Choirs provide structured community support and friendship. Photo: Getty Images
Melbourne paediatric nurse Danielle Jaeger had only ever sung in the shower and could not read a note of music before she joined the Brunswick Women's Choir.
Debilitated by post-traumatic stress disorder, joining the choir was part of a recovery program developed for Jaeger by the Nursing and Midwifery Health Program of Victoria.
"When I was sick I felt like I was drowning, I was overwhelmed by my negative internal chatter," she says.
"But when I'm singing I don't feel any pain, just the joy of being connected to a greater whole."
Psychologist Heather Gridley, herself a member of the Brunswick Women's Choir, says it is not surprising that a key part of Jaeger's recovery has been group singing. Gridley was one of the researchers who conducted a 2011 study by Victoria University that found singing in groups increases self-confidence and feelings of empowerment.
Choirs provide structured community support and friendship – a natural antidote to feelings of isolation and loneliness, she says.
"Chanting and synchronising in harmony are ancient human rituals; they have sustained communities since time immemorial. The only difference now is that we have the science to prove it."
Professor Sarah Wilson of the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne says it is well established that music activates the neural pathways responsible for pleasure. Recent studies suggest that singing doesn't just make us happy, however, it also reduces stress.
"Numerous studies have found when we sing or play music the brain releases endorphins, which make us feel happy. Science is also now beginning to look at the effect of singing on our levels of cortisol – the hormone responsible for stress."
A pilot study run in 2014 by the university found cortisol levels were reduced in those who sang in groups.
But while scientific explanations are "nice to have", Amanda Stanthorpe* says she doesn't need them to know singing has made her fundamentally happier. In a 10-year battle against depression and a surfeit of treatments, the 35-year-old teacher from North Sydney says it is her choir – and not the psychologist's couch – that has brought her the greatest solace.
"Being part of a group harmony cuts through my mixed tape of negative thoughts," she says. "In my 20s I did the rounds of doctors and therapists trying to figure out a way to feel better. In singing I feel like I've found the best of all the treatments rolled into one."
Most recently Stanthorpe auditioned for the Sydney Philharmonia Festival Chorus and was accepted into its three-month program of weekly rehearsals, culminating in a performance at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall.
"Being on the Opera House stage was surreal, one of the most brilliant experiences of my life," she says, "but the practice sessions themselves were pretty special, too, 400 people of varying shapes and sizes, facing all of life's issues. It could have been a disaster but singing together is like a group-led meditation, everyday issues fall away."
Frances Smith*, from Sydney, says singing with the 14-strong Mamas got her through one of the most difficult periods of her life. "My husband left me for one of my friends," she says. "I was bitter and angry."
A friend dragged her to a singing group and she was hooked. "For two hours a week I did not think about the crap in my life, I was completely focused on breathing, lyrics and music, it was like musical yoga. My ego had taken a battering, but being with a group of like-minded women in a judgment-free environment made me feel better.
"We also sounded really good, and you can't help but feel pleased with yourself when you rock the room." •
* Names have been changed
Favourite songs of the Brunswick Women's Choir
Songs that remind people of their youth often stir happy memories. For children of the '70s, That Lonesome Road by James Taylor and After the Gold Rush by Neil Young are popular. Younger choir members respond well to Fragile by Sting, while the golden oldies often enjoy show tunes such as After the Ball from Show Boat or My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music.
Nonsense songs such as I Want the Waiter (with the Water) by Ella Fitzgerald work for kids and adults alike.
Sublimely beautiful songs take you out of yourself and the traditional hymn, The Lone, Wild Bird by Henry Richard McFadyen, does just that.
Gospel: of all the musical genres this one is particularly effective at lifting a person's mood. Try Oh Freedom, Oh Happy Day.
How to sing for good health
Sing with others. Group singing has been proven to release "happy hormones". It is also a natural antidote to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Sing shamelessly. When you sing out loud, musical vibrations move through you. Singing produces satisfying and therapeutic sensations even when the sound produced by the voice is of average quality.
Stay focused. Group singing requires complete attention on breathing and vocal activation. A good choral workout can be as effective as a group-led meditation.