Research has shown listening to music can have a pretty powerful impact on your brain: picking you up or calming you down. But this holiday season, you shouldn’t just listen to music, you should make it.
More specifically, if you’re trying to feel more connected, you should find a group of people you like and sing songs together that you enjoy, says Frank Russo, director of the Science of Music, Auditory Research, and Technology (SMART) lab at Ryerson University’s department of psychology.
“We talk about being in sync with someone else, but we’re not actually tightly in sync,” Russo says. That changes when you sing along with others.
As director of SMART, Russo spends a fair bit of time inflicting stressful situations on volunteers — think out-of-the-blue demands that you make a public speech on a controversial topic — in order to see how music and group singing can make a person’s anxiety better or worse.
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On the listening side, there’s a fair bit of evidence: one study found music could help decrease perceived stress levels (although it hedged on whether that was the music or the associated memories), while another found it had a small benefit to pre-operative hospital patients.
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Music Therapy analyzed dozens of studies and found music helped decrease pain, helped decrease heart rate, and helped decrease the emotional stress a person felt as a result of pain, among other impacts. However, an international study showed that music did not significantly help children with autism.
Russo acknowledges that not everyone gets a benefit.
On the singing side, he says there is definitely a subset of the population that won’t get the same brain benefit and, for whom singing in groups might actually have a negative impact.
But for many, the connection provided by carolling or singing in a choir or an after dinner musical jam is deeper than when they play soccer, hockey, or settle in for a game of cards.
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While research at SMART and other labs has identified that heightened sense of connection, Russo says they can’t exactly explain it.
“We’re trying to figure out why that is,” he says, “why you feel especially connected.”
What Russo can explain is why a singalong impacts you differently than just hitting play on a song.
In other words, breathing among all the singers becomes aligned, the neurons in their brain start to fire in tune, and ultimately all of their heart rates start to align, beating in sync.
On a practical note, Russo says singing, unlike other group activities, demands such synchronicity.
“We take a breath in and then we get the phrase out and then we get the breath out,” he says. “It becomes very noticeable in singing because the breath is critical. If you don’t breathe you’re not able to sing.”
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What does that mean in a warmer, fuzzier sense? Here, Russo speculates since the research — evaluating impact on resilience and ability to tolerate pain — is ongoing.
“We probably feel less alone in the world,” he says. “We’re reminded that we’re part of a tribe. We feel stronger than we felt before we sang.”
Whether you get similar benefits from singing solo is for a future study, Russo says. For now, his advice is pretty simple: if you enjoy singing, find your people this holiday and break out in song.
— with files from the Associated Press