Taylor: Singing synchronizes body, breath

Ancient monks felt uplifted while singing sonorous psalms.

Our congregation did a profoundly counter-cultural act last Sunday. We sang.

People don’t sing anymore. They plug loudspeakers into their ears. While they’re at work. Or out for a walk. While they lie on the beach, or commune with nature.

They could be listening to Mozart. Or Metallica. Perhaps they’re learning astronomy or calculus from one of the Great Courses. Sometimes their lips move. But no sounds come out.

People used to sing. They weren’t ashamed of singing out loud. They gathered around a piano in someone’s living room. Even if the piano player mangled the melodies, they sang along. They brought guitars and sang around campfires. They sang as they marched off to war.

The great songwriters and lyricists put people’s hopes and dreams—and their laments—to music. During World War II, Vera Lynn’s songs did as much to lift British spirits as Winston Churchill’s speeches.

We had a funeral recently, a memorial service, at church. The room was packed. But when it came time to sing, fewer than half the people sang.

The music wasn’t difficult. The words were projected on big screens. But more than half of the people didn’t even attempt to sing. They kept their mouths zippered, their faces blank.

Me, I love to sing. In my retirement years, I’m learning a little about harmony. And about rhythm, and timing. But even if I could do nothing but join in the main melody, I would delight in the sheer joy of singing.

Research at the University of Gothenberg suggests that singing together also has physiological effects. “Singing the phrases is a form of guided breathing,” said musicologist Bjorn Vickhoff of the Sahlgrenska Academy (from a report on NPR). “You exhale on the phrases and breathe in between the phrases. When you exhale, the heart slows down.”

Vickhoff’s team measured heart rates as a high school choir sang. Almost immediately, the music caused the singers’ heart rates to fall into a shared rhythm influenced by the song’s tempo.

His conclusions shouldn’t be surprising. We know already that breathing affects heart rates. Yoga and meditation both focus on breathing patterns. Singers must match their breathing to the demands of the music. So it stands to reason that their heart rates would be affected.

Perhaps that’s why ancient monks felt uplifted while singing sonorous psalms in the darkness before dawn. Perhaps that’s why worshippers at Taize and Iona experience euphoria as they chant endless refrains.

So when a congregation rises to its feet to belt out a rousing hymn, or repeats a prayer in unison, they discover a sense of unity. Not just with their minds, but also with their bodies.

Merely listening to a sermon or speech doesn’t evoke a common response. Some will respond favourably to an idea; others won’t. But singing, by its nature, encourages a common response both mentally and physiologically.

As a writer, I believe that the words are important. Many musicians argue that the music itself matters, regardless of the words. But maybe both of us are wrong.

It’s not WHAT people sing; it’s THAT they sing. That they sing together, synchronizing breath and body in a common cause. Singing makes them one.

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