Did you know that when we sing in a group, our heartbeat adjusts to match those of the people we’re singing with?
The first time I heard this fact, I was amazed and in awe. I didn’t stop to think about how or why this happened, preferring instead to accept it as part of the magic in the universe that ‘just is’.
If the feel good factor and sense of transcendence experienced whilst singing collectively has its roots in a scientifically proven physical base, what else in the world is not as it seems? Unicorns? The bid for freedom made by socks in the wash?
But the more I thought about it, the more curious I became about the synchronisation of heartbeats and so, with a grudging reluctance, I decided to read about why, and even how, this occurs.
In 2013, Swedish musicologist Dr Bjorn Vickhoff and a team of researchers conducted a study called ‘Kroppens Partitur’ or ‘The Body’s Musical Score’ into the effect of music on our physiology and emotions. One of the findings was that when we sing in unison, our bodies – namely our hearts – respond in a very interesting way.
Vickhoff used a group of 15 high school choir members who were connected to pulse monitors and asked to sing a variety of material. The group started by humming together before moving on to a Swedish hymn “Härlig är Jorden” (Lovely is the Earth), and ended by chanting a slow mantra. Vickhoff and his team were able to see that as the choir sang in unison, their pulses began to match, speeding up and slowing down at the same time, and that this effect occurred very quickly across the group. The slow chants produced greater synchronicity than the humming and the hymn; perhaps because the group had been singing for a while by this point in the study, and so their intake and release of breath had been coinciding for longer.
As we sing, we begin to control our breath in the same way as yogis do during their practice, and the positive outcomes shared by both singing and yoga are a slowed down and less variable heart beat associated with the relief of stress and anxiety, and helpful in reducing blood pressure.
Vickhoff explains “When you sing the phrases, it is a form of guided breathing…”You exhale on the phrases and breathe in between the phrases. When you exhale, the heart slows down…In the case of controlled breathing, the heart rate or pulse decreases when breathing out during exhalation in order to then increase again when breathing in during inhalation. This is due to breathing out. Exhalation activates the vagus nerve that lowers the heart rate which slows down the heart…Our hypothesis is that song is a form of regular, controlled breathing, since breathing out exhaling occurs on the song phrases and breathing in inhaling between these…”
So by singing together with others, we benefit physiologically from a slower, more regular heartbeat, we become relaxed and receptive and we experience a sense of connection, returning to our normal place in the world feeling all the better for it. And much as one has to respect the amazing and scientific findings of Bjorn and his team, that’s still pretty magical, whichever way you look at it. And so is the sight of an odd sock-wearing unicorn.
CMVic Online Editor
Further reading: Frontiers in Psychology: Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers. 09 July, 2013: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334