Mid this year the Dumbo Feather crew approached me about forming a choir. It seems there were occasional outbreaks of song in the editorial offices that warranted further investigation. I took the case. What we’ve come to experience every Monday afternoon is the great ‘glow’ of group singing.
The word ‘sing’ is almost onomatopoeic—old English from German roots, sounding more like ‘zing’. When the Dumbo Feather choir feels its greatness and raises glory to the roof (“mooshing our beauty” as we like to call it), the air gets all sparkly electric and it does feel like we are ‘zinging’.
The transformative power of group singing is not metaphoric. Like something out of Glee (only we’re heaps better looking), we push back chairs, step out of our quotidian selves and become instantly and tangibly enlivened, elevated and LOUD! First it’s warm ups: slapping our cheeks to wake them from the dormancy of daily doings, pulling our ears to activate their 200-odd acupuncture points, humming and thrumming to hit the 82 points in the palate. I could go on with the science but that is not the reason we, and so many choristers around the world, spring to our sessions like puppies to the beach. We do it because it makes us happy.
In Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observes that any activity which engages us in undistracted “flow,” such that our ego is forgotten, enables happiness. When we sing together, the whole body is deeply engaged, both in the production of the sound and on a cellular level in the ecstatic inner dance of endorphins and of the “love hormone” oxytocin, also produced in unusually high levels during sex. Mentally too we are busily engaged in the myriad details of voice work: pitch, tone, lyrics, rhythm. There’s not much time in our hour together for obsessing about the losses and gains of work, weight, boys, girls, taxes and football premierships.
Famed Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner put the ‘glow’ of group singing down to an even deeper cosmic resonance—what he called “true tone”. According to Steiner, “true tone” is an oscillating spiritual energy present in the ever-vibrating universe, which penetrates our inner being. When we sing, we conjoin with these universal vibrations, thus experiencing the deep reality of our interconnectedness.
For Charles Darwin, “music evolved as a tool of social living,” a reward for people coming together rather than flying solo. Song scholar Daniel Levitin takes this further, arguing that group singing has directly shaped human nature—that people who rose together in song did better at things like developing culture, executing hunter-gatherer activities and coordinating large-scale projects.
But given we’re not in a chain gang or putting up pyramids, what else is in it for us modern folk? Well, it can put you in touch with your visceral, passionate, wild side. Anyone!? To get the benefit of this you’ve got to give blood. By which I mean, you’ve got to dig deep and sing the song from a place of truth, whatever it means to you, and feel what comes up. Now I sound like a yoga instructor.
Giving blood means something different for each zinger, but the listener can tell instantly if there is sincerity in the delivery. When we really step into a song’s character or story with focus and presence, there is more gained than just a great performance. The act becomes a portal for our own self-discovery and release as we identify with and express a range of emotions.
We all feel moments of energetic bravery and resolve, but how better vented than via a rousing group version of Édith Piaf ’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”? The tender devotion in our four-part Sinead O’Connor arrangement vibrates with a vulnerable energy rarely experienced in the daily doings of office life. And for our inner grinner, the happy-clappy contagion that is Pharrell Williams exhorts us to “clap along if you feel like that’s what you want to do.” And we sure do.
So get zinging. You know you want to.