Segal: Where have all the singers gone?
Sunday evening in New Jersey, tens of thousands of Americans will participate in a rare cultural phenomenon. As Super Bowl XLVIII begins, they will stand at attention, remove their hats and together sing along to our national anthem. But even this infrequent occasion of collective singing has started to go the way of “American Idol”: It’s more about cheering the soloist’s vocal gymnastics than raising our voices together. Nowadays karaoke, concerts and summer camp are the last vestiges of social singing, along with the birthday song.
Why should we care if group singing is fading away? Pete Seeger, of blessed memory, composer of many beloved sing-along tunes, sang in “Letter to Eve”: “Well, if music could only bring peace, I’d only be a musician. If songs could do more than dull this pain, if melodies could only break these chains.” The lyrics suggest that action, not just singing, is vital: organizing, marching, protesting. Music alone can’t change the world.
Or can it?
Recent studies prove that group singing is good for our health and well-being. It reduces stress and alleviates depression. Singing together triggers the release of endorphins in the brain that improve our mood. Being part of a team effort, like choir, makes us feel we have a place where we belong and contribute to something beyond ourselves.
In a striking study by the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, scientists measured the heart rates of choir members. Not only did their heart rates slow down while singing due to measured breathing, but something miraculous happened: Their heartbeats synchronized! As National Public Radio reported, “The readout from the pulse monitors starts as a jumble of jagged lines but quickly becomes a series of uniform peaks. The heart rates fall into a shared rhythm guided by the song’s tempo.” The cliche that “many hearts beat as one” is now a medical fact.
I omitted religious worship from the above examples of social singing. In my congregation, having done some unscientific polling, I believe the single most compelling reason that people come to worship is the music. It’s not just the choice of melodies (which are good) or the quality of the cantor’s voice (which is great) — it’s the experience of singing along with an intentional community, adding one’s voice to a collective, feeling like an integral part of something beautiful and special (and — dare I say? — sacred) that no one can create alone. It is transcendence made accessible, replicable and dependable.
One of the prices we pay for the iPod revolution — that is, the elevation of the customized playlist that we hear alone through headphones — is the loss of common musical experience. What used to be more present is now a rare event, a special occasion. Too seldom do our hearts beat as one. Would it be an overstatement to say that our divided politics, our uncivil discourse and our lack of empathy stem from the same societal forces that marginalized collective singing? Perhaps not.
Here’s a little social experiment you can try in the comfort of your own Super Bowl party: During the national anthem, sing along! You might get funny looks, or you might get fellow singers. If you can get the whole room to join in, even better. It’s a safe bet that it’ll make your evening a little more memorable and a little happier. (If you try it, please comment about it on this article online.) And then you’re ready for the next challenge: Find some room in your life for social singing. To paraphrase an old saying, the society that does not sing has no advantage over the society that cannot sing.
Remember, at times when our nation has threatened to tear itself apart, Seeger and his folk friends brought us together with song and helped us envision a better world. As Seeger said in 2009, “My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right, it may help to save the planet.”
Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at 970-925-8245 or rabbi@aspen jewish.org. He blogs at http://www.aspenjewish.blogspot.com, and his column runs in The Aspen Times the first Saturday of each month.
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