HEALTHY LIVING
07/11/2013 10:35 am ET

Choir Singing May Be Good For Your Heart, Says New Study (VIDEO)

Many choir singers would likely attest to the soothing and bonding experience that comes from belting out chants and hymns in unison. And there's science to back them up.

Last year, Norwegian researchers found that singing in a choir may help form social bonds; while a 2007 U.K. study found that choristers were better able to cope with stress.

A new exploratory study out of Sweden reveals that singing in a choir may not only promote mental and emotional well-being, social connection and collaboration, but good heart health, as well.

To study the benefits of choral singing on the body, researchers at the Sahlgrenska Academy at Sweden's Gothenburg University studied the heart rates of high school choir members as they sang in unison. What they found, according to their paper published in Frontiers in Neuroscience this week, was astonishing.

Musicologist Björn Vickhoff, who led the study, explained that not only did the choir members' heart rates slow down as they began to sing, but their heartbeats gradually synchronized, eventually beating as one, with the song's tempo as a guide.

"When you exhale [as you sing] you activate the vagus nerve, we think, that goes from the brain stem to the heart. And when that is activated the heart beats slower," Vickhoff told the BBC, referring to the complex nerve that is believed to be linked to emotional health.

Comparing choral singing to doing yoga, Vickhoff said that the controlled breathing used in both activities may have positive long-term effects on heart health and blood pressure. Vickhoff has also said that choral singing, like yoga, may be beneficial to one's mental and emotional health.

“Singing regulates activity in the ... vagus nerve which is involved in our emotional life and our communication with others and which, for example, affects our vocal timbre," he said in a statement released by the academy. "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."

The synchronization of choir members' heartbeats could also suggest an increased ability to form stronger social bonds or to experience closer connections, says Vickhoff.

"It's a beautiful way to feel. You are not alone but with others who feel the same way," he said, according to NPR.

Though the report, which had fewer than 20 participants, is but a limited look at a largely untapped area of study, NPR's Anna Haensch noted that the work Vickhoff and his team are doing is intriguing in its possibilities.

"This is just one little study, and these findings might not apply to other singers," she wrote. "But all religions and cultures have some ritual of song, and it's tempting to ask what this could mean about shared musical experience and communal spirituality."

Indeed, Vickhoff says the exploration has only just begun. He says he plans to continue exploring the biological impacts of music on the body and health in a long-term project called “The Body’s Musical Score." It is hoped that the project will lead to new music-based medical treatments that may be used in rehabilitation and preventive care in the future.

For more on Vickhoff's findings, click here to visit the Sahlgrenska Academy website.

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