Why Do People Sing?

July, 21, 2016 | 27 Comments


  1. Nursery rhymes and other repetitive songs give children an excellent grounding in language skills – the lack of which is a great worry in many areas here in the UK. Singing is an invaluable tool when teaching a second language – especially with children.
    Do you remember ‘singing’ your times tables? – and you’ve never forgotten them. That type of skill is missing these days!
    The most fulfilling form of Welsh singing is with harp accompaniment – whereby the harp begins a tune and you join in (rather like the playground skipping game of running in to a turned rope – not just played in Wales surely?) with words sung to a totally different tune. Sounds mad but is brilliant – either as a participant or a listener!
    I remember the BBC programme with its wonderful singing ( yes, we do acknowledge that other nations can sing too!) and the joy in their voices.
    The Welsh nation’s main use of singing? – well, to ensure our rugby team feels our support of course – and, lately, our football team too!
    Looking forward to the posts that are to follow.

  2. Music is the Universal language, just like maths (or math if you’re American).

    I’m more of an imaginary guitar player (air guitar) than I am a singer.

    I guess it releases endorphins, you know, those ‘feel good factor’ types.

    I’ve often wondered why we all like different types of music, I mean, in essence, we all have the same brain structure so why do bands like AC/DC, Cold Chisel, Big Country, do it for me while others are turned off by this type of music?

    I wrote a 70,000 word novel recently, all the time I’d have the music of Hans Zimmer, John Williams, James Newton Howard etc, playing in the background. I wanted a musical soundtrack to the movie that was playing in my head…so I could then put it into words.

    The result was a fictional story about angels and demons. It still needs polishing but I’m quite proud of it as I stepped out of the box on this one – no mention of antidepressants or Pharma. Alas, as a first time fiction writer I doubt it will ever see the light of day but it was therapeutic nonetheless.

    Without the soundtrack playing in the background I don’t think I could have sat and wrote 70,000 words.

    Music is my escapism.

    • Congratulations on your 70,000 word novel – I doubt very much that listening to music or singing would ever keep me going for that length of time! Put your music back on and polish it up ready for publication now!
      Everything that can be said about music is also true about singing – but I feel that the ‘participation’ element of singing, whether solo or choral, in public or in the shower is an added bonus. Playing an instrument is ‘participation’ also – but not in the same sense as singing. Being a ‘good singer’ or otherwise makes no difference to the singer’s enjoyment (does to the listener!) of the moment.
      I wonder why we are so often reluctant to volunteer the information that we are singers? Maths is another area that we show reluctance of admission. Maybe it’s because both are so precise in execution – you are either in tune or not/ got the right answer or wrong, therefore leave us in fear of failure.
      Every single human being can sing – and that’s according to the conductor of a ladies’ choir here in North Wales. Given the correct support, everyone can sing in tune. However, for those too shy to sing out loud a private sing song can work wonders. It is now recognised that singing helps those with mental health problems including dementia. Would be a dull world without the ability to sing – as it would also without the ability to hear singing and all other forms of music.

  3. Singing is such a strange thing when you really think about it. It’s something that can provoke much more emotion than speaking. It soothes babies. It brings back memories. We use it for all occasions from getting married to laying someone to rest. We lament to it and we love with it. Song is a way of expressing what’s inside without having to say to the words.

  4. John Miles 1996 “Music was my first love”.

    Music was my first love and it will be my last.
    Music of the future and music of the past.
    To live without my music would be impossible to do.
    Cos in this world of troubles my music pulls me through.

  5. This question of ‘why people sing’ really has got me thinking more and more about it for some reason. Do we include it under the ‘music’ umbrella or as a ‘stand alone’ activity? As part of music, it obviously fits into our emotions – happy, sad, angry, rebellious ….all emotional aspects are covered. Stand it alone – does it go beyond that? I feel that it does. Is using vocal sounds, humming a tune for example, as pleasurable or is there a need for words? I say that the words add an extra dimension. Is singing alone as pleasurable as singing in unison? Definitely not.
    Therefore singing, like most other things, has many levels and touches us on many different levels too. A very young baby will rock to a tune without any instruction; similarly, if you ‘sing’ a vowel sound – let’s say a long ‘aaaaaa’ – a very young child will join you, perfect in sound and pitch. Change your vowel and pitch, and they will stop, listen and re-join with the new sound. Where does that leave the deaf – can they not sing?
    It seems that singing is as a much a part of us as, say, laughing or crying. If this is true, then there is probably one answer that will fully cover the question ‘Why do people sing?’ and that is, ‘It depends on who is doing the singing’!
    Can we always sing, whatever the circumstances? I say not. That is not to say that singing cannot be used whatever the situation – it is the individual’s ability to respond that changes due to their personal circumstance. I remember my mum, maybe 6 or 7 months after my father’s death, saying, in desperation, one day “I just wish I could laugh or sing again – crying is the only emotion I seem able to use these days”. I think that was quite a profound statement! Luckily, her grief did eventually subside to a level where we DID see her laugh and heard her singing. Believe it or not, one of her last requests of me, was to sing part of her favourite hymn for her. She was too weak to sing herself but used her hands as if piano-playing the tune on the bed sheets. No doubt her ‘mind’ was singing the words in perfect pitch!

  6. We’ve barely scratched the surface in understanding the powers of music. Just a taste here: an excerpt from Alive Inside, a film featuring the late Dr. Oliver Sacks, that shows what music can do to “reanimate” people with severe dementia, locked away in nursing homes:


    Note one thing, however: it’s got to be YOUR music, the stuff that moves you and links you to your most powerful memories. Some psychologists piping in Mozart because that’s really “quality” music? or 40’s Big Band because they think “that’s what old people like”? Unless you happen to love Mozart or Benny Goodman, it may not do much.

    One more, just for Mary: Spinning ropes are not just confined to Wales! Over here we take our “Double Dutch” verrrry seriously …


  7. I did the same Mary started thinking about singing then thought where does it end. Birds sing then I thought about the vibrations of signing then thought about Whales and dolphins too. It’s a communication tool.

  8. Why do people sing…

    Singing together is a great way of uplifting the spirits. I’m cursed with a really bad singing voice, and an inability to keep a tune but in a situation where it doesn’t matter what the hell I sound like, singing along with a few thousand others is a heady, exhilarating (and moving) experience.

    In 2012, in the throes of acute post-withdrawal, when I was wheelchair-bound, my daughter and I went to see Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, reprising Graceland, 25 years after ‘Under African Skies’ and “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes’ hit the music scene. I’d loved Paul Simon since his Garfunkel years, and the first LP I ever bought was Bridge Over Troubled Waters. The concert was in Hyde Park, the Hard Rock Calling festival, with tens of thousands of people. My daughter had to bump me across several million tons of woodchip laid over the mud, and we sat on the disabled platform, along with a heap of other decrepit oldies like me, and their companions. When Simon appeared, a tiny figure on the stage below and began ‘Kodachrome’ the tears rolled down my cheeks – not sad ones, but a heady mix of joy and excitement. I sang along with tens of thousands of people – young and old. The guy in front of us rolled a joint, nodded when one of the young officials asked him to put it out and carried on peacefully smoking. I was still crying – I cried the whole bloody two hours – particularly when one couple began dancing, him sitting in his wheelchair, she holding his hand twirling and jigging round him. My daughter said ‘they’re completely pissed Mum….’ Well we all were, but I thought it was simply the most wonderful expression of love I’d ever seen.

    When Simon appeared on his own, a tiny figure below, the evening sky a luminous grey and began “Hello Darkness my Old Friend’ then I really did sob. I’d listened to that song so many times over the desperate years and hearing it sung in that setting, my daughter by my side, was inexpressibly moving.

    (The last song? ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ –)

    My daughter said afterwards ‘That was just great. I didn’t mind you blubbing noisily the whole time, or your nose running, or nearly falling out of the wheelchair after three giant plastic glasses of shitty white wine. I didn’t even mind your out-of-tune singing – it was a bit embarrassing when you kept shouting ‘get out of the way – we’re going to see Paul Simon’ when I was pushing you here, but it was wonderful’ and gave me a huge hug.

    So, even if, like me, you can’t sing too well on your own – singing with a million other people can be a miraculous experience. Who you are, how you look, what’s happened to you, doesn’t matter – you’re part of something huge, that’s powerfully unjudgemental and energising. You feel as if you could do anything.

    • Thank you for this wonderful post Sally. When I can stop laughing, I won’t be able to stop singing, – out of tune of course.

    • A year on, and no one will probably see this but had to add – the CD/DVD of the Paul Simon/Hyde Park concert has just come out (5 years on). I’m instantly transported back to that miraculous evening…but, I realise, maybe even more powerful is realising that I went there in a wheelchair because I fell over every time I stood up – and that this year I’m walking fine. The ground beneath my feet has stopped heaving and bucketing. So – despite all the remaining problems, that one seems to have sorted itself. Wow.

  9. Alternatively; why do people dance?


    Dolin’s experts also include Dr. David Healy, a psychiatry professor at the University of Wales in England. Healy, who has worked as an expert witness for Baum Hedlund for years in lawsuits involving antidepressants, has stated in the case so far that GSK’s own labeling documents from 2006, including letters to physicians, had acknowledged that “the frequency of suicidal behavior was higher in patients treated with paroxetine compared with placebo … this difference is statistically significant.”


    Editorial: This post by Johanna Ryan notes a significant legal development for anyone taking a generic drug. It’s also a testament to the ability of motivated women to make a difference to the landscape.

    • Aaarrgh!!! There they go again – ‘University of WALES in England – no, no, no, we are NOT in England. Uni, of Wales is in WALES, as the name suggests quite plainly.
      Apart from that major point – an interesting read!

  10. Unsung..what-a-surprise

    World at One and This Morning

    Sir Andrew said the UK was still in a ‘phoney war’ situation


    ‘Over the medium run – assuming the outcome on the regulatory regime change is not unnecessarily disruptive – I would expect our overall footprint to broadly continue as it is, with the very substantial proportion in the UK,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s World At One.


    I lost the powers of speech… I was in a real state, almost in a trance. Two days later I was acutely psychotic. Suddenly I thought nothing mattered.

    – Katinka Blackford Newman

    • That was excellent, Katinka put her narrative across in an impressively cogent way.

      BUT the GP seemed very keen to portray Katinka’s reaction as a ‘very rare’ side effect – and I’ll bet any GP appearing in the media would not wish to suffer censure within the profession for seeming to contravene the ‘accepted guidelines’ (based only upon drug company ‘gold standard’ RCTs!), by causing anyone to stop taking the drugs.

      And I know from reading her excellent book that Katinka suggests that her genetic polymorphisms may be responsible for her ADR; but this is where the whole matter of ‘side effects’ gets very murky indeed. For instance, the Zoloft trial at Leeds University in 1983 – of the six (actually seven) healthy volunteers put on Zoloft, ALL of these suffered akathisia, resulting in the trial being abandoned and never published (https://davidhealy.org/zoloft-study-mystery-in-leeds/).

      And David’s own trial involving 20 healthy volunteers, on only 50mg Zoloft, where two (i.e. 10%) developed suicidal ideation. And this group had professional knowledge of what they were doing, and were very closely monitored (“Let them eat Prozac”).

      Drug dosages must play a significant part in ADRs; a low dosage may provide a genuine therapeutic benefit, but an increase in that dosage for the same individual may have appalling consequences. But for any single individual, who can possibly say what a high dosage or a low dosage is? This is where the genetic polymorphisms may be relevant. But drug companies are unlikely to ever research these matters.

      Not to be arrogant in any way, but anyone with some intelligence who has witnessed (or suffered) drug-induced akathisia first hand, and has then gone on to do some research about SSRIs, will probably know a lot more than many GPs about how these drugs affect people.

      Knowledge about these drugs falls between a rock and a hard place – not only do drug companies actively conceal side effects for all of the ‘wrong reasons’; but patients may also unwittingly conspire to conceal their own side effects for what they may then believe are the ‘right reasons’.

      So who on this earth is counting the real number of drug-induced ‘side effects’? The answer is no-one, and that is exactly what drug companies want.


  11. Walter – and added to your points, when you are the person suffering akathisia or any of the other reactions, ‘coping’ with it is just about as much as you can do, you have no spare energy to wonder what it is that’s wrong or whether it’s a reaction to the medication – nor, indeed, to trudge back to your GP with yet another ‘problem’ that he will disregard.

  12. ‘That Interview’ with Sir Andrew Witty by Evan Davis at Chatham Hoose is re exposed:



    Let’s talk a little about Seroxat which was one of your high profile products.
    How’s it going?


    Ah, that little episode was all part of an era.

    We have since developed many, many new valuable medicines that are changing the world. In fact, the world is incredibly grateful for all our new products and now the UK is incredibly grateful that we are opening up new factories across the UK and Scotland because we knew that Brexit would spoil nothing for us, in fact, nothing ever spoils anything for us because we have all these new products in our pipeline and I will tell you about them. ~We have..blah..blah…and we have blah..blah and we have blah..blah and…


    Did you ever think that Seroxat and Paxil, as I believe it is called in America, would become blockbusters for Glaxosmithkline?


    We develop drugs, all kinds of drugs. This is what GSK does and we are proud of it.
    We have just developed..blah..blah..and blah blah and the UK is immensely proud of its British Companies who are at the forefront of science and that is where we are and we are developing..blah..blah and blah..blah and our pipeline is bursting with successes that we are proud of and…


    Why don’t you talk about Seroxat any more?


    That was all part of an era and we have moved on. In fact, we are at the forefront of modern science and our new portfolio is extremely impressive and I will tell you about blahblah and blahblah

    Evan leaves the studio, the lights go out, and everyone has gone home….blah blah blah blah blah

    A horrible blackness descends as Sir Andrew Witty cannot find the light switch and uncomfortable feelings descend upon him and he becomes a little panicky as he tries to get out and finds that he can’t and there is no one to help him and he is at a total loss of what to do and he becomes a bit twitchy and nervous and nauseous and his legs start to wobble and he wants to escape but he can’t and he sits on the floor and weeps as he wants to get out and no one is there as he finds he is totally alone in the dark and he is scared and this is the first time that he has been abandoned and he doesn’t like it..

    The novel..

    • I wonder if they have special courses on ‘How to dodge giving the real, factual answers to questioning minions’. I suspect that they do. Witty’s replies are as irrelevant in reply to Evan’s questions as our MP and the Minister of State’s replies have been to my questions regarding ‘pharmacological kidnapping’. The reply from the Min. of State waffles on about Wales being devolved in Health matters (yes, we know but this story – A Kidnapped Daughter’ – made no reference to Wales – neither did my letter to him), then he explains all the safeguards England has re:- GP prescribing etc. – and that’s it! So, everything’s ‘spot on’ in England then is it? If so, how is it that we read this horrifying story and then, closely following that, we had Katinka’s book. Two instances (out of so many) of total failure in his ‘marvellous medicine’ of the fabulous English Healthcare system. He will get a reply stating this and more – once he’s spent the summer sunning himself far away from all thoughts of ‘adverse reactions’ and ‘pharma kidnapping’. How many of you would love that break from your on-going pharma-induced problems? Yes, I know – you ALL would. I only wish I could be as hard-faced as they are able and convince you that all’s well really. That, I cannot do – but keep pushing the truth under the noses of those in power I can, and will continue to do. The responses may be disappointing but we must not give up. Something that we say, one day, may just touch a nerve and prick the conscience that must lie somewhere beneath that very thick skin.

  13. Singing and music is also used when the authority’s are known to ignore important issues that are so obvious to everyone else in life.

  14. People that can write are so lucky, you can express yourselves and put your messages across that millions of others are unable too. Singing and music is one way for those who are unable to communicate effectively to be able to share and express their feelings. It’s a release for many who wouldn’t other wise be able to open up and cope.

    God bless everyone because the truth will come out eventually for everyone.

  15. I recently saw something on TV about why cats purr. I think people sing for the same reason that cats purr. It is self-soothing. There was also some evidence that the vibrations from purring is good for the cat’s bones. I think it also said that cats purr when giving birth. I think there is an analgesic effect from purring and from singing. Perhaps it is due to the vibrations.

  16. Just over a hundred years ago, GK Chesterton wrote a clever and funny essay “The little birds who won’t sing.” It’s on line here. https://chesterton.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/the-little-birds-who-wont-sing/#comment-5008
    Read the piece, it is not long, but as he often does in his essays he turns the question here on it’s head. What he is suggesting is that the mystery is not why we sing. The mystery is why we sing so little in the modern world. If a songbird does not sing often we would ask our selves, “is it sick, is it unhappy, is it because it is caged?”

    Prof Healy, do you ever hear singing on an inpatient psychiatry ward. I presume that the only patients who you would hear singing would be ones experiencing a manic episode, and even then rarely.

    • Funny you should ask that question about inpatients and singing. There is a recently published Welsh language book which is a collection of accounts of individuals’ recent experiences of mental health problems and support.
      One account is from a young girl – a talented musician who was quite seriously ill. She was an inpatient on a psychiatric ward and, when the staff realised how much she was missing her ‘music’, they moved a piano into the vicinity of the ward so that she was able to play it as often as she pleased. She says that bringing in that piano saved her life. Not quite ‘singing’ I agree – but I have a feeling that she says that it encouraged other patients to take an interest in what she was playing and that they sang too.
      Maybe David can tell us more.

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