Social Capital Benefits of Choral Singing

Oakland Gospel Choir

Chorus America has a 2009 Chorus report out asserting that choral singing is associated with better outcomes for kids and higher citizenship.  I’m very sympathetic to the claim and suspect it is true — choral societies were after all one of the best predictors in my colleague Robert Putnam’s landmark study on what predicted how well newly formed regional governments worked in Italy.  [see Making Democracy Work.] That said, I don’t find such a single-point-in-time survey like the Chorus America study to be very convincing evidence of this.

It’s just as plausible that good citizenship and choral singing could be linked because good citizenship leads to choral singing or because something like sociability leads to both good citizenship and to choral singing.  Since we can’t randomly assign people to choruses, we really can’t know how the choral singers are different in unobservable ways from the non-singers.

It would be far better to have some sort of panel survey where you track the same people over time and observe some people joining choruses or dropping out of choruses and see how the change in “treatment” (in or out of choruses) affects their social trust or their friendships or their levels of citizenship.

The best evidence I’ve seen on the power of choral singing came from a study done in 2000 by Robert Beck (of U. Cal., Irvine) and others called “Choral Singing, Performance Perception, and Immune System Changes in Salivary Immunoglobulin A and Cortisol” (Music Perception, Fall 2000: 18(1):87-106.) that used saliva swabs before and after rehearsals and performances of a professional choir singing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.  He found that immunoglobulin A (which provides immunity and lowers stress) increased 150% during rehearsals and 237% during performances.  Singers self-ratings of various emotional states were highly predictive of the rise in immunoglobulin A.

As a social capital maven, I wondered how much of this was singing or playing music in groups and how much could have been achieved playing or singing alone.    To my knowledge, Robert Beck hasn’t conducted similar research of musicians practicing alone or musicians playing in groups.  [I know he conducted a later study of college solo singers and found similar results but the rehearsals were together with coaches so they were not really singing "alone."]

One study  found that elderly nursing home residents participating for four weeks  in a choir lowered depression and anxiety and another found  mental and physical health gains from independent elderly people spending one year singing with an established community choir. See Cohen et al. and Houston et. al studies listed at bottom of report.

I haven’t seen any great studies of social capital in choruses, but a bright sociology student at Harvard, Matthew Baggetta, was undertaking a dissertation last year following choral groups in Boston and witnessing how their structure and governance helped influence the civic development of their members since he assumed individuals did not select into choirs based on their administrative structure and hence it was something of a quasi-randomized experiment.  [His dissertation, which I haven't read was called: "Civic Development in Apolitical Associations."]

[The Chorus America study can be found here.  Beck et al.'s 2006 study on college "solo" singers, called "Supporting the Health of College Solo Singers: The Relationship of Positive Emotions and Stress to Changes in Salivary IgA and Cortisol during Singing" , Journal for Learning through the Arts, 2(1), available here.]

See also Kreutz, G., Bongard, S., Rohrmann, S., Grebe, D., Bastian, H.G. & Hodapp, V. (2004) “Effects of choir singing or listening on secretory immunoglobulin A, cortisol and emotional state”, Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 27 (6), 623-635.

Kuhn, D. (2002) “The effects of active and passive participation in musical activity on the immune system as measured by salivary immunoglobulin A (SigA)”, Journal of Music Therapy, 39 (1), 30-39.

Cohen, G.D., Perlstein, S., Chapline, J., Kelly, J., Firth, K.M. & Simmens, S. (2006) The impact of professionally conducted cultural programs on the physical health, mental health, and social functioning of older adults, The Gerontologist, 46 (6), 726-734.

Houston, D.M., McKee, K.J., Carroll, L. & Marsh, H. (1998) Using humour to promote psychological wellbeing in residential homes for older people, Aging and Mental Health, 2 (4), 328-332.

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One response to “Social Capital Benefits of Choral Singing

  1. Powerful blog entry. You definitely know what you are talking about. Keep up the excellent work.

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