that control language, emotion and memory.

As we sing, it’s the vocal motor control networks that switch on and steer the right muscles needed to project the voice and manage our intake of air. The auditory and language networks kick in, allowing us to pitch the notes correctly, and to adjust volume and sing along with the correct lyrics.

Professor Wilson explains that when it comes to choir singing, we make use of higher level executive functions, “making sure we come in at the right time, on the right note, and that hold note in our mind – timing it and coordinating relative to the music and the other singers.”

Over time, partaking in musical activity like joining a band or just singing together with a group of friends, engenders neuroplasticity — the brain’s unique ability to adapt and heal itself, forging new connections and pathways as it ages.

Some of Professor Wilson’s study interests include how singing, via Melodic Intonation Therapy, can rehabilitate the speech of stroke patients.

“We’re watching their brain rewire itself, in real time, and switching back on parts of the language network to support their rehabilitation and brain plasticity,” says Wilson.

“So it’s a really powerful, innate tool – both for our brain plasticity and cognitive health, but also our mental health.”

There are physiological factors that come into play as well — singing in tandem, our heartbeats and breathing synchronize.

Choir members Emily and Rockelle noticed some of these changes from having regular practice meetings.

“I first thought that it would be purely for my mental health. What I wasn’t expecting was how much of a physical difference [choir] has made for me,” Emily says.

“With the conditions that I have, standing up for a long period of time is really challenging. With choir, for two hours a week [I’m] standing up and down, and just sort of practising those movements. So that has really improved my standing tolerance.”

Rockelle chose singing as part of what she calls a “self-deigned therapy program” in managing her symptoms of chronic pain.

What if our community centered around creativity?

Cheep Trill is hardly alone. It’s just one of the hundreds — maybe even thousands — of community choirs throughout Australia that emphasize bringing together amateur singers in a setup where no one competes and no auditions are required.

These groups exist for connection among individuals just as much as they care about achieving perfect musical harmony.

That its members feel a sense of welcoming, and support when they gather is hardly coincidence. This is part of the culture their musical director, Emma Dean, sought out when she put it together.

Back in 2014, Emma was living in New York, pursuing a career in musical theater by working as a childrens’ entertainer and doing late-night opening sets for off-Broadway drag shows and cabaret artists, a lot of work for little reward, and bringing her towards what she describes as total burnout.

With a marriage falling apart and suffering deep depression, Emma says she hit rock bottom when one friend suggested she start a choir.

She went back home to Brisbane and began singing with a small group of singers on a friend’s porch. Emma realized that as she sang, it was watching others achieve their best that gave her a new sense of belonging.

“This choir, this strange little group of people who gathered on this verandah, saved me. Really genuinely saved my life,” she says.

“They saved my love of music, because I kind of felt like music had betrayed me at some point. I knew that that wasn’t completely the truth, but I knew I had to reignite the spark I felt for music.”

In the decade that followed, this choir flourished – becoming a lively community of singers of every walk of life, constantly welcoming fresh faces into the fold.

Making it pitch perfect

On a cold Saturday morning in early April, the hundred-or-so Cheep Trill-ers congregated to share their magic with crowds that wandered the markets of West End, Australia.

Brightly dressed, members of both the northside and southside chapters gathered to sing four pieces to a small crowd seated by the Brisbane River.

After 10 weeks of rehearsals, the debut is a big moment of payoff.

Rockelle noted her feelings of anticipation, like “a ray of sunshine.”

“My ears are soothed, my tummy settles and my heart swells with love,” she says. “I feel light, I feel bright. I feel like I’m worthy. And that there’s something here for me — let’s keep going.”

For Emily, it was a moment of clarity. “Like that is the only thing that I’m thinking of in that moment. I’m not even thinking of the fact that I’m singing and remembering the words, I’m just thinking about how it sounds together, how we’re blending our voices together.”

There’s a type of synchronicity, too, in how the singers discuss working creatively in the name of a common goal.

“That’s the power of a choir. It’s supportive, like you’re an instrument in an orchestra, and everyone’s voice is part of that,” Piet says, who sees Cheep Trill as “a second family”.

Piet has been singing along with a Brisbane community choir known as Cheep Trill since 2018, and describes how “that collective buzz lifts you. All the nerves just disappear”.

Liz Bremer joined in the spring 2024 semester, as a personal challenge for herself after her father’s passing – to try something new each year that she’s afraid of.

“When it clicks, everybody starts to sound like one voice and you sort of don’t even hear yourself. And that’s when as soon as the song’s finished, you just feel elated. It’s really energizing,” she says.

“It feels electric,” adds her new friend Lucy, another alto/tenor who recently joined Cheep Trill. “There’s something beautiful about doing something where you can mess up and maybe embarrass yourself in public, but then you don’t. Even if you sing off-key or you accidentally sing the wrong lyric, it is such a safe place.”

Lucy hands the microphone over to Liz: “It reminds you that you’re not alone.”

Professor Wilson refers to this phenomenon as kama muta, a Sanskrit phrase translatable as “being moved by love”.

“It’s that real sense of being moved by music and being part of maybe something that’s bigger, a communal sense, a higher connection,” says Wilson.

In fact, the long suspected correlation between music and our feelings of nostalgia or kama muta are currently being researched by one of Wilson’s doctoral students at the University of Melbourne. That research remains under investigation, but Professor Wilson’s hypothesis is that the overwhelming communal feeling that choir singers report could be a crucial evolutionary function for music.

Emma describes it as: “This great joy, and a great relief that comes from being a part of something bigger than yourself”.

“Singing solo is a very different experience to singing in a group. You feel lifted, you feel supported by so many other people around you,” she says.

“You are creating something so special, that is not only making the people in the choir happy, but also the people listening to it. You’re giving this incredible gift to people witnessing this magic.”

This is another element with scientific literature supporting it. A different study by Professor Dingle and her UQ research team in 2023 suggests that witnessing a choir performance “can foster admiration, respect and positive regard toward choristers” among those seated in the audience.

That’s an apt description of the crowd that came to watch Cheep Trill. They did notice, however, one singer standing towards the back who became a bit teary during a choral rendition of Nightswimming by REM. It struck an emotional chord, probably.

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