Boney – Singing for your spiritual and physical health

by Michael Boney, R&S Chair for Worship in Music

Sunday morning is the time we all gather as a community to offer praise and thanksgiving to God for the “innumerable benefits procured unto us,” (Book of Common Prayer) and to bring our challenges, concerns, and heaviness to the altar of God beseeching to be heard and helped.

One of the first acts of communal offering occurs during the singing of hymns. Singing is infectious and we are all wired for it by our Creator. From the chirping of birds, the crashing of waves against the shoreline, or the combined voices of the whole of Great Britain singing “Guide me, O thou Great Redeemer” to the Welsh tune CWM Rhondda, music is all around us.

Music has played a significant role in the lives of the faithful and is something we, as Americans, must regain ownership of. In worship, singing should never be an option but a personal requirement. What better way to come into the presence of God with singing? As Psalm 100 states: “…serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with singing.”

A recent article on NPR’s website, “When Choirs sing, many hearts beat as one,” talks about the health benefits of singing. This was measured by attaching pulse monitors to the singers’ ears to measure their heart rates.

Researchers of the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden studied the heart rates of high school choir members as they joined their voices. Their findings published this week in Frontiers in Neuroscience, confirm that choir music has calming effects on the heart — especially when sung in unison.

“When you sing the phrases, it is a form of guided breathing,” says musicologist Bjorn Vickhoff of the Sahlgrenska Academy who led the project. “You exhale on the phrases and breathe in between the phrases. When you exhale, the heart slows down.”

But what really struck him was that it took almost no time at all for the singers’ heart rates to become synchronized.

This statement also applies to congregational singing since most people are singing the melody (unison) line of hymns. I find the correlation between unison singing and the unification of cardio-rhythmic beats fascinating. As we strive to become one with Christ, through our singing together we produce one angelic voice which pleases God, edifies us, and has the capacity to affect our health in a positive manner.

Over the coming months, consider writing some short articles for your church’s newsletter on the benefits of singing in church. Provide opportunities for them to step into the world of the musician, a world many may not be familiar with. Give them ways to learn new hymns and congregational songs without feeling threatened by their perceived lack of musical knowledge. Your congregation will appreciate your effort, treasure the work you do on a weekly basis, and feel more confident when singing in church. It is a win, win, for all.

Michael D. Boney,
Canon for Music at St. Michael’s Cathedral