Choir singers’ hearts beat as one

The Eastman Chorale, under the direction of Professor of Conducting and Ensembles William Weinert Source: Rochester.edu

Science reporter Rebecca Morelle covers a study conducted in Sweden for BBC News.  The piece is entitled, “Choir singers ‘synchronise their heartbeats’.”

Morelle writes:

Researchers in Sweden monitored the heart rates of singers as they performed a variety of choral works.

They found that as the members sang in unison, their pulses began to speed up and slow down at the same rate.

Morelle quotes study co-author Dr. Bjorn Vickhoff of Gothenburg University, who explains:

“When you exhale you activate the vagus nerve, we think, that goes from the brain stem to the heart. And when that is activated the heart beats slower.”

The study findings are published in Frontiers in Auditory Neuroscience in a paper entitled, “Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers.”

The summary for this study reads:

Choir singing is known to promote wellbeing. One reason for this may be that singing demands a slower than normal respiration, which may in turn affect heart activity. Coupling of heart rate variability (HRV) to respiration is called Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). This coupling has a subjective as well as a biologically soothing effect, and it is beneficial for cardiovascular function. RSA is seen to be more marked during slow-paced breathing and at lower respiration rates (0.1 Hz and below). In this study, we investigate how singing, which is a form of guided breathing, affects HRV and RSA. The study comprises a group of healthy 18 year olds of mixed gender. The subjects are asked to; (1) hum a single tone and breathe whenever they need to; (2) sing a hymn with free, unguided breathing; and (3) sing a slow mantra and breathe solely between phrases. Heart rate (HR) is measured continuously during the study. The study design makes it possible to compare above three levels of song structure. In a separate case study, we examine five individuals performing singing tasks (1–3). We collect data with more advanced equipment, simultaneously recording HR, respiration, skin conductance and finger temperature. We show how song structure, respiration and HR are connected. Unison singing of regular song structures makes the hearts of the singers accelerate and decelerate simultaneously. Implications concerning the effect on wellbeing and health are discussed as well as the question how this inner entrainment may affect perception and behavior.

Study Citation:

Vickhoff B, Malmgren H, Åström R, Nyberg G, Ekström S-R, Engwall M, Snygg J, Nilsson M and Jörnsten R (2013) Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers. Front. Psychol4:334. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334

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