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Singing - Fun or fundamental?

The writer, Roger Scruton, in the Sunday Times Magazine this month queried whether singing was a dying art: “Music is no longer something you produce. It is something you consume. And it is available everywhere, for free, without effort, in a thousand varieties. Why trouble to sing when you can get a far better noise by pressing a button?”


We certainly do seem to be addicted to iPods and to thrive on watching programmes like I’d Do Anything, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria, Any Dream Will Do or Your Country Needs You, not to mention our children’s fascination with US imports like High School Musical and Hannah Montana.

A generation of children have been brought up with TV talent and singing shows as a staple diet.

Many criticise these talent contests which encourage children to pursue a “sure-fast route to stardom,” known by many in showbusiness as “the X Factor Syndrome,” as unhealthy as it sets children up for inevitable future disappointment.

 “Why trouble to sing when you can get a far better noise by pressing a button?”

Yet, look at it in a different way and what it does show is human beings’ continued love of music and song. The problem is the fact that these TV shows and iPod technology are perhaps two of only a few outlets today’s children think they have to “participate” in music for fun.

Howard Goodall, award-winning composer and the government’s Singing Ambassador, spoke at last year’s MusicLearningLive2008! The National Festival of Music Education about how there is a subconcious need by all of us to “participate” in life. He believes that phenomena like the coffee shop revolution have come about through our need to gather together and escape from our normally isolated world where most of our work can be achieved without being with others, through computers, internet and machines:

“Because we are a brilliantly adaptive species we have wanted to be with each other. People have wanted to have meetings, to gather, to be around others.” At the same time, he thinks that despite our ability to produce, record and broadcast music from a laptop in our bedroom, live performance of music is more in fashion than ever: “We feel a great unspoken need to participate, not to be passive but to participate and to be there at that moment when they are playing that number, to be in the room with other people, to experience it with another person, not just to see it on your computer screen on your own and say, “Wasn’t that a very funny joke?” but to be next to someone in a room where someone tells that joke and to laugh with someone.”

Singing is one of the most positive forms of human activity, supporting physical, mental and social health

Participating in music is a way of bringing people together to feel that missing connection. Singing, in particular, is an easy starter point as we all have a voice and it is not dependent on social class, funding, instruments or resources.

However, for a lot of our children, singing together is now rarely a natural everyday activity. This demise in group music has fortunately been identified and highlighted to the government by a number of high profile musicians, educationalists and scientists. In response, funding of £40m over 4 years was earmarked by the government in 2007 for a programme to make every primary school a singing school. This programme is called Sing Up, with Howard Goodall spearheading the campaign. Over 10,000 primary schools are now signed up to Sing Up, with regular training sessions for teachers and parents on offer, activities organised in schools and area leaders working across the country. A Sing Up magazine and website, free literature and downloadable online resources, sheet music and audio files, along with a bank of 100 songs for children are now available in the hope they will help reinvigorate singing participation in schools and at home.

The benefits of singing are numerous and far-reaching. Professor of Music Education at University College London, Graham Welch believes: “Singing is one of the most positive forms of human activity, supporting physical, mental and social health, as well as individual development in the same areas.”

Singing is healthy

 It promotes good breathing and posture
It exercises muscles in the upper body which in turn improves the efficiency of the cardiovascular system
It helps reduce asthmatic symptoms
It keeps colds at bay as it increases the amount of oxygen in the blood, keeps airways open and reduces the opportunity for bacteria to flourish
It gets the blood pumping which keeps you warm
It can provide therapies for speech disorders such as stammering

Singing is good for the soul

It makes us feel better about ourselves and the world around us
It enhances our self-esteem and creates a sense of achievement
It allows us to release emotions like joy and sadness
It gives shy and withdrawn children a means of expression

Singing brings us together

It gives us an increased sense of belonging to a community
It helps us communicate better
It encourages empathy especially when singing in a choir or group
It allows us to work in groups in a noncompetitive, highly supportive environment
It is a gateway for learning to play a musical instrument

Singing helps us learn

Numerous research projects throughout the world in recent years have found that:

It improves a child’s counting skills 
It accelerates language and reading skills

Singing is a brain and memory turbo-charger

Last year US and Canadian neuroscientific research showed that learning music improves memory and the ability to learn other skills. University students who played instruments were found to be better at memory tests than those who did not play or had not played an instrument for a number of years. But when the musical students were stopped from practising music, the researchers found that their test scores fell. Similar tests were carried out with children with similar results.

So, music seems to have an effect on memory and attention. In order to make our memory work, the brain trains itself to do “trace memory modelling”. A trace of something that happened to us or an emotional response is stored in the brain which can be re-triggered by the brain and the sequence of events, information, sounds, words or smell can be later re-run.

Music seems to have an effect on memory and attention

Explains Howard Goodall: “If during infancy you don’t keep stimulating this process, you grow up with a kind of default level brain setting. Fine, but not exactly a Ferrari. But it’s possible for the child’s brain to be accelerated, to be working much more efficiently if this trace modelling is constantly being asked to run. How do we do this with infants and young children, then? Singing. Singing is the easiest, most fun, most effective way of boosting trace memory modelling in the young. It stimulates the re-running of sequences of pitch, rhythm, contour, timbre, lyrics and structure, time and time again, effortlessly!”

Singing also appears to keep the brain flexible and open to new learning of a variety of skills as we grow up. From early childhood, the brain can teach itself to keep circuits in our head linked up. Some connections will be used for language, others for running and walking, others for counting. If not being used during early years the brain will realise it doesn’t need the connection and shut it down. Exercises like singing work to keep these connections open during childhood. When singing, we use six or seven parts of the brain at the same time; sending instructions to our muscles to make the sounds, using one part of the brain for language, another for rhythm, another for pitch.

Singing also appears to keep the brain flexible and open to new learning of a variety of skills

So, the message seems to be that singing is good. Concludes Goodall: “It is something we can all do – indeed, very young children “learn” to sing without anyone actually teaching them so to do, as if it is hard-wired into us at birth. In the past, when we were nomadic tribes, we used singing to bind our wandering communities together. Singing became integral to rituals of every kind, gave courage before battle, comfort after loss and, perhaps most significantly of all, a vital bond between mother and child in the earliest years of life.”

LINKS - Sing Up is the national singing campaign, the website contains a web-based songbook of new and traditional songs with downloadable song sheets and backing tracks, activities and guidance for teachers, parents and children - Youth music is involved in promoting the Sing Up campaign, providing activities in local areas - Howard Goodall, Singing Ambassador’s official website - Learning, Arts and the Brain report on Arts and Cognition Research available on the Dana Foundation website