The TikTok trend played a big role in the cancellation of the Columbia Road carol service in Bethnal Green, east London. The singalong video from December gained a lot of attention and resulted in a large turnout for the event, causing concerns for the safety of the public.
The Victorian-style cobblestone street has always been a popular attraction, but the annual carol service has become a highly successful seasonal event. This reflects the nation’s growing interest in communal singing, which has been influenced by the rise of TV choirmaster Gareth Malone and the popularity of rock and pop choirs.
The attraction to singing and the advantages it offers have been studied for many years. However, it is only in recent times that evidence has emerged on the ways in which singing can enhance overall health and wellness. According to Daisy Fancourt, a professor at University College London, this is an increasingly popular area of study and there has been a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms in recent years.
Singing has brought humans together, and driven social bonding, since the early history of the species. Over the course of human evolution, the activation of endorphins, which creates a sense of contentment and peace with the world, emerged as a primary means to bond large communities. It turns out that singing is an incredibly potent trigger.
According to Robin Dunbar, a professor at the University of Oxford who specializes in evolutionary psychology, singing is a powerful tool for creating bonds between individuals. While singing alone in the shower may give a small mood boost, singing with others can result in a significant release of endorphins due to the synchrony involved.
In a study conducted in 2015, Dunbar and his team discovered that individuals who sang together for an hour developed a strong bond. According to Dunbar, it seemed as though they had been friends since childhood, which is not typical in an hour-long encounter with strangers. The researchers determined that singing was an effective way to break the ice.
Why is singing so powerful? According to Dunbar, the extended exhalation required in singing puts pressure on the lungs and chest, triggering the release of endorphins. This effect is intensified in choirs and events like carol concerts due to the feeling of vocal harmony. “This effect can be greatly increased,” Dunbar stated, “the larger the group, the more effective it is, which is not the case with other forms of bonding.”
Through the process of evolution, singing has been enhanced to be effective in mixed groups. This is due to the fact that male and female voices typically range about one octave apart, allowing them to harmonize and sing in sync despite having varying pitches.
The positive effects of singing on mental health have been proven. According to Fancourt, a researcher in the field of singing and other forms of art, singing helps with emotional control and prepares us to handle difficult situations in life. Singing allows us to momentarily escape our problems, release our pent-up emotions, and develop a sense of self. Fancourt explains that this feeling of identity can be a source of support during challenging times, as we can rely on other aspects of our life to help us cope.
The collective effect of positive factors greatly influences overall wellbeing. Individuals who actively participate in singing experience lower levels of depression and higher levels of satisfaction with their lives compared to others.
Singing therapies look promising too, at least for certain conditions. While patients with dementia can lose life memories, they often remember the music of their youth, meaning singing can become a means of connection, a crucial bridge to a lost relative. Group singing sessions have also been shown to improve movement in Parkinson’s disease. Singing may boost cognitive skills too, but the evidence of that is mixed and more research is needed.
According to research, singing has physical advantages as well. Studies have shown that it can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones. Early studies also show promise in improving lung health and reducing breathlessness associated with conditions like COPD and long Covid.
Due to the current situation, the annual Columbia Road carols will not be taking place. This means that the many people who were looking forward to attending will need to find an alternative way to enjoy the Christmas services. Heather Atkinson, the vicar at St Peter’s Bethnal Green, explained to the BBC that cancelling the event was the obvious decision and they are now exploring options to bring it back in a safer manner.