Last March, as the coronavirus raged across Italy, something remarkable happened.
To raise one another’s spirits in the midst of stay-at-home orders, people started breaking into song from their windows and balconies.
Before we knew it, impromptu communal singing would spring up in other places around the world as well.
Without knowing it, these vocalists were keeping their memories sharp and focused.
Researchers have extensively studied how playing a musical instrument affects the brain.
They’ve found it strengthens the brain’s neuroplasticity – its ability to adapt and form new neural networks. As a result, there’s improved ability to learn new information and retain new memories.
While many never have the desire to take up a musical instrument, most of us have access to one particular instrument – our own voice.
And yet, the effect of singing on neuroplasticity in healthy adults hasn’t been well researched. This is surprising when you consider that tens of millions of Americans – pre COVID-19 – were engaged in singing in choirs and other groups.
Fortunately, researchers from the University of Helsinki in Finland have changed that, and their results are exciting.
The Memories of Singers vs. Non-Singers
The researchers studied the effect that singing in a choir had on 106 neurologically healthy adults aged 60 or older while another group of non-choir singers acted as a control.
All participants filled out six questionnaires which evaluated cognitive functioning, depression, social well-being, quality of life, and the role music plays in their daily schedule. They also underwent a battery of neurological tests.
In addition, the singers were divided into two groups based on how long they’d been singing with a choir. Those who had started earlier in life and had sung in a choir for more than ten years were the high activity group, and those who had started later in life and had sung in a choir for one to ten years were the low activity group. The results were remarkable.
Choir Singing Improved Verbal Memory
The main finding of the research was that all singers outshone non-singers in verbal flexibility, which in turn reflects better cognitive flexibility, similar to playing a musical instrument.
Lead researcher Emmi Pentikäinen commented, “Playing a musical instrument has been shown to be connected to better cognitive functioning in several areas of cognition, for example cognitive flexibility, attention and memory.
“There is now evidence that choir singing could perhaps lead to better cognitive flexibility.”
Two other findings came out of the study and one was very unexpected.
Choir Singing Improved Social Engagement
The high activity group scored better than both other groups in terms of social integration. The researchers believe the personal relationships formed with other choir members binds them together and becomes an integral part of their social life.
The surprising finding was that low activity choir singers had better general health than both of the other groups.
Emmi Pentikäinen speculated on the reason for this, saying, “It’s possible that the people who have joined a choir later in life have thus found the motivation to maintain their health by adhering to an active and healthy lifestyle.”
She concluded, “Choir singing is easy to do in practice, with little cost. It’s an activity that requires versatile information processing, as it combines the processing of diverse sensory stimuli, motor function related to voice production and control, linguistic output, learning and memorizing melodies and lyrics, as well as emotions roused by the pieces sung.”
If these new findings don’t encourage you to join a choir post lockdown, then nothing will.
In the meantime, you can open up your window or step onto your balcony to belt out your favorite tune and see if others will join you. Of course, if that doesn’t appeal to you, there’s always the shower.