Choral Singing and Self-Identity

I haven’t previously given any thought to choral singing. I’ve never been much of a singer, not even in private. My desire to sing in public with a group of others is next to non-existent. So, it never occurred to me what might be the social experience and psychological result of being in a choir.

It appears something odd goes on in such a situation. Maybe it’s not odd, but it has come to seem odd to us moderns. This kind of group activity has become uncommon. In our hyper-individualistic society, we forget how much we are social animals. Our individualism is dependent on highly unusual conditions that wouldn’t have existed for most of civilization.

I was reminded a while back of this social aspect when reading about Galen in the Roman Empire. Individualism is not the normal state or, one might argue, the healthy state of humanity. It is rather difficult to create individuals and, even then, our individuality is superficial and tenuous. Humans so quickly lump themselves into groups.

This evidence about choral singing makes me wonder about earlier societies. What role did music play, specifically group singing (along with dancing and ritual), in creating particular kinds of cultures and social identities? And how might that have related to pre-literate memory systems that rooted people in a concrete sense of the world, such as Aboriginal songlines?

I’ve been meaning to write about Lynne Kelly’s book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. This is part of my long term focus on what sometimes is called the bicameral mind and the issue of its breakdown. Maybe choral singing touches upon the bicameral mind.

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It’s better together: The psychological benefits of singing in a choir
by N.A. Stewart & A.J. Lonsdale, Psychology of Music

Previous research has suggested that singing in a choir might be beneficial for an individual’s psychological well-being. However, it is unclear whether this effect is unique to choral singing, and little is known about the factors that could be responsible for it. To address this, the present study compared choral singing to two other relevant leisure activities, solo singing and playing a team sport, using measures of self-reported well-being, entitativity, need fulfilment and motivation. Questionnaire data from 375 participants indicated that choral singers and team sport players reported significantly higher psychological well-being than solo singers. Choral singers also reported that they considered their choirs to be a more coherent or ‘meaningful’ social group than team sport players considered their teams. Together these findings might be interpreted to suggest that membership of a group may be a more important influence on the psychological well-being experienced by choral singers than singing. These findings may have practical implications for the use of choral singing as an intervention for improving psychological well-being.

More Evidence of the Psychological Benefits of Choral Singing
by Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard

The synchronistic physical activity of choristers appears to create an unusually strong bond, giving members the emotionally satisfying experience of temporarily “disappearing” into a meaningful, coherent body. […]

The first finding was that choral singers and team sports players “reported significantly higher levels of well-being than solo singers.” While this difference was found on only one of the three measures of well-being, it does suggest that activities “pursued as part of a group” are associated with greater self-reported well-being.

Second, they found choral singers appear to “experience a greater sense of being part of a meaningful, or ‘real’ group, than team sports players.” This perception, which is known as “entitativity,” significantly predicted participants’ scores on all three measures of well-being. […]

The researchers suspect this feeling arises naturally from choral singers’ “non-conscious mimicry of others’ actions.” This form of physical synchrony “has been shown to lead to self-other merging,” they noted, “which may encourage choral singers to adopt a ‘we perspective’ rather than an egocentric perspective.”

Not surprisingly, choral singers experienced the lowest autonomy of the three groups. Given that autonomy can be very satisfying, this may explain why overall life-satisfaction scores were similar for choral singers (who reported little autonomy but strong bonding), and sports team members (who experienced moderate levels of both bonding and autonomy).

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