Last week British singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading presented a series of 15 minutes programs on BBC Radio about choirs, from gospel to world music and classical. In one, she interviewed medical practitioners who describe the various benefits that singing can have on both mental and physical well-being, as well as talking to several people whose own lives have been completely transformed as a result of starting to sing in a choir.
“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)”Professor Stephen Clift of the Sidney de Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health at Canterbury Christchurch University in the UK, has conducted the first major European survey on the effect of singing on physical and mental well-being. The Centre is committed to researching the contribution of music and other participative arts activities in promoting the health and well-being of both individuals and communities.
Professor Clift’s survey provides evidence that singing in harmony with others, such as in a choir or in parts, is particularly beneficial. The outcomes reported include increased happiness as well as reduced stress levels; singing in unison also helps people cope with and recover from mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia. Singing therapy is now being used to treat people suffering from dementia and stroke; even if you lose the ability to speak as the result of a stroke, it doesn’t necessarily interfere with your ability to sing.
One of the Centre’s aims is to unearth the scientific evidence that singing can measurably improve people’s lives, whether young or old. Its goal is to introduce a practical scheme for ‘Singing on Prescription’ in the UK, to which people could be referred by their doctor, in a similar way to existing arts and exercise schemes, which have been very effective in increasing both the physical and psychological health of participants.
The power to transform lives?
It seems that music is being used in many different ways around the world to unite communities of people as well as to raise individual self-esteem and self-efficacy. Thousands of miles away in Paraguay, Sonidos de la Tierra (Sounds of the Land) is a music school set up a few years ago by the conductor of the country’s symphony orchestra, Luis Szaran. Sonidos de la Tierra operates in the slums and orphanages of Asunción as well as in Paraguay’s remote villages. One program is based in Cateura, a shantytown of cardboard and plywood houses right next to the capital’s biggest rubbish dump. In Cateura about five thousand people survive day-to-day by scavenging through the rubbish for recyclable materials such as aluminum cans and glass and plastic bottles. You could earn as much as $8 a day for doing this…
Although the children of Cateura are no longer allowed to work at the rubbish dump, the likelihood is that they would eventually follow in their parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps if it weren’t for organizations like Sonidos de la Tierra which offer them the chance of a better life.
The Sonidos de la Tierra website tells the stories of many Paraguayan children whose lives have been transformed through music. Take Daniel Allende, who started working at the age of six, but who learnt to play guitar and then violin, and with the support of this organization, now teaches classes to children and young people who live and work in Asunción. Or Aureliano Rodríguez , the sixteen year old who used to be one of the many thousands of street children, living on an abandoned lot in Asuncion. He used to have to beg for food and spent his nights sniffing glue, but now he’s an advanced trombone player, working in tile factory and with dreams of playing music professionally.The music school’s objective is not only to give hope to, and raise the self-esteem of, the many individual children and young people whose lives would otherwise be spent literally in the gutter, it also aims to develop social cohesion by spreading the use of music throughout the country. In addition, it’s self-sustaining, i.e. it doesn’t have to rely on external donors for survival; 90% of its annual resources (about $10m) is generated by the local communities in which it operates. Szaran’s hope is that some of the young people participating in the program will be able to create positive futures for themselves as makers and repairers of musical instruments.
Positive Psychology in Practice
From a positive psychology perspective there are several different explanations for the effectiveness of singing and making music in improving physical and psychological well-being, for example:
- Self-Determination theory: making music alone and in groups fulfils the three fundamental human needs for autonomy, competence, and relating to others.
- Flow theory – making music is the ultimate flow experience. Playing an instrument is challenging, and as we develop our skill levels, we move on to more demanding pieces. The same goes for singing in unison – not only must you hit the right notes, you have the challenge of keeping time too. Thus the experience of flow is maintained whether you’re a complete beginner or an expert.
- Hope and Optimism – the Sonidos de la Tierra music school enables street children and young people to start believing that their lives can actually turn out for the better. They can start setting meaningful goals, for example, and develop ways to achieve them.
- Strengths – finding something you can excel at and that you enjoy doing, and being given the opportunity to do it regularly, is one of the most enduringly positive experiences we know of.
I’m sure there are many others. To quote Luis Szaran himself, “Sonidos de la Tierra is not only about good musicians; it’s about good citizens… It’s a school for human values. In our case, music is the excuse to create this network for social change in Paraguay”.
The New Seekers (1971). I’d like to teach the world to sing (In perfect harmony). Written by Roger Cook, Roger Greenaway, Bill Backer and Billy Davis. Produced by David Mackay.
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Snyder, C.R., Rand, K.L. & Sigmon, D.R. (2005). Hope theory: A member of the positive psychology family. In C.R. Snyder & S.J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp, 257-276). New York, Oxford University Press.
The New Seekers: released 1971. Written by Roger Cook, Roger Greenaway, Bill Backer and Billy Davis. Produced by David Mackay.