Study Shows Health and Cognitive Benefits of Choir Singing

February 23, 2021

Researchers of the University of Helsinki (Finland) made new discoveries on the health benefits of choir singing which include positive effects on cognitive functioning similar to playing an instrument.

A new research by the University of Helsinki (Finland) in­vest­ig­ates the beneficial effects of choir singing on cognition and well-being of older adults. The study is part of a longitudinal study focused on the long-term effects of choir singing on cognition as well as emotional and social wellbeing.

Alongside the effects of lifestyle, including physical exercise and diet, on ageing, research has increasingly turned its attention to the potential cognitive benefits of musical hobbies involving musical instruments. The 2020 pandemic has demonstrated the significance of music and singing to people’s lives.

The cognitive benefits of playing an instrument are already fairly well known: such activity can improve cognitive flexibility, or the ability to regulate and switch focus between different thought processes. However, the cognitive benefits of choir singing have so far been investigated very little.

The new study by the University of Helsinki, (Finland) – entitled, “Beneficial effects of choir singing on cognition and well-being of older adults: Evidence from a cross-sectional study”, peer-reviewed and published in the “PLOS ONE Journal” – provides evidence according to which choir singing may engender benefits similar to playing an instrument.

“Among different musical activities,” study says, “choir singing is the most popular and widespread hobby, also among seniors. In Europe, there are 37 million choir singers, and participation in senior choirs is growing rapidly.”

In healthy older adults regular choir singing is associated with better verbal flexibility. The results show that elderly singers had better verbal flexibility than those in the control group, who did not have choir singing as a hobby. Verbal flexibility reflects better cognitive flexibility.

Authors explain: “For the brain singing is a highly versatile and multi-domain process, requiring the complex interplay of auditory, vocal-motor, linguistic, cognitive, and emotional processes. Neuroimaging studies suggest that singing entails continuous interaction between two cortical systems, the parietal-frontal (dorsal) vocal production pathway and the temporal-frontal (ventral) auditory perception pathway, which work together as a loop to enable fine vocal motor control based on somatosensory and auditory feedback. In addition to these core systems, also other prefrontal, limbic, and cerebellar areas linked to attention, working memory, rhythm, and emotion are engaged during singing perception and production.”

“Physiologically, singing has a positive impact on cardiorespiratory functions, and the emotional gains of singing are linked to the secretion of endocannabinoids, immunoglobulins, and cortisol. In older adults, regular participation in community-level choirs can reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness; improve self-evaluated quality of life (QOL), physical health, and interest in life; and increase general activity.”

“Longstanding choir activity (>10 years) is also linked to better social engagement and more recently commenced choir activity (1-10 years) to better general health. The study also looked into the potential benefits of choir singing for the emotional and social wellbeing of the elderly, and found that those with a longer his­tory of singing in a choir ex­per­i­ence a greater feel­ing of to­geth­er­ness.”

Researchers concludes: “Together with previous studies, there is emerging evidence that singing in a choir may provide an accessible and useful way to stave off the negative social-emotional sequelae (e.g., loneliness, social isolation) and cognitive decline, which are typically associated with aging. This is highly important to society because the onset and progress of age-related cognitive decline and mood disorders are known to be closely linked to reduced social interaction and executive dysfunction, and there is urgent need for different lifestyle interventions that can be utilized to support healthy aging.”

Emmi Pentikäinen, co-author of the paper, declared: “Choir singing is easy to do in practice, with little cost. 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.

Full Study “Beneficial effects of choir singing on cognition and well-being of older adults: Evidence from a cross-sectional study”
Press Release – University of Helsinki (Finland)