12/17/2012 10:22 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Sing Out for Joyous Holidays, Healthy New Year

From Ireland to Slovenia, patrons can stop by a pub or tavern and feel reasonably sure that song will break out. All over Africa, hospitals, hotels and businesses have employee choral groups that meet after work to entertain each other and visitors.

But here in the United States, unless we make a living through song and music -- or try to -- there are few outlets for the simple joy of singing. Even in our places of worship, there's often as much lip-syncing going on as full-throated vocals. If we belt out a musical number at all, it's probably in the shower, or alone in the car with the windows rolled up.

But we also should get over our shyness, and the holiday season is a great time to start. Music and song -- listening and especially participating -- is good for the body as well as the mind.

Joining in on door-to-door caroling may, in fact, help you ward off a winter cold. Researchers at the Hanover University of Music and Drama recruited 31 amateur singers ages 29 to 74. About half the group sang songs, while the other half merely listened to music. They took saliva samples of everyone, measuring secretory immunoglobulin A, a measure of defense against colds and congestion, and found it increased in the singers. The choristers reported that they found singing emotionally rewarding and mentally refreshing, but the act of singing also enhanced one measure of their immune systems.

Every singer knows that rhythmic breathing -- strong, fast inhalations followed by extended exhalations -- is necessary to hold notes and to create beautiful sounds. Research suggests that regular, intense singing practice leads to improvements in cardiovascular and pulmonary strength. The very act of singing increases respiratory muscle strength, which could improve symptoms in diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

At least since World War II, when investigators found that music could have a therapeutic effect on shell-shocked soldiers, science has set about discovering how and why, as the English poet-playwright William Congreve noted, "music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak."

We know that music can ease depression in older adults. One study of 50 depressed elderly adults in Singapore had half of them listening to their choice of music at least once a week for eight weeks while the other half did not have music introduced regularly into their lives. After eight weeks, the group that had listened to music had a statistically significant reduction in depression.

Some research has shown that singing releases that feel-good hormone, oxytocin. That's the chemical released when mothers give birth and when they breast feed. It is also released when lovers flirt and it surges through both men and women when they have sex. That might help to explain why singing just plain feels good.

Even in one of the most serious mental illnesses, schizophrenia, music therapy helped patients to better communicate socially and express themselves. When researchers analyzed eight studies involving 483 schizophrenic participants, they found that when added to standard therapy, music therapy resulted in improved mental state, fewer negative symptoms (such as hallucinations), and improved social functioning in schizophrenic patients.

Music in Healing

Music has escaped the elevator and made its way into hospital waiting rooms, children's wards, and surgical suites. That's no accident. One aspect of the immune system of hospitalized children gets a boost after just one session of music therapy. Music has beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system, on blood pressure, on pain control and on stress. When patients are awaiting surgery, music playing in the background reduces anxiety. It can even inject a dose of calmness in concerned loved ones spending anxious hours in waiting rooms.

As patients recover from strokes, listening to music helps them relax, improves their moods and helps them through the initial stages of recovery. In one study, when stroke patients listened to music every day, it improved their verbal memory and helped them focus their attention -- exactly the things they need to relearn as they recover. We know that the brains of professional singers and musicians have stronger neural connections between the hearing and motor parts of the brain, suggesting that such connections can be developed, so it's possible that making music can begin to set up alternative pathways in those with damaged brain regions.

Singing or playing a musical instrument places more demands on a greater variety of brain areas than simply listening to music. Researchers are using this known overlap of sensory and motor areas of the brain to fashion research into treating such disorders as Parkinson's disease and stuttering with active singing.

When people who stutter sang familiar tunes for 10 minutes and then spoke afterward, one study showed, their stuttering was reduced by 90 percent. Among Parkinson's patients, about 80 percent eventually develop speech problems, and an intensive treatment program named after the first patient to use the program, the Lee Silverman Voice Treatment, can be effective in increasing clarity of speech. Recently, researchers have been adding a singing component -- singing exercises or a participation in a choral group -- each showing promising results.

Womb to Tomb

Response to music is with us soon after birth. Infant gurgles are precursors to both speech and song, and by the time children are in preschool, they are entertaining audiences packed with parents and grandparents with their choral wonders.

At the other end of life, elderly people with the communication deficits that accompany Alzheimer's disease often are able to sing the words of an old, familiar tune.

So let's unashamedly sing out during this holiday season, not worrying about whether we hit an occasional flat note. And let's make a New Year's resolution to release the songs in our hearts throughout the year for simple joy -- and to boost our well-being and health.