The Myth of the Power of Singing: Part 2

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In the first instalment of this series I highlighted the positive narratives that surround music-making in general and choral singing in particular, and argued that, whilst they undoubtedly feel experientially valid to those who share them, they would benefit from some critical examination. In this post, I start this critique by considering how choral practitioners’ relationship with science often lets enthusiasm run ahead of intelligence.

Singing and Pseudoscience

We know from our own lived experience that singing contributes to our wellbeing, and we like to share that experience. All too often, though, we promulgate nonsense in service of our cause. The self-help/self-improvement industry produces a regular stream of feel-good articles that mix up cherry-picked morsels from empirical studies with earnest encouragement from creative practitioners into a pseudoscientific concoction that vividly exemplifies the genre of literature that has memorably been termed ‘Neurobollocks’ in the blog of that name.

The reason I know about this literature is that it is gleefully shared not only by the many amateur singers amongst my social media contacts, but also by my music-professional colleagues. And, frankly, it makes us look stupid; it’s like a dietician sharing advice from Gwyneth Paltrow.

To take an example from 2018 that shows up periodically in my Facebook feed. This is an extract from a Canadian Broadcasting Company blog post entitled ‘The science behind why choir-singing is good for you’.

[Daniel] Levitin points to a wealth of neurological research that suggests our brains release oxytocin when we sing with others.

"That's a chemical that's involved in social bonding and it's believed to give rise to the feelings of togetherness and friendship that comes from singing together," he said.

Group singing, in other words, scientifically strengthens a community.

Levitin also says the act of listening when singing in groups causes
participants' brain responses to synchronize with one another.

"If your brain waves themselves are synchronized, that would sure be a way to make you feel closer to others wouldn't it?"

Here we have two grand claims in the space of a hundred words. And, despite the claims to science, both signal in the way they are presented that they are at least partly speculative. That oxytocin ‘is believed’ to be linked to feelings of togetherness when we sing with others is a tacit acknowledgement that the relationship between physiology and emotion is far from straightforward, but this is glossed by the writer reporting Levitin’s views as ‘scientifically’ proving the case. In fact, when I did a bit of digging to look at some of the ‘wealth of neurological research’ I found some very interesting findings from 2017 that reported a decrease in peripheral oxytocin levels after choir singing. This article also highlighted that unless a study uses invasive techniques such as syringing fluid from the lumbar, the oxytocin levels it measures for example in saliva may have relatively little correlation with levels of the hormone in the brain. Even the part of this first claim that did not look speculative, that is, turned out to be far less certain than it seems.

The second claim’s speculative nature is signalled by the rhetorical question that makes the leap from synchronised brain waves to feelings. It’s a good question actually: would having your brain waves synchronised make you feel closer to others? I have no idea. Conversely, would feeling closer to others make you more likely to synchronise your brain waves? How would you go about sorting correlation from causation here?

I was also intrigued about why it was specifically the act of listening while singing that was purported to effect this synchronisation. How would you devise an experimental protocol that would show that it was the listening, rather than any other part of the coordinated acts involved in group singing, that would synchronise your brain waves? Some digging here suggests that the claim about brain wave synchronisation is also speculative. There seems to be a well-established literature showing that people listening to music synchronise in this way (as apparently do people watching movies and children in classrooms), and moreover that the effect appears stronger for live music than recorded.

But I could find no studies documenting coordinated brain waves in groups of singers; indeed, reading the experimental protocols for capturing EEG data from subjects listening to music makes it clear that such studies would be logistically complex. Hence the reason this claim is phrased in terms of listening here is because this is the only bit of the process that does have experimental support. This has been then extrapolated twice: first to the assumption it will also apply to active musical participants, and second to the psychological effect it will have on them.

This is not to say that these claims may not turn out to be accurate, merely that there does not appear to be any evidence that they are currently anything more than supposition. Indeed, if you wanted to show that singing in groups makes you feels good, you’d be better off collating anecdotal evidence from participants, where there is a high degree of consensus, and a clear basis as to the status of the knowledge. I note that the oxytocin article from 2017 I mentioned above uses the self-reported data on singing and mood as the basis for choosing singing as an activity to study.

The genre of neurobollocks exemplifies one of the key identifiers of a cultural mythology: that people believe anything and everything that affirms the narrative, without stopping to question the evidence. To take a related, though non-choral example: everybody wants to believe that learning a musical instrument helps a child be better at all their academic subjects as well as a self-motivated independent learner and effective team member. A meta-analysis of studies that purported to demonstrate this, though, revealed that the degree to which these effects were detectable was inversely proportional to the rigour with which the studies had controlled for other factors such as socio-economic background and parental support.

The key point about this stage of my critique is not that our narratives about the Power of Singing are wrong, but that we do ourselves a disservice if we try and persuade others of their validity by pointing to poorly-conducted science, or speculatively extrapolating from well-conducted science. If we want people to take our grand claims seriously, then we need to be meticulous in the kind of evidence we adduce to support them.

In Part 3, the narratives themselves will come under closer scrutiny.

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