A choir sings for Civil Rights on the steps of City Hall, 1960's.  Photo, courtesy In Our Own Image.

Perfect Harmony: The Power of Music and Why We Sing

We observe African American Music Month with a look at the dynamics of singing on our health and well-being.

Most of us would probably say that we love to sing, and also enjoy the vocal stylings of others who do it well. I’m no singer myself, but I admit I do love to sing. There’s something about the way singing makes me feel – euphoric almost – that has always alluded to a power in music and song I knew I didn’t not fully understand, especially after years of awakening each morning to good feelings and random old-school musical compositions and harmonies in my head that I hadn’t actually heard in decades.

Pop-idol illusions and family protests notwithstanding, what is it about singing that we find so gratifying? Why do the church choir’s perfect harmonies make the hairs on our arms stand on end? And how does a song we haven’t heard in ages bring on a flood of emotions and memories? Recently, I got up the courage to take my curiosity public by accepting an opportunity to sing with a choir at church. It was an easy decision to make, but because of fear and doubt,  a difficult one to stick to. At one point I actually quit because I just didn’t think I belonged there (“What on earth am I doing here? I can’t sing! I’ll never learn all these lyrics…!”).

The idea of quitting felt so wrong, however, I went back to the choir: and when I did, I had one of the most incredible experiences I’d had in years.

Here’s a list of 5 things you may not know about singing that could change your life:

  1. It’s good for our health. Research shows that singing, an aerobic activity, is good for your heart,
    The West Angeles Mass Choir sings "Halleujah!"

    The West Angeles Mass Choir sings.

    lowers stress, improves self-esteem, releases endorphins and oxytocin, is both calming and energizing, and has been known to diminish the symptoms of depression, dementia, and other conditions. And because singing uses more of your brain than any other activity, it can actually make you smarter, stronger, and live longer, too, according to a 2008 Harvard-Yale joint study. Musical notes create vibrations and combine to create melodies; combinations of letters and sounds which form words have vibrations, too. When singing is combined with positive uplifting lyrics, it can send messages to your brain and the rest of your body which can literally change your physical and molecular composition for the better (crazy, huh?).

  1. Singing creates community. According to the non-profit group Chorus America, group singing is on the rise. Over 32.5 million adults sing in choirs, up by almost 10 million over the past seven years. Choir singing creates a group bond beyond other types of activities, and has even been known to create a common heartbeat between members. When I sang in the choir, I found myself joined with all types of women for a common purpose. I saw divisions diminish, negative bonds broken, friendships created; participants even provided financial and emotional support for each other.
  2. The Fisk Jubilee Singers prepare for a trip to England. Photo, courtesy John Partipilo / The Tennessean

    The Fisk Jubilee Singers prepare for a 2015 trip to England. Photo, courtesy John Partipilo / The Tennesseean

    Keeps us focused on purpose. The songs sung by enslaved Africans contained codes which kept them sane under inhumane conditions, kept them focused on freedom, and gave them directions to stops on the Underground Railroad.

  3. Music connects us to our history. For millenniums, indigenous peoples in Africa, the Americas, and around the globe have used music, drums, and song to communicate with the creator and with others in the tribe, and to connect with all life in God’s universe. Those same rhythms and harmonies were found in the work songs of enslaved Africans in America, which gave birth to the American Negro Spiritual. With the birth of the Pentecostal Movement and the Church of God in Christ, those Spirituals were transformed into a new form, through hand-claps, which gave birth to the Gospel music of today.
  1.  It connects us to God. Our heartbeats, our breathing, our pulse…God keeps us alive, all life has rhythm, and rhythm is the basis of song. Through song, history, and the intricate vocal arrangements of the choirs, especially those in our Holiness churches, “Each service, each song, is designed to invite the presence of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Protestant church’s “Holy Trinity,” says Glenn Hinson, in an interview with Robert Darden for People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music. No wonder the Psalms have been set to the music through the ages…what better music to sing than that which connects you to God and the rest of the universe?

The experience of singing amidst 100 other voices during my time in the choir left my entire body pulsating with the vibrations of music; for months afterwards, in my mind and in my spirit, I could only hear the songs we sang. Whatever music we surround ourselves and our children with today  should always have the same effect: inspiring us to worship stronger, to dream bigger, and to reach higher.

Karen Lascaris is  the author of “In Our Own Image: Treasured African American Traditions, Journeys and Icons” (Running Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2001).  She is a regular contributor to Westa.org.


To read more about singing, here are 7 scriptures which encourage us to sing to the Lord:

Psalms 104:33I will sing unto the LORD as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.

Acts 16:25And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.

Ephesians 5:19Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;

Colossians 3:16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

James 5:13Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing psalms.

Revelation 5:9-10 – And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll,
And to open its seals;
For You were slain,
And have redeemed us to God by Your blood
Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,

10 And have made us kings and priests to our God;
And we[f] shall reign on the earth.”


 

Listen to “A History of Gospel Music” with Michelle Norris on All Things Considered; courtesy, NPR.