Home All Music and Song: the Sounds of Hope?

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

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:

  1. Self-Determination theory: making music alone and in groups fulfils the three fundamental human needs for autonomy, competence, and relating to others.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Carver, C.S. & Scheier, M. F. ( 2002). Optimism. In C.R. Snyder & S.J. Lopez (Eds.) Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 231-243). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.

Linley, P.A. & Harrington, S. (2006). Playing to your strengths. The Psychologist. 19(2 ), 86-89.

Park, N., Peterson, C. & Seligman M.E.P. (2004). Strengths of character strengths and well-being, The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23 (5), 603-619.

Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Snyder, C.R. & Lopez, S.J. (2007) Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths. Sage Publications.

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.

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James 26 May 2008 - 2:55 pm

I grew up in a culture of singers and musicians in the Deep South. As a singer and musician, singing and making music has always served to heal, to calm, to uplift, to change, and is a potent force for good and for transformation. Thank you for writing about the power of music and song.

Wayne Jencke 27 May 2008 - 6:25 am

Did you know that singing changes the rate at which you breathe? It slows it down and you spend more time exhaling – the same breathing techniques taught in yoga.

Barbara Dalton 27 May 2008 - 8:43 am

For a look at the truly transforming nature of singing and choirs, have a look at the Choir of Hard Knocks (http://www.choirofhardknocks.com.au/). This choir was started in 2006 by an opera singer from Opera Australia and is made up of street people, people with disabilities, mental illness and other disadvantaged backgrounds. The ABC made a TV show about the creation of the choir and the choir has now gone on to make 2 CD’s and to perform all around Australia. It is an amazing story.

Bridget 9 July 2008 - 4:31 am

Thank you for your comments. I’m sure that the culture of singing and music-making isn’t the same the world over (even if the benefits are universally the same), and that, as you point out, there are some in which music has always been an essential part of everyday life – the Deep South and New Orleans in particular spring to mind.

And I wonder if this culture of singing and music-making has changed much over time – I wonder how many mothers (or fathers) still sing lullabies to their babies for example…

Bridget 9 July 2008 - 4:34 am

Hi Wayne
Thank you for pointing this out – despite having sung in choirs for a number of years, I wasn’t aware of this connection with yoga breathing – it makes perfect sense!

In our MAPP class a few weeks ago we were taught a yoga breathing technique which I guess is exactly what you are referring to – you breath in through the nose for a count of 3, and out through the mouth for a count of 6. We found it incredibly calming.


Bridget 9 July 2008 - 4:43 am

Hi Barbara
What and amazing and uplifting story! Thanks for sending the link. I’ll pass it on to everyone I know. I’m looking forward to watching the documentary.

Nilda 27 September 2008 - 9:59 pm

Very interesting and informative article. I have just become interested in Positive Psychology and have been looking for articles and books connecting music to positive psychology.
Your stories bring out the positive effects of music on people’s lives in an extraordinary manner. I hope more people become aware of the benefit of music and use it to acquire mental wellness.
Thank you!

Nikos 8 November 2009 - 11:43 am

I am not sure whether this post is outdated or long ago abandoned.

I am 63 years old retired public servant, living in Athens Greece. I started studing music theory and playing piano 6 years ago while living a hardship mission abroad in distant Venezuela. I intentionally chose the most difficult subject for me to study. A year later, in Greece continued piano and theory of music. After studing by taking private lessons I made a progress in Solfege, and now I am studying Harmony. Next month I shall take very difficult exams for entering the University which requires for people already having a University degree to be examined in a. Harmony, b. dictee (to write down the notes while the teacher plays the piano) and c. a very tough university textbook about History of Greek Music. Only one person will be admitted to the University based on that exam.

Is it crazy to compete under these terms? what shall be the benefit of an eventual success? Changing my brain?

I am trying to make a theoretic connection between a. Cognitive Theory, b. Harmony (rules of music) and c. Search Engine Optimization (Internet), by establishing the special rules that make some messages succeed and others fail either in music or in general communication.

Because of my age, studing is diffucult but I don’t give up. Do you have any words of encouragement? And if I fail in entrance examination, how shall I proceed to find what I am looking for?

Sarah 30 November 2009 - 6:35 pm

Just curious, are the results and benefits found in Paraguay the same results that would be found across cultures when socioeconomic aspects are not similar?

Bridget 7 December 2009 - 5:29 pm

Hi Nikos

Thank you for your comments – you’re clearly someone who relishes a challenge! In my opinion, lifelong learning is vital to ones wellbeing and mental fitness. You’re a role model to all of us.

Whilst I was studying positive psychology we covered Carol Dweck’s mindset theory, which is fascinating because of its connection to confidence and resilience, and the ability to learn from failure. You can find a lot of information about growth and fixed mindsets on the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing website here:


There is research evidence from the field of neuroscience that learning helps create neuron connections in the brain, which therefore makes the brain denser; musicians for example, have larger auditory centres in their brains compared to non-musicians. So yes, learning does change the brain!

If you haven’t already taken your University exams – Good Luck from all of us! Let us know how you get on.


Bridget 7 December 2009 - 5:33 pm

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for your comments and your question about the benefits of singing/music in different socio-economic contexts. Professors Clift and Hancox did some research on the benefits of singing with a University choir in the UK – you may want to read the paper here:


I’ve come across two interesting pieces of research on the benefits of singing in a choir; the first conducted with old people and the second with prisoners, suggesting that choral singing is beneficial to mental and physical wellbeing:

Southcott, J. (2009). ‘And as I go, I love to sing’: the Happy Wanderers, music and positive aging. Journal of Community Music, 2(2/3), 143-156

Cohen, M. (2009). Choral Singing and Prison Inmates: Influences of Performing in a Prison Choir. Journal of Correctional Education, 60(1), 52-65
Recently in the UK there’s also been another series of The Choir on BBC TV, in which choirmaster Gareth Malone worked with ordinary people from a Hertfordshire housing estate to create and train a community choir. Whilst these fantastic (and uplifting) programmes are not longer available to watch, you can see some of the video snippets here:



Bernd Willimek 3 January 2014 - 11:09 am

Music and Emotions

The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:


or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:


Enjoy reading

Bernd Willimek, music theorist


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