Whether you croon solo in the shower or find your voice in a community choir, singing not only makes you feel good, it's also a healthy antidote to ageing.
Singing is good for your general wellbeing, but once you get to the other side of 50 you can start demanding more than that. Essentially, you need singing to keep you feeling young. Here is a short selection of the ways in which it might:
Then rest assured that the muscles and tissues of the face have much more chance of staying toned when regularly employed in producing extreme sound frequencies.
Well, singing helps maintain good tone in the muscles of the throat and the palate of the mouth. With your vocal folds constantly stretching and contracting and tilting in order to produce notes, you can bet on them retaining a youthful sound. And the less age-battered your voice, the younger you will feel.
In terms of aerobic exercise, singing is said to be equivalent to a brisk walk, with the added bonus of a good tune.
Aches and pains?
Ideally, when you’re singing you have your spine aligned and your whole body active, especially the core muscles, which is generally good for holding you together in everyday life. Plus you’re producing natural analgesics and maximising your breath control, which can prove useful for pain relief.
Many older singers have tried applying a bit of vocal technique to such night-time horrors, opening up the back of the throat and lowering the larynx as we fall asleep. It may not be entirely error-free, but definitely a way to reduce the worst of the gurgles and growls.
Dr Nina Kraus’s Brainvolts program in Illinois has done some interesting work on this, establishing that even if your musical education starts late in life, your brain will benefit. There will still be heightened plasticity in your grey matter, and myelination (sheathing) in your neural pathways.
Meanwhile in Oslo, scientists have set up a Life Brain Project, analysing ways to prevent cognitive decline in the ageing population. It is a complex affair, but lifetime data pooled from across the European Union shows significant benefits for people who sing. They put this down to the active stimulation of so many neuroligal functions all at once, keeping the brain muscle fit and healthy.
The sad truth is that everyone’s hearing gets worse with age, with the higher frequencies dropping out. This often means we start missing certain parts of words, like ‘s’ and ‘sh’ and ‘f ‘ sounds. Dr Kraus has established that singing counters this by speeding up our sound processing abilities, and improving general auditory perception.
In a noisy social environment, say in the hubbub of a party or pub, an older hearing system is sensitive to the clamour, and struggles to zone in on the particular textures and frequencies of an individual voice.
As we get older, we start to find such experiences just too tiring and too debilitating, and gradually opt to stay at home, leading to isolation. Dr Assal Habibi at the University of Southern California has been trying to ascertain whether social singing can help. His trial observed a group of older folk joining a weekly choir and compared them with a control group who attended mindfulness classes instead.
Using EEG probes and other assessments of their ‘speech-in-noise perception’, he established that by the end of just a few months’ singing, the choir members’ auditory cortex functions were much better than those in the mindfulness group. In crowded places, they experienced an improvement in their ability to decipher what people were saying.
Alongside Dr Habibi’s work comes research from Finland where they tested the cognitive benefits of choral singing for healthy older adults, comparing a group who participated in regular choir sessions with control subjects who didn’t sing. The conclusion was that singing consistently boosted verbal flexibility.
If you are feeling your age and happen to be considering an alternative hobby to singing, then think again. In 2019, a study led by Dr Daisy Fancourt of more than 7300 older people across the UK revealed that greater wellbeing and healthier ageing was enjoyed by those who believed their life was filled with worthwhile activity, especially involvement in creative and cultural events.
In another study, 166 older adults were assigned to regular choir rehearsals, and their health was compared with a non-singing control group. The singers fared significantly better in their overall health ratings, reducing their number of visits to the GP, their use of over-the-counter medications, their falls and other accidents. The researchers could find no better antidote to the effects of ageing.
Julia Hollander is a singing therapist, teacher and performer. At the age of 25, she was the first female opera director at the English National Opera, and she has staged operas all over the world including for Victoria State Opera. She has written for the Guardian and Telegraph newspapers and for magazines including Opera Now, The Spectator and Red.
This is an edited extract from Why We Sing by Julia Hollander, published by Allen and Unwin.