Just One Thing…

No, this is not a Columbo tribute – although I am a fan of Peter Falk’s scruffy detective.  This is a Radio 4 series of short 15-minute talks. Dr Michael Mosley, the one who got everybody fasting and doing HIIT, has come up with things we can do to increase our physical and mental wellbeing.  

They are all simple, like getting some sunshine and eating dark chocolate in moderation.  Last week his prescription for health was – hooray! – that we should sing regularly. Singing for five minutes a day improves your mental and physical health. 

There’s already a page on this site sharing some of the research promoting singing for health.  The findings reported in “Just One Thing” are even more extensive, and fascinating.  

Here are three of the research studies quoted in the programme:

  • Anxiety, fear, fatigue and blood pressure were reduced in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy when they listened to live music.  (I’m intrigued by this – is recorded music less effective?)
  • There is evidence that singing boosts your immune system – immunoglobulin A levels were higher when people sang rather than just listening to music. 
  • It can also help people manage chronic pain by stimulating endocannabinoids produced by the body. A study at the University of Nottingham found that after 30 mins of group singing, the level of endocannabinoids in the blood rose by 42%. 

There is a great deal of evidence where people report significant reductions in their symptoms of stress, but science can be sceptical about results that consist of people telling us how they feel.  Immunoglobulin A and endocannabinoids are chemicals which can be measured, analysed and logged in a spreadsheet, proving our physiology is affected by singing.

The special quality of singing together is that it has multiple effects all at once – improving posture, memory, lung function and stimulating reward pathways in the brain, as well as building self-confidence and providing social connections.  

Most people acknowledge that music affects mood, and that listening to, or making, music can improve our mental health.  When we listen to music our bodies tune in to it – the pulse of the music changes our heartrate, blood pressure, and the rate at which we breathe.  These physical changes affect our thoughts and feelings – and the chemical balance in our bodies. 

As Laurence Sterne put it, 

“A man’s body and his mind… are exactly like a jerkin and a jerkin’s lining; rumple the one, you rumple the other.”

Maybe we can see singing as a kind of psychic iron, smoothing out those rumples.

And “rumpled” brings us right back to Lieutenant Columbo!