Choir members do more than sing in harmony – they synchronise their heartbeats, a study has shown.

Singing in unison has a synchronising effect

Their pulses rise and fall in unison, depending on the nature of the work they are performing.

Scientists in Sweden brought together 15 teenage choristers from a high school in Gothenburg and asked them to perform three different choral exercises – monotone humming, singing the Swedish hymn Harlig ar Jorden (Lovely is the Earth), and chanting a slow mantra.

As the 18-year-olds performed, their heart rhythms were recorded.

The results showed that the music’s melody and structure had a direct effect on their hearts. Singing in unison had a synchronising effect, so that the heart rates of all the singers tended to increase and decrease at the same time.

Lead scientist Bjorn Vickhoff, from the University of Gothenburg, said: “Singing regulates activity in the so-called vagus nerve which is involved in our emotional life and our communication with others and which, for example, affects our vocal timbre.

“Songs with long phrases achieve the same effect as breathing exercises in yoga. In other words, through song we can exercise a certain control over mental states.”

Choral singing is said to have positive effects on health and feelings of well-being, although this has not been studied scientifically to any great extent.

The Swedish researchers believe the health benefits arise through singing that imposes a calm and regular breathing pattern, which in turn affects heart rate.

“In the case of controlled breathing, the heart rate or pulse decreases when breathing out during exhalation in order to then increase again when breathing in during inhalation,” said Vickhoff. “Exhalation activates the vagus nerve that lowers the heart rate which slows down the heart.

“The medical term for this fluctuation in heart rate – the connection between breathing and heart rate – is RSA and it is more pronounced with young people in good physical condition and not subject to stress. Our hypothesis is that song is a form of regular, controlled breathing, since breathing out exhaling occurs on the song phrases and breathing in inhaling between these.”

He added: “We already know that choral singing synchronises the singers’ muscular movements and neural activities in large parts of the body. Now we also know that this applies to the heart, to a large extent.”

Next the team plans to investigate whether the biological synchronising of choral singers also creates a shared mental perspective. Collective acting and singing is often an expression of collective will, according to Vickhoff.

“One need only think of football stadiums, work songs, hymn singing at school, festival processions, religious choirs or military parades,” he said.

“Research shows that synchronised rites contribute to group solidarity. We are now considering testing choral singing as a means of strengthening working relationships in schools.”

The findings are published in the online journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

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