July 16, 2013

Music Changes Hearts and Minds

People who sing together also share changes in heart rate. They may like each other a little better, too.

Music lovers have long felt that music moves them. The effects can range from calming to energizing and everything in between. In recent years scientists documented the physical and mental health effects of music.

Now, a new study goes further, suggesting that when people sing together, their hearts respond together – and these effects are not just physiological, they’re psychological, too.

The researchers asked a group of fifteen 18-year-olds to sing a Swedish hymn, a monotone chant, and a slow mantra, and measured their heart rates while they were singing.

To their surprise, they found that the structure of the music and its melody affected the heart rate: the singers’ heart rates rose and fell together along with aspects of the music they were singing.

Songs with long phrases achieve the same effect as breathing exercises in yoga. In other words, through song we can exercise a certain control over mental states.

“We already know that choral singing synchronises the singers' muscular movements and neural activities in large parts of the body, ” said Björn Vickhoff in a statement. “Now we also know that this applies to the heart, to a large extent.”

Singing affects the vagus, a major nerve pathway in the body, Vickhoff explains. The vagus nerve has many branches and influences everything from blood pressure to gut function to depression. “[The vagus nerve] is involved in our emotional life and our communication with others and which, for example, affects our vocal timbre,” he adds. “Songs with long phrases achieve the same effect as breathing exercises in yoga. In other words, through song we can exercise a certain control over mental states.”

Breathing is known to calm our sympathetic nervous system, which governs the stress response, and singing may have its effects on heart rate partially through its impact on breathing.

But the results of the study speak to another effect seen with choral singing where people come together around a single shared endeavor. “One need only think of football stadiums, work songs, hymn singing at school, festival processions, religious choirs or military parades,” says Vickhoff. “Research shows that synchronised rites contribute to group solidarity.” This group effect itself may help regulate and calm our bodies and minds.

The research team is thinking about other types of applications – like singing together as a way to strengthen relationships among students in schools. In the meantime, if you’re feeling like your heart or mind could use a tune-up, make some live music together with friends, or barring this, cranking up the iPod may also do the trick.

The study was carried out by a team at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden and published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

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