I’m 11 years old and I’m sitting at a long table in the mess hall. The primitive building has cement flooring, a raised ceiling, and enough space to comfortably hold a few hundred kids and dozens of counselors. Just as I am about to ask one of my fellow campers to please pass the ketchup, the sound of conversation and silverware against plates is drowned by the sound of a song. It’s coming from a few tables over. Before the first verse is over, every conversation has ceased. Everyone in the room is singing about the wishy washy washer woman who washes her clothes in a way that I will eventually come to realize is weirdly sexual: “She goes ‘Ooh-aah. Oooh-aah.’”
Over 25 years later, I still haven’t experienced anything else (legal or illegal) that instantly puts my brain in the same relaxed, joyful state I experienced while singing at camp. I can’t help but wonder why. Apparently, I’m not the only one wondering what’s behind this phenomenon. According to the experts, it’s not just something in the bug juice.
Singing changes your mood – and your cells
Science has actually proved that the act of singing, as opposed to the experience of listening to music, is a natural mood elevator. A 2012 study published by Evolutionary Psychology found that in comparison to simply listening to music, the active performance of music (they tested singing, dancing, and drumming) elevated subjects’ endorphin levels. Endorphins are the “feel good” chemicals your body naturally produces. They have a lot in common with opiates and prescription anxiety medications and elicit a similar sense of well-being – without any of the side effects.
Similarly, a 2004 Journal of Behavioral Medicine study found that participants who sang in a choir demonstrated increases in positive affect (i.e., subjective mood) based on self-reports and, according to saliva samples, higher levels of immune system function than those who simply listened to the choir music.
A 2010 study from Music Performance Research also found choir participants self-reported high levels of mood elevation, stress reduction, and psychological well-being as a result of singing.
Meanwhile, the benefits of singing are not limited just to the talented. They also extend to tone-deaf people like me. In fact, A 2002 paper published in Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science suggests the less serious a singer you are, the more benefits singing can offer you. Researchers found that after a singing lesson, amateurs reported elevated levels of joy and elatedness, while professionals did not. That said, both the pros and the amateurs reported feeling more energetic and relaxed after a singing lesson. Additionally, both groups demonstrated significantly higher oxytocin levels after a singing lesson. (Oxytocin, a hormone released in both men and women during orgasm and in women when breastfeeding, plays a significant role in pair bonding – including the parent-child bond and between romantic partners. Further, oxytocin deficits are thought to contribute to depression.)
More is more
We know that singing in the shower or your car makes you feel like a rockstar, and we have the science to prove it. Science also shows us that we may be wired to feel even better when we sing in a group – and the bigger the group, the better.
A 2016 study published in Evolution and Human Behavior asked participants to provide subjective reports on social bonding and had their pain threshold measurements (representative of their endorphin levels) taken before and after singing for 90 minutes. Subjects either sang in a large group (over 200 people) or a small group (ranging from 20 to 80 people).
For both groups, feelings of social connectedness improved. Even more fascinating was that for those in the large group the improvement was significantly steeper, despite the fact that many of the participants were strangers to one another. Researchers conclude that the group cohesion facilitated by singing is consistent with evolutionary theories highlighting the role of music in social bonding, “particularly in the context of creating larger cohesive groups than other primates are able to manage.”
When you’re talking to someone who has never been to camp, it’s hard to explain the connected, joyous high you feel while singing “You’ve Got a Friend” over the sound of crickets, surrounded by fellow campers. They may look at you funny when you say it’s nothing short of a spiritual experience, but you can stand your ground, knowing there is plenty of science to back you up.