A study published last week found that singing in a choir for just one hour boosts immunity, reduces stress, and improves mood in cancer patients. Let’s get singing! 

Singing is a real joy for me. It has been a huge part of my life. I particularly love singing in small groups and am part of two, currently.  A couple of weeks ago I sang in a concert in Sonoma, and in just over a week, I’ll be singing in three more concerts in the north bay area.  For me, there are many benefits to singing, particularly the social aspects, but one that often strikes me is how I can go into a rehearsal wound up and worrying about something, and when I come out I can’t even remember what I was so stressed about. Singing takes concentration and so your mind has to focus on that, and not on other things.

This recent study confirms that feeling. They looked at three populations  affected by cancer – carers, bereaved carers, and patients. A total of 193 people participated in 70 minutes of group singing in one of five cancer care choirs from the Tenovus cancer care program in Wales, UK.

Mood scales, stress scales, and saliva samples were taken both before and after singing to look at changes.

The results in all choirs and for all three types of populations showed:

  • reduced negative feelings,
  • increased positive feelings,
  • increased cytokine activity,
  • reductions in cortisol,
  • reductions in beta-endorphin (neuropeptide involved in stress regulation), and
  • reductions in oxytocin (neuropeptide that modulates inflammation and stress regulation).

There were no significant differences in psychological responses between the three groups, but some biological differences in cytokines between the groups, that warrants further examination in specific patient groups.

Singing is considered a psychosocial intervention but has not been studied as much as other music interventions for cancer patients.  While the results of this study look positive, there are several things to consider: 

  1. The study was not “controlled” in that the test groups were not compared to a group not in a choir, who for example, rested for 70 minutes instead of singing. However, cytokines do not normally change across an hour in the absence of an intervention.
  2. Only a single singing session was examined.  It is unknown what effects repeated singing may have.
  3. The study was volunteer and open to both those with or without singing experience. However, it is unknown if singing could be of benefit for those who would not normally volunteer to sing in a choir.
  4. The cancer patients had varying types of cancer and were at varying stages of different treatments. It will be interesting to investigate the effect of singing with defined groups of patients and different time points, or different biological levels – such as cortisol.

This is just a short study, but it does suggest that singing in a group can lead to enhanced immune function in patients and carers affected by cancer.  The risk:benefit ratio surely suggests its worth a try to boost that immune system!

From a personal perspective, I think the connection made with people during singing is like no other.  I sang a duet with a dear friend at the last concert and there is something so special about making music together – we breathe together, we know how the other is going to react, we know the difficult parts we need to get through and the parts we love the best.  We connect on so many different levels. It’s really a beautiful experience.

Obviously, I’d love to see more research on singing in choirs generally and for patient groups.  There are so many variables however, that makes it difficult to find the optimal choir experience. For example, how do the psychological and biological changes alter between:  rehearsals and performances; what about two and a half  hour long rehearsals, as opposed to 70 minutes(!);  if you know the music and if its too difficult or too easy, etc. 

Maybe we should start a cancer patient and carer choir locally and find out for ourselves….  

Leave a comment to let me know your experiences.
Fancourt, D., Williamon, A., Carvalho, L., Steptoe, A., Dow, R., & Lewis, I. (2016). Singing modulates mood, stress, cortisol, cytokine and neuropeptide activity in cancer patients and carers ecancermedicalscience, 10 DOI: 10.3332/ecancer.2016.631

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