“Why are singers so passionate about their art? Why does singing move us like no other form of expression? When are we humans most prone to sing? The Chicago Chamber Choir's spring concert in April will take us on a journey that explores the connection of vocal art and the human spirit. Humorous, powerful, and inspirational, this concert features the music of J.S. Bach, Leonard Bernstein, Kirke Mechem, Moses Hogan, and many others.”
This paragraph above (by Timm Adams), is what inspired me to write this blog article about the phenomenon of singing, as an art form. It also inspired me to ask the singers of CCC to tell me their stories and experiences of singing.
In Part 1, I will explore some of the musical, historical and physical elements of singing, and the physical and emotional benefits of it (as if we needed to be persuaded that singing is beneficial!)
In Part 2, I will then explore the spiritual (or psychological) benefits of singing, and will also compile some of the different stories from our choir members, which offer a fascinating insight into the world of singing, music and performing.
Much of what I'm about to explore here, is related to singing as a discipline or practice. Not just singing along to your favorite song on the radio for a minute or two, or those few moments of singing in the shower, but as a dedicated discipline, within a choir. (Or any other musical, performance group that involves singing). Singing in a choir is very much like playing a team sport. You show up to weekly rehearsals (or practices), you listen carefully to your conductor (or captain), you work together with your fellow choristers (team players), and you put in your practice (or training) at home. Your goal is to produce the best strategy for “winning the game”, i.e. winning the audience over with the most awe-inspiring, beautiful and technically sound music.
Of course, there's much more to choral singing than just “winning the audience over”. It's also about interpreting the composer's music, communicating, healing, inspiring, crafting and teaching. Singing has many levels of profound effects, both for the singer and the audience, and our upcoming concert is an exploration of this phenomenon.
Our concert will feature some truly beautiful and inspiring works by a wide variety of composers, from J.S. Bach to Leonard Bernstein, and from 20th century to current composers. Each of the works is about “singing”: - each one expresses something about the art of singing, and the powerful effect it has on us who perform, and those who listen. Through this performance (and especially with one of the pieces, called “Thank you”), we're also celebrating the way singing has changed our lives, and pausing to thank the people who have inspired us, or helped us get involved with singing in the first place.
Singing is one of the most fundamental forms of musical expression and communication because it needs no tools or instruments except a healthy pair of lungs, a throat and a mouth. And singing has so many benefits – physical, emotional and spiritual (or psychological, if you prefer).
Physical Benefits of Singing
According to research, singing keeps you healthy, exercises your heart and lungs, and releases endorphins that make you feel good! Going back to my “team sport” analogy, the practice of singing in a choir is a very physical one. For instance, you stand up for much of the 2 or 3 hour rehearsal, you take in lots of deep breaths, you have to sing long phrases without breathing, you have to stand with a good upright posture and hold your music up, and the breathing / singing co-ordination takes a lot of physical energy and mental concentration. At the end of rehearsal, you may feel physically exhausted, but you also (usually) feel exhilarated and deeply satisfied.
In fact, the physical benefits of singing (especially performing to an audience), are somewhat similar to that of sex. Further, the main purpose of a choir is to give to the audience, through performance: – to give them pleasure, satisfaction and maybe even love. Being in the audience is somewhat similar to receiving a massage. The physical sensations and chemicals produced in the body (e.g. endorphins and seratonins) while listening to beautiful live music, can be equivalent to physical pleasure, resulting in better oxygen flow, energy exchange, soothing of the nerves and relaxing of the muscles. And in the process of giving this pleasure, we the singers, find pleasure and satisfaction ourselves; – probably even more so. It is very much a giving and receiving process.
Emotional / Intellectual Benefits of Singing
It hardly needs to be stated that singing (and music in general) is often an emotional experience, covering a wide range of emotions, from happy to sad, depending on the music or song. However, I do want to look at some of the emotional benefits that might perhaps be overlooked or taken for granted, and ask why is it (and how is it) that music stirs our emotions?
Also, I'm going to look at the intellectual or cerebral benefits too, and put them together in this section, although really they blend into my 3rd section on “spiritual / psychological benefits”. Of course, all 3 states of being (emotional, intellectual and spiritual/psychological) are interconnected, especially when it comes to music. (And that is the power of music: – that it combines all of these things simultaneously!)
Initially, I had thought I would focus mainly on the emotional experience of music in this section, but then I started to remember the many exceptions, where the process of singing is more intellectual than emotional, for instance, when learning a long, complicated work by a cerebral composer such as J.S. Bach! So, let's digress for moment, and take a quick historical look back at the evolution of music styles and trends over the last 4 centuries, and the importance of cerebral versus emotional music.
Historical Evolution of Performance Music
During the late Baroque period, c. 1650-1740 (e.g. J.S. Bach, Handel, Purcell, etc) to the Classical period, c.1740-1820 (e.g. Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven), the main composers of the day were following the trend of the “Enlightenment” which was more concerned with rational and cerebral art, rather than emotional art, and this of course included music. So, for example, these composers liked to display intricate forms, techniques and mathematical structures (such as contrapuntal textures, fugues, sonatas, scales, keys, time signatures, etc). That is not to say that their music lacked emotion entirely; – much of it is very beautiful and moving, but their primary purpose was not to tug at our heart strings (like movie music for example), but to stimulate our minds and intellects. That is why so-called “classical music” (which of course covers more than just the “Classical” period), is not appreciated today, by as wide an audience as, say, modern movie music or pop music. In order to appreciate “classical music” fully, it helps to have at least some knowledge and understanding of music theory. (Just like listening to a novel being read in French would be more appreciated if you actually understood the French language!)
During the Romantic period, c.1820 – 1920 (e.g. Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Rachmaninoff, etc), composers reacted against the strict rational / cerebral “Enlightenment” movement, and became more concerned with producing emotional music again. They still kept the intellectual forms, techniques and structures of the Classical period, but they broke many of the “classical rules”, in order to produce more heart-tugging harmonies, dramatic rhythms, dissonant and disturbing key changes, and musical devices that enabled more emotion and drama.
There was a brief period of “Neo-Classicism” in the early 20th century, c. 1918-1945, (e.g. Stravinsky, Schönberg, Webern, etc), in which composers reacted against the emotionalism of the Romantic era, and brought the focus back to much more cerebral music, creating new and even more complicated forms, techniques and mathematical structures (e.g. serialism, atonalism, etc).
This back-and-forth between cerebral and emotional trends influenced many later 20th century (what we call “Modern”) composers, (e.g. Elgar, Britten, Vaughan-Williams, Prokofiev, Poulenc, Satie, Orff, Bartók, Ives, Copland, etc), who really blended the old Romantic styles with the new Neo-Classical style, creating music that was both intellectually satisfying and complex but also emotionally pleasing, dramatic and moving.
Also, “classical” composers, from the late Romantic period onwards, looked more to the national folk music of the day for inspiration, blending folk music styles and forms into their classical music. (Just as we have a “fusion” today of many different styles: - pop, rock, new age, hip-hop, world-music, etc, as well as folk, which are being blended into today's “classical” music).
That's our little history lesson about music trends. Now back to the emotional benefits of singing. As we will see, with some of the stories from our choir members, many of us have experienced times when singing has been emotionally beneficial in some way, either for us, the singers, or for the audience. Singing and performing to an audience can enhance the joy of happy occasions, such as celebrations, weddings, etc, it can also alleviate the grief of sad occasions such as funerals, memorial services, etc. It can act as a healing tool, a therapy for depression, etc.
But, how is it that music stirs our emotions so much? To show this requires some amount of explanation of the theory of harmony, musical form and structure. Composers know how to tug at our hearts (as I mentioned above), by their clever manipulation of harmonic structures, chords, suspensions, phrasing, chord progressions, etc.
Theory of Harmony and Form
To start with a simple example, the major triad chord is usually associated with a “happy” or “bright” sound. The minor triad chord, by contrast, is usually associated with a “sad” or “dark” sound. Both are treated in an almost sacred way in “Classical music” (or at least in music from the Classical era - c.1740-1820). They both contain 3 notes (or pitches), played simultaneously, and in their root positions, they are each separated by the following intervals, from the bottom to the top:
a) Major triad = 1) Major 3rd and 2) Minor 3rd.
b) Minor triad = 1) Minor 3rd and 2) Major 3rd
These triads are what we call (in musical theory terms) consonant (as opposed to dissonant). From a physics stand-point, this is because they produce well balanced, smooth, even sound-waves, where the peaks and troughs of the sound-waves align together, without “bumping”. The 3 pitches therefore blend together pleasantly, without “clashing” or disturbing our ear drums with anything but the gentlest of vibrations.
Four or five centuries ago, our ears were more delicate – or perhaps less experienced. (Kind of like a child that has not got used to spicy food yet). We were trained to hear certain chords as “consonant” and certain other chords as “dissonant”. Back in the 1700s, major triads (and minor triads) were acceptable as “consonant”, but other types of chords (such as 7ths, augmented or diminished triads or suspended chords) were considered “dissonant” and they were used extremely sparingly, and briefly, (just to create a little tension) and were always quickly resolved back to consonant chords again. Certain chords such as jazz 7ths and combinations of different keys (polytonality) were simply not used at all in the Classical era, and would have been immediately rejected as a mistake or a “horrible noise”!
However, as time went on, especially into the Romantic period, composers became more “worldly” and influenced by the folk music of the day, and so they broke the “Classical” rules and experimented more and more with “dissonant” chords, changing the intervals in the common major and minor triads, for example, to open 4ths (more typical of folk music), instead of major or minor 3rds. Remember how I described the form of a (root position) major and minor triad, above? Both of these chords are made up of 3rds (whether major or minor). Once you take away the third in a triad, and replace it with something else – a 4th or a 2nd, for example – you break the rules of a “consonant” chord and create a “dissonant” chord. (Not to mention throwing in augmented 4ths and major 7ths!)
As they did this, composers discovered sounds that were more “clashing” to the ear. Again, from a physics stand-point, this was because the chords produced uneven sound-waves, where the peaks and troughs of the sound-waves bumped into each other, creating harsher, more disturbing vibrations on our ear-drums. At first, people were horrified and thought the music was “just a horrible noise”! But, as our ears got used to these new sounds, listeners soon realized that these sounds were not “clashing”, but “crunchy”; not “horrible”, but “dramatic” or “intense”. Composers had found a rich new palate of colors (or a rich new menu of spices) with which to create far more interesting, varied and emotionally satisfying music.
Composers also now reveled in the art of creating tension, and releasing it. Composers from the Baroque and Classical era had done this too, but very gently and decorously. Now, from the Romantic period on, composers did it much more dramatically. (And, just like in any good movie or novel, you can't create proper tension without releasing it at some point). To create moments of tension, you can put in a “dissonant” or “suspended” chord, e.g. taking away the 3rd and replacing it with a 2nd or a 4th, or taking away the tonic, and replacing it with a 7th. The absence of the 3rd (or the tonic), makes our ears crave it... This tension can feel very much like yearning or longing and is what tugs at our heart strings. Then to release that tension, you resolve the chord progression, by ending up on a nice, pleasing, consonant chord, with a 3rd or by resolving back to the tonic. Sometimes, the resolution, or the releasing of the tension, creates an even more powerfully emotional effect, because it can be bitter-sweet. Sometimes, composers mix Classical, consonant chords over a gently dissonant back-ground, in order to create a really poignant moment.
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Coming up in Part 2: -
Spiritual / Psychological Benefits of Singing
Catharsis for grieving. Healing grief, depression, etc. Elevation of joy and hope and happiness.
Meditation – art of being in the present... elevation that music can create, allowing us to meditate, to reach a godly state of being. State of enlightenment – out of body almost.
Moving beyond death and grief, e.g. “Sing me to Heaven” - comfort in sorrow.
... the over-whelming challenges and suffering in the world and how we are left mystified and helpless by them, but that, ultimately, we can find purpose, meaning and hope through singing. Singing brings joy, laughter and thereby elevates us or brings us closer to God.
Marriage of music and text – how this makes singing different to instrumental music.
* * * * * * * * * *
Compliation of stories from the CCC singers.
I asked the singers of CCC to tell me their stories, using the following questionnaire as a guide...
1. How old were you when you first started singing? (i.e. performing, singing LIVE to an audience)
2. Who was your main inspiration or reason for singing in your early years? (It could be a teacher, a parent, a family member, etc).
3. Who has inspired you to sing, in recent times? (It could be a special friend, a teacher, a famous singer, etc - it could be for a special occasion, such as a wedding or funeral, or could be in general).
4. Describe a moment during a LIVE performance, when you really FELT the magic of communicating the music to the audience with your voice. What was it like? How did it feel? (It could be a solo, or with a choir).
Stay tuned for Part 2 - coming soon!