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Feeling Isolated? Try Choral Singing

New research suggests singing together was the original way our hunter-gatherer ancestors forged bonds with strangers.
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(Photo: 1000 Words/Shutterstock)

(Photo: 1000 Words/Shutterstock)

As our attention shifts more and more to our electronic devices, are you feeling isolated from the people around you? If so, you might want to try a technique that apparently worked for our ancient ancestors: Choral singing.

Newly published research confirms that raising voices together is an effective way to forge feelings of connection and inclusion. Moreover, it finds this effect is particularly robust for singers who are part of a sizable ensemble featuring many unfamiliar faces.

"The finding that singing together fosters social closeness—even in large contexts where individuals are not known to each other—is consistent with evolutionary accounts that emphasize the role of music in social bonding," writes a research team led by the University of London's Daniel Weinstein.

Confirming such accounts—or, at least, finding evidence to determine their plausibility—was a goal of the researchers, whose study is published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior. Scientists have long been pondering why humans make music, with some suggesting the art form arose as a courtship ritual.

Singing together releases endorphins (which have been called "the body's natural opiates") no matter the size of the group.

Others, however, argue that it's much more likely that music developed as a way of fostering social cohesiveness. They point to evidence that singing together, or engaging in rhythmic movement as a group, encourages cooperative behavior.

But does this really work as the groups involved get larger? Weinstein and his colleagues argue that is a key question, since the ability of one tribe (say, 50 people) to cooperate with others played an important role in our species' survival.

The researchers note that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would "seasonally aggregate to form 'mega-bands' numbering several hundred individuals." These caveman conventions, if you will, provided "a safety net against local resource failure by bringing information about resources in other areas."

"The activities performed in these short-term mega-bands include group rituals, which often involve singing and dancing," they add. "These behaviors have commonly been interpreted as a means to create and maintain affiliative ties that bypass the need for all individuals to personally interact with one another."

To test this interpretation, the researchers enlisted a British group called Popchoir, which is made up of 10 small choirs, featuring 20 to 80 members who practice together on a weekly basis. While they don't trade foraging tips, the singers' behavior mimics that of hunter-gatherers, in that, once or twice a year, they merge into a choir of several hundred singers.

The researchers visited six of the 10 smaller groups, and persuaded 133 singers to spend a few minutes before and after a rehearsal answering questions designed to measure their feelings of inclusion and connectedness. They then did the same with 80 participants before and after a rehearsal of the combined chorus.

In addition, 125 members (45 from one of the small choirs, plus 80 from the combined ensemble) agreed to take pain-threshold tests before and after a rehearsal. Blood pressure cuffs were slowly inflated on each participant's non-dominant arm; they were instructed to say "now" when the pressure got "very uncomfortable."

The researchers found pain thresholds were significantly higher following rehearsals, and this effect was roughly the same for people who performed in a large chorus or a smaller one. This suggests singing together releases endorphins (which have been called "the body's natural opiates") no matter the size of the group.

Turning to the questionnaires, they discovered "the sub-choirs began with a higher baseline level of bonding"—a predictable finding, "since the small choirs meet once a week, whereas the mega-choir meets infrequently."

However, members of the large choir experienced "a greater change in social closeness" than those in the smaller groups. Specifically, they recorded larger post-rehearsal increases in connectedness, and higher scores on the Inclusion of Other in Self scale.

This means "the social bonding effects of singing are actually more substantial in larger group settings compared to smaller, more familiar groups," the researchers conclude. "This supports the notion that diverse cultural phenomena such as national anthems, religious music, team chants, or military marching bands are behaviors that promote social bonding in large groups of individuals who do not necessarily know each other personally. Such behaviors may have played a crucial role in human evolution by allowing us to increase community size significantly beyond those found in other primate species."

So it appears that, by encouraging a large number of people to work for the common good, group singing helped human populations grow and thrive, allowing us to ultimately become the dominant force on the planet. While not every species may agree that's a good thing, the finding does have implications for today's Homo sapiens.

If you want to get a pleasant, drug-free rush, and feel a stronger sense of connection with your fellow men and women, take a tip from our very distant ancestors: Find a group aligned with your musical tastes, and start singing.

I'm guessing Fred Flintstone was a baritone.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.