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Social Sound-Making: A Mental Health Tool for Happiness and Unity

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard the statistics: an increasing number of Americans are suffering from poor mental health and loneliness.

Our living spaces and technologies have evolved much more rapidly than our physical bodies, which remain adapted for a life spent mostly outdoors amongst a communal group. Experts have attributed our modern sadness to our bodies' deep nostalgia for what's missing: time spent in nature, being part of a tribe.

These days, spending hours outdoors with our tribe isn't practical for most. But we can experience something else that brought our ancestors joy: social sound-making. From the dawn of humanity through the Industrial Revolution, people enjoyed group singing, instrument playing and story telling on long walks, during tedious chores, and around the fire. Nowadays, most people only get those experiences in elementary school.

A decline in attendance at religious services means fewer people are singing along with others. Whether or not you were a member of the choir, attending services has historically involved group singing. And that was a good thing: if you were feeling cranky or had a bone to pick with a townsperson singing behind you, raising your voices together led to a release of endorphins, a feeling of unity, and natural easing of tension. Those benefits were heightened if you were a choir singer, actively harmonizing with the people around you.

people singing in a group together

The same can be said for cultural traditions of singing folk songs and patriotic anthems in communal spaces like bars, town fairs, parades and sporting events. In the U.S. it's become increasingly rare to hear bar-goers break into a song that everyone knows and sings along with. It's also less common for MCs to lead people in song at a community or school event, like they did in my grandparents' day. At sporting events we may get to sing the national anthem, but too often we are set up as an audience watching a vocalist perform the anthem rather than lead us all in song.

Reading poetry aloud is also less common than it was. While the rise of poetry slams and rap as an art form is encouraging, in our personal lives we've largely abandoned the old ways of reciting poetry in romantic courtship or as a pastime time with friends. Telling tales, group singing, or sharing poems was typical at parties before radio and television. Now, we tend to be passively entertained rather than participate in social sound-making.

Pop culture often portrays reciting poems, caroling and choir singing as nerdy or old-fashioned. Corporate America prefers that we passively observe, buying expensive concert tickets and watching perfection-driven singing shows like American Idol and The Voice. Which is a shame... too many compare themselves to what they see on TV and decide, "I can't sing." We need to express song and rhyme from inside ourselves, with our own voices, without fear of embarrassment, in community with our peers... our ancient bodies crave it! That's why children love songs and rhymes so much; they are closer to the primordial memory of how important singing and storytelling was in human society.

Let's reclaim that part of ourselves which naturally loves song and rhyme! There are marvelous resources out there providing opportunities to sing, rap, or recite poetry with others. You can even do so from the privacy of home with apps like Smule, which connects users looking to sing duets. Here's an encouraging article from Oxford University, Mental Health Boost of Group Singing, about the growth of secular community choirs.

How would you like to sing a carol with me right now? Or, with three of me?

Sigh... those strange times of Covid and virtual Christmas concerts. As Director of Music for the Hopewell United Methodist Church in 2021, I was always looking for ways to keep things interesting. (Stay tuned for details on a similarly styled Christmas concert I'm producing this year, a vocal trio called "The Christmas Belles")

Some other ways to experience the uplifting effects of social sound-making:

  • Drum circles (google "drum circle near me" to find one)

  • Singing circles (there is one in NJ the first Wednesday of each month here)

  • Secular and Church choirs

  • Open mics and public Jam sessions

  • Hosting a party: hire a singer to lead your guests in song!

People often feel shy when you're first getting the song going, but if you provide lyrics for them and create an atmosphere of fun without pressure to sing well, they will join in and before you know it, everyone's singing! And feeling good, feeling unified as a group.

When I produce concerts, I try to include some group singing. My StoryTellers concert this past April included a "We Are the World" sing-along early in the show, which had about half the audience singing along. Later in the show, more people joined in for "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" and "I Saw the Light." It takes time for everyone to let loose and join in.

Another show I produce, the Hopewell Hayride Country Music Show, always includes group singing. Our featured sing-along for this month's show (Saturday, June 15 @6:00pm) is "Keep on the Sunny Side". I see the same pattern every time; some people jump right in and start singing, others look around, checking to see if others are singing, and then start to sing along shyly at first... but as more voices join in, soon everyone is singing along with gusto and smiling from ear to ear!

P.S. a secret all musicians know.... social sound-making keeps us young! In the June Hayride show, I am the only headliner under age 60. And the others play/sing circles around me. Our main headliner in June is Ann Brown, who is 91 years old and still sings/plays guitar professionally. The producer I inherited this show from, Al Kessel, just passed away at age 90 and was playing right up until the end. But you don't have to be a musician to enjoy the benefits. Make an effort to incorporate social sound-making into your monthly calendar and I guarantee you will feel happier, younger, and more social!

Wishing you sound spirit, sound mind, and sound body.



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