We all know how good it feels to sing. But we seldom comprehend the exact magnitude of that goodness, and so we fail to realize how much we are missing when we choose not to sing. It can be a tempting choice to avoid singing when we are afraid of sounding a certain way, or afraid of not sounding a certain way.
If the sound of your own voice triggers feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, I know exactly how you feel. In my work, I am all about removing the barriers we experience – the fears of judgment, the myths of talent, the exhausting measuring stick of comparison – so that singing can have its true power, in ALL of us. What exactly is that “true power,” you ask? Read on, my friend. By the end of this article you will be dying to let it flow!
1. Singing Massages Pleasure Receptors
When you sing, your vocal cords vibrate. In fact, singing is just a long, drawn-out vibration, steady enough to be able to perceive a particular pitch. But your vocal cords aren’t the only things that vibrate when you sing. Those vibrations spread throughout your head and chest, creating rich sounds of many different colors and qualities.
Everything that these vibrations touch is a part of you, a part of you that loves to be touched. So, when you sing, you are actually giving the inside of your body a massage, reaching places that no hand can touch… only your voice. And, because your body loves to be touched, inside and out, these vibrations, when you tune into them, actually feel immensely pleasurable. They release oxytocin. Imagine a kind of chocolate that you could eat all day, every day, that would only bring you more health, vitality, and wellbeing, the more you ate. Singing is that kind of chocolate.
2. Singing Releases Emotional Tension
Have you ever noticed the sensations created inside your body by different emotions? Sometimes we just notice the thoughts associated with an emotion, but behind every feeling we have is a bodily sensation. Each emotion comes from a certain kind of energy, held, or moving through a certain part of our body. When we have big emotions that we don’t let through, it can create tension inside our body… heartache from grief leading to a tightness in the chest, or sometimes simply tension in our brain from conflicting voices fighting with each other.
The massage created when we sing not only feels good, it also releases the tension we hold inside us from built-up, unreleased emotion. Hence, the importance of “self-expression!” In a culture where we can sometimes be starved for healthy outlets for our emotions (no, yelling at your kids is not a healthy choice) singing is an amazingly powerful, and enriching choice: for you, and all those around you.
3. Singing Helps You Name Deep Truths
You can massage the inside of your body and release emotional tension just by humming or singing nonsense sylables. But there’s nothing like belting out a song that manages to put into words EXACTLY how you feel, is there? Psychologists and brain scientists have shown us the immense power of NAMING our experience. The words help us make sense, and find our way out of what can feel like the turbulent waves of life. Studies have also shown that when we hear words in rhyme, we are more likely to believe them to be true. (Crazy, right? See Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow).
Now, imagine massaging pleasure receptors, releasing emotional tension, naming the emotion and the story behind it in rhyme, all within a few lines of a song. Suddenly one folk ballad becomes just as powerful as a professional massage, energy healing session, and talk therapy, all combined together. (Plus, you don’t have to pay anyone else to let you sing!)
4. Singing Calms Your Breath
Breath is at the center of many forms of meditation, and for good reason. I’m not going to go into the science of the breath here… you can find it all over the internet. Let’s just say a slow, steady, deep breath works wonders. And yet, as a somatic practitioner, I have noticed time and time again the tense contortions people will make when someone tells them to “take a deep breath.” I have been there, too! When I work with people releasing tension around their breath, I help them focus on continuing to release their breath out for as long as possible, until that natural reflex from deep within their body kicks in, and the breath just rushes, naturally and completely, into their lungs, like a wave on the beach.
When it comes to calming and deepening the breath, a long, slow, and complete breath OUT is key. Which is exactly what we do, without even thinking about it, when we sing. Talking can be short and choppy. But singing extends each line outward. The chants I write from a calm and centered place carry within them a natural timing for my breath. And so each time I return to sing the same chant, I re-regulate the rhythm of my breath to a state of calm.
5. Singing Connects Different Parts of Your Brain
Perhaps you’ve heard about the left and right hemispheres of your brain, your amygdala, brain stem, etc. Language and lists (10 things!) are usually held in the left hemisphere… so I was definitely appealing to your left brain when I wrote this headline. But melody lives more in the right hemisphere. And poetic language that we often use in song, combines the hemispheres. As do patterns created through rhythm and pitch.
Music doesn’t belong to just one part of your brain, it belongs to your whole brain – even stretching into the most ancient, “reptilian” parts of your brain (See Sacks: Musicophilia). So when you sing and especially when you improvise or compose, your brain is buzzing and connecting on all levels… which is key for brain health, and happiness!
6. Singing Connects Your Head, Heart, and Gut
The breath and vibration and words of singing can touch on all these different parts of you, sometimes together, sometimes one part more than another. I notice that high notes tend to massage my brain, while low notes massage my lower chest, and my middle-range massages places in the middle including unknown, unexamined parts of my inner body. And, every note begins with my vocal chords, located inside my neck which is a powerful portal between my head and the rest of my body. When I create melodies that will specifically help me open up a connection between my head and my heart, I let the notes move a lot from low to high, and back, and I also choose notes that specifically massage the area where I feel a block.
7. Singing Inspires Movement
Once again, I don’t need to take up space here to tout the benefits of moving your body. And yet, I don’t know about you, but when those words “should” and “exercise” pop into my head, I don’t exactly feel like getting up and going for a jog. When you aren’t already in the habit of exercise, it can be difficult to start that motion. And, it’s beneficial to start small. Some rhythmic music makes it almost impossible NOT to want to dance, but even a calm tune, when we sing it, creates a bodily reflex to sway and move with the beat. The notes may mostly be massaging the inner parts of your head, neck, and torso, but it doesn’t take long before the rest of your body wants in on the action, and will discover its own way to feel good by moving, and dancing along.
8. Singing Connects Us With Our Ancestors
One of my favorite lullabies to sing to my son has been “Skye Boat Song.” The words I sing were written in the 19th century, but the tune itself is much, much older. I have heard that it was an old gaelic rowing tune. Few of us will ever get to hold an object in our hand that was held by our own, ancient ancestor, hundreds of years ago. But our bodies can hold a tune that was sung that long ago. To me, that feels like an extremely powerful connection to hold.
It’s amazing how resilient tunes are, over the eons. Many Christian hymns were set to older, pagan folk tunes. We may not know the words, or the language, but we can still hold the same rhythm and vibration in our bodies that our ancestors did. Part of what makes a tune feel good to us is its familiarity. Even little parts of a new tune contain intervals and small patterns that feel so familiar to us, because our own ancestors have been singing those same small patterns ever since we were human. And so, singing gives us this sense of belonging, of wholeness in remembering who we are.
9. Singing Connects Us With Each Other
Sharing those vibrations with another person, or a whole group of people, just amplifies the elation that singing can bring about. Even if we are not able to sing together (due to something like a pandemic), when we sing FOR another person, we are able to open our heart and share ourselves on a much deeper level.
We hear the evidence of all the magic that is going on inside the body of another when we hear someone sing. We hear the sound of their emotions come through in their tone, we hear the sound of their heart opening in response to their own vibrations. When we are able to set aside artificial comparisons, and actually sing TO each other, instead of trying to be impressive for each other, singing becomes one of the most powerful expressions of love we can offer.
10. Singing Connects Us With the Earth
And, the entire universe. I spent time practicing cello in Costa Rica in a room that looked out on dense jungle behind the house where I was living. Many days when I played, there was an amazingly beautiful bird that came and sat outside the window. Some nights, as I was going to sleep, I could hear a hauntingly beautiful birdsong. I don’t know for sure, but deep down I trusted that the bird I could hear singing was the same one who would listen to my cello. It made sense that it would be, because the richness in the bird’s song felt so much like cello music.
The cello is such a satisfying instrument to hear because, of all the instruments, it is actually closest to the sound of the human voice. Today, I am much more satisfied being like the bird and creating the sounds I once made through the cello through my body, instead. Song is something that we humans have in common with many species. And we can connect and communicate with other species through song.
Not only that, the whole universe is vibrating at tones that are imperceptible to the human ear. Recent scientists have calculated these vibrations, and ancient mystics have referred to them as “the music of the spheres.” When we sing, we join our vibrations into something much larger, that our human brains can’t fully comprehend. The harmony we create within our body when we sing helps us tune in to a harmony all around us.
All these amazing gifts are available to you, right now, in this very moment, their power held inside your very body. They are available to you regardless of how much money you have, where you live, and what physical condition you are in. They are yours to enjoy whether or not the sounds that come when you sing approximate the pitches in the western scale. They are yours even if no one has ever told you that you have a beautiful voice, and especially if people have told you much worse.
The chants I write, the meditations I share, and the teachings I offer inside of my community are all designed specifically to slip beneath judgment and self-doubt, to disintegrate fear, and to liberate your voice’s true power. In a culture of fear, singing can take a great deal of courage. If you are ready to step into that courage, then stick around. We are starting a vocal liberation movement, right here!
MB Bolin, The Mystic Bard
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