Have you ever noticed that when you are feeling particularly happy and excited about the day ahead, you sometimes spontaneously sing your favourite song in the shower? Or maybe after a good day you might sing along to the radio when you are in the car or cooking your evening meal?
Even the most melodically challenged of us will admit to occasionally singing when we are in a good mood (if we think that no one is listening!) It can feel like the most natural thing in the world no matter if we can carry a tune in a bucket or not. But why is this and why can singing be such an uplifting experience?
There is actually a scientific basis as to why singing is such a universally enjoyable experience. When we sing, neural pathways are triggered in the body, resulting in the release of endorphins, the hormones that are linked to the pleasure and reward centre in the brain.
There are over 20 types of endorphins, and they are released in response to pleasurable activities, and also to help us cope with pain or stress. Singling also releases oxytocin, AKA the ‘love hormone.’ This helps us to feel good about ourselves and to form more positive and trusting relationships with others.
The latest research shows that music is an effective way to stimulate the vagus nerve, which is described as an ‘electrical superhighway.’ It is a communication channel between the brain and the rest of the body, and regulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The PNS is the part of the autonomic nervous system that helps the body to return to a state of calm after a stressful experience. It is a counter to the sympathetic nervous system, which is activated in response to trauma and is responsible for a racing heartbeat, raised blood pressure, and fast shallow breathing.
The larynx is connected to the vagus nerve, so when you hum or sing a familiar tune it triggers the PNS and you will soon notice that your heart rate begins to slow, your breathing becomes more regular, and you are able to think more clearly. Even if you are not feeling particularly stressed, singing is a great way to enhance your mental wellbeing.
Singing can also be a very useful way of managing anxiety. This is because it encourages us to take deep breaths, which allows more oxygen to travel around the body. This signals to the PNS that it is OK for us to relax and rest, and releases us from the ‘fight or flight’ mode that kicks in when we are stressed and anxious.
Breaking out into song is also an excellent way to distract a busy brain, which is a useful trick if you are prone to negative self-talk or tend to brood over the past or worry about the future. The effort of recalling the lyrics to your favourite song unlocks the vicious circle of unhelpful thought patterns and brings you back to the here and now.
Young children will often unselfconsciously sing along to the radio, or even make up their own songs and melodies. Unfortunately, as we get older, this natural spontaneous creativity tends to leave us and we become more judgemental about ourselves.
Obviously, breaking out a tune whenever the notion takes us is not always practical or acceptable behaviour, but becoming too inhibited about singing, or any other form of creative expression for that matter, can deprive us of one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Singing helps us to express those deeper emotions that we tend to keep suppressed most of the time, giving us a healthy outlet for whatever is in our hearts— sadness; loneliness; love or joy. Whether you feel inspired to join a community choir, or just join in when you hear a decent tune on the radio, we can all benefit from the power of song in our lives.