When 22-year-old Stella Green moved back to Toronto from a psychiatric facility in Chicago, she felt lost. “I came back to nothing,” she says. She had no friends and no job. She felt ashamed because she was being treated for depression. As well, she felt she was lagging behind her former buddies who were now university graduates. She started sleeping throughout the day and holed herself up in her tiny downtown apartment. “I was not in the mood to go out and meet new people.” Instead, the intensely musical Green tried to console herself by singing and playing her favourite songs.
Then, in January 2012, she got a phone call that would turn her life around. The Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto had heard of her through her aunt and invited her to be an assistant choir leader for their drop-in chorus. No matter how crappy she felt when she walked into a practice, she would leave feeling uplifted. “After choir, I feel more fulfilled and more energized, like I’ve accomplished something. It’s liberating,” she says.
In choir, Green seems to come alive. Her gold nose ring and multiple ear piercings suggest an attitude of defiance, but this is belied by her soft-spoken voice and downward-looking gaze. When she starts singing, she vibrates with passion, tapping her toes in time to the music and pouring out the high notes.
She’s not the only one to blossom in response to singing. Soon-to-be published research by psychology professor Annabel Cohen at the University of Prince Edward Island proves what most of us always suspected: singing is good for the soul. Cohen enrolled 50 men and women in voice lessons once a week for a year. The response was unanimous — every single one of them said their mental health had improved by the end of the study. Cohen even foresees voice lessons or choirs as a prescription for depression. “Rather than having people taking meds, if they could improve their lives this way, it would be great,” she says.
While it makes intuitive sense that belting out a tune lifts your spirits, scientists are now beginning to understand why. Robert Zatorre, a professor of neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, is probing how music enchants the brain. Most people get chills and goosebumps at the climax of their favourite piece, he says. The body also revs up at these times, pumping up the breathing and heart rate and cooling down the skin temperature. Even more amazingly, PET and MRI scans show that listening to a treasured piece spikes a surge of dopamine through the striatum, the reward centre of the brain. Dopamine is the feel-good chemical responsible for the glow of good sex, the allure of money and the thrill some get from illicit drugs. “So the capacity to derive pleasure [from music] may be innate,” says Zatorre.
Rev. John Ambrose has seen first-hand the power of music to engage the elderly. The United Church minister from Mississauga, Ont., volunteers at seniors’ residences, where he sings and tries to encourage the residents to follow suit. Many of them suffer from depression or dementia. When he arrives, their heads are down and their eyes glazed. By the end of the session, though, some have come to life. “Often their heads lift up and a little smile comes across their lips,” he says. Ambrose suspects that the music triggers otherwise inaccessible good memories.
While listening to music can take you out of a funk, actively producing music through singing may be an even more effective remedy for depression. One recent study showed that oxytocin levels rose after singing lessons, says psychology professor Frank Russo, director of the science and music auditory research lab at Ryerson University in Toronto. (He cautions that it was a small study that needs to be replicated.) Oxytocin, commonly known as the “love hormone,” is the substance produced when we’re feeling close to someone. “That’s the antithesis of feeling depressed and isolated,” he says. As well, serum cortisol levels drop when we sing, says Russo. Cortisol is the stress hormone that readies the body for confrontation. “So by lowering the cortisol level, we’re returning to a relaxed, comfortable physical state,” he explains. The deep breathing required to sing effectively also lowers stress levels, says Amy Clements-Cortes, senior music therapist at Baycrest Hospital in Toronto.
But chemical changes in the brain don’t tell the full story of why we feel better when we sing. “The power of music allows us to express emotions that we couldn’t through words alone,” says professor Sandra Curtis, director of the graduate music therapy program at Concordia University in Montreal. Russo adds that singing lets you vent your troubles safely because there is no fallout.
Green is comfortable airing her feelings in choir. One piece in particular, Es Shlogt Di Sho, a protest song sung by Jews during the Holocaust, ignites her ire. “I get really into it, and I feel anger come out,” she says. This song offers a safe outlet for her rage. “I might not express that range of emotions during the day if I have no platform to do so,” she says.
At the Jewish Community Centre in downtown Toronto, choir members gather every Wednesday to harmonize their voices. The second-floor room is usually used for children’s programs, but when the choir begins to sing, its members seem transported. Wrapped in concentration, many of the singers have closed their eyes, and grey heads bob rhythmically up and down. “I get in the flow and everything else just recedes,” says 48-year-old Jackie Sklenka.
That ability to lose yourself in the moment may be one reason why singing is so good for the spirit. It can give you a break from painful preoccupations, says Curtis. And it is a highly demanding activity, engaging more of the brain than almost anything else. Because singing directs the mind’s focus outward, “it can serve as a distraction from stress and worry,” she says.
Calgary choir singer Lisa Murray (not her real name) echoes Curtis. In her mid-50s, she struggles with the depression side of bipolar disorder. But when she rehearses with her church choir, that all recedes. “I totally concentrate on the craft of singing,” she says. “That’s so good for me, because I forget if there’s anything negative happening in my life.”
Ambrose agrees. An accomplished musician who plays organ and piano, produced the Voices United hymnbook for the United Church and also sings in the Mississauga Festival Choir, Ambrose finds that singing is a great way to clear his head. While he doesn’t grapple with depression, he says that when he’s anxious about something, “I find the choir rehearsal a healthy redirection of my attention.” The effort that goes into learning the notes and the phrasing takes his mind off his worries. “I can come home from rehearsal and the head seems cleared, and I’ve arrived where I need to be,” he says.
Then there’s the sense of accomplishment that comes from mastering a difficult choral piece. “It takes a lot of skill and practice,” says Curtis. You have to get your pitch right, master the dynamics and blend with the other singers. Back at the Jewish Community Centre, the choir struggles valiantly through a difficult piece, Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. The sopranos have all missed their cues. The conductor, Gillian Stecyk, works with this section, asking members to put their hands on their chests and feel their own vibrations. Finally, she invites the altos, tenors and basses to join them, and the melded voices soar in unison. Misty-eyed, Stecyk tells the choir, “I am so proud to conduct you.” The singers beam.
After rehearsal, the choir members troop downstairs to the local Starbucks for coffee. One of the sopranos needs to vent — her 42-year-old son suffers from congenital heart disease and may need a transplant. Meanwhile, another chorister is blithely arranging a blind date for her fellow alto.
The evident camaraderie of the group of men and women from ages 22 to 80 points to another reason that choirs seem to have a positive impact on their members’ spirits: they break the cycle of isolation that is typical of depressed clients, says Curtis, and they give singers a sense of purpose. “It’s like going to the gym and working out,” Clements-Cortes says. “You have a personal goal.” That goal could be performing, but it could also be simply getting together and learning new songs. Having a sense of purpose and contributing to a group “enhances your self-esteem and reduces feelings of depression,” she says.
Singing with her church choir gives Murray a sense of meaning in her life. “So many people identify with their job, and right now I’m not working. But [singing] is part of my job that I do for God.”
Green has come a long way in the last year. Today she works part time at the Jewish Community Centre’s daycare, plays in a hockey league and is living on her own for the first time. She still gets sad and anxious at times, but she’s more confident in herself and credits the choir for the improvement in her morale. “I have connections with people, something to look forward to. I’m happy when I’m there,” she says. “I’m part of something. I have a purpose.”
Vivien Fellegi is a health writer and former physician in Toronto.