It’s a stressful time for everyone as we navigate an unprecedented social health crisis, and this stress is multifaceted. There are of course the concerns about the spreading of COVID-19, the mortality rate, and the ability of the health system to cope. Then there’s concerns over the economic shock that we are experiencing in real time, threatening the economic security of millions.
As we start self-isolating, there are also stresses of reduced social connection. This includes social opportunities that are part of our everyday lives, like going to work or school, attending church or just stopping by a cafe for a coffee, but also the added concerns for people who are separated from family and worry about their health and well being.
Choir participation and well-being
My research examines the well-being benefits of social group participation, and specifically looking at whether group singing provides unique benefits. Evolutionary theories of group singing argue that it provides a shared emotional experience that is overwhelmingly positive, that it facilitates group cohesion, and as a result it encourages prosocial behaviours.
So it’s been fascinating watching how group singing has increasingly been centred as a way to improve well-being for people who are socially distancing and/or in lockdown.
The videos from Italy and Spain have been shared widely. Other initiatives are also capitalising on ways to provide singing opportunities while people are housebound; for example, in Australia the high-profile Pub Choir has created the Couch Choir, the UK has an ‘at home’ virtual choir, and the US has a nightly Quarantine Sing-a-long.
While there is strong evidence that choir participation assists with improving mood (see for example here, here and here), my research found that there were no significant differences for choir members, exercise class members or even those who participated in a discussion group (further studies are in press). Most people today have many options for socialising and it could be that preference and choice are more predictive of well-being improvements than the activity itself.
Virtual singing and social bonding
Or, it could be that music engagement is a ‘proxy’ activity that helps to bridge the lack of social connection, becoming more salient in our lives when we are feeling socially isolated. It may explain why we love listening to music while driving alone in the car or while doing housework. In fact, this possibility has been explored in research published last year.
Researchers surveyed individuals about their motivations for watching television, reading fiction, and listening to music, and found that indeed people do use these activities as a form of ‘social surrogacy’, or as a social substitute when direct contact is not possible. Furthermore, they found that music operated differently to reading fiction or watching television because it evokes nostalgia and personal memories.
This confirms research that finds that musically-induced memories are common, vivid and generally positive, and for people with reduced memory capacity they persist longer than other kinds of memory triggers, such as photographs. The footage from Europe indicates that people are tapping into these shared memories through singing well-known folk songs or children’s tunes. In other parts of the world, where songs are less connected to a strong shared cultural heritage, the songs tend to be older, well-known pop songs. In both cases the song choices are tapping into a shared history.
There has also been research comparing virtual to live choir experiences, where it has been found that members of a virtual choir reported a greater sense of social presence than a live choir. This may sound improbable – wouldn’t one feel more social presence when surrounded by people? But it dovetails nicely with the theory of music as providing social surrogacy; isolated choir members have a greater need for social connection, and consequently they may be more likely to sense increased social connection.
Why we need some feel-good group singing
Singing together, even virtually, is therefore likely to provide us with improved mood and reduced stress in this highly uncertain time. Is such activity frivolous at a time like this? Not at all. First, positive emotion states have a strong impact on our physical health, which has perhaps never been more important on a global scale than it is right now. Positive emotions also increase resilience, a protective factor against depression and anxiety.
Positive emotion states are also vitally important to our cognitive processing capabilities. Our emotion states serve as a kind of red flag for our brains, helping to focus attention where it’s needed.
Research shows that chronic stress can interfere with decision-making capabilities, particularly for strategic decisions or longer-term planning. Positive emotions also facilitate creativity and moments of insight (those ‘Aha!’ moments when a solution springs unbidden to mind) – both things we will desperately need to navigate through our current circumstances.
With social activities on hold, music’s role in improving socio-emotional well-being is coming to the fore. If you’ve been feeling shy about pitching up to a choir, the strange circumstances we are current experiencing make a great opportunity to try participating virtually.
Image credit: Freepik
Susan Maury is a PhD candidate at Monash University. She is looking at the well-being benefits of group singing and leisure activities.