Making music — especially, perhaps, singing — is a uniquely human form of expression and communication, but we don’t yet understand this phenomenon very well.
These days, there’s an abundance of reality TV shows featuring vocal performers. From “Idol” to “The Voice,” folks are tuning in to see talented young artists belt out a song. The singing competitions have no shortage of contestants — folks who proudly claim either that they were born to sing, or simply “have to” sing, because they can’t conceive of doing anything else with their lives. Some of them traveled many miles and stood in long lines for hours just for the chance to bring their talents to the attention of a wider audience. Others had to try out umpteen times to make the cut, yet they persisted. Singers, you see, especially those who identify with virtually nothing but their craft, are a most unusual lot.
There’s something that compels singers to do what they do that’s not so easy to describe. I think it has to do with the special power inherent in pairing carefully chosen words with just the right notes and uttering them in just the right way that impacts the human heart in a way no other form of communication can. We humans are, above all else, distinguished by both our advanced ability and our intense need to communicate. And singing, when done skillfully and artfully, provides an avenue for communicating like no other. Perhaps that’s why singers so often say that they don’t really feel fully alive unless they’re singing.
The power of song is reflected not just in the ability of a great set of lyrics and a memorable tune, sung by a talented artist, to impact the hearts of listeners. It’s also reflected in the wondrous and almost indescribable feeling that envelops a person immersed in the process of singing. For many singers, the act can be a near mystical experience in the doing, as well as an incredibly cathartic release in the completing. It’s an exercise in emotional expression without comparison.
As a psychologist, I’ve always wondered why singing can have such infectious emotional power, and I’ve written before on the uncanny ability of music to affect our psychological well-being (see “Musing On the Power of Music”). But there’s very little research specifically focused on what it is about singing that makes it such a cherished means of personal expression for some folks, so I’m always looking for articles on the topic. The other day I just happened to stumble across a free e-book boldly titled The Psychology of Singing by David C. Taylor . At first, I thought I might have found just the kind of book I’d long been looking for. But unfortunately, it turned out to be just another sterile scientific examination of such things as the mechanics of vocal sound reproduction, breathing and vocalizing techniques, cultural preferences, etc. — a very dry read, indeed. Eventually, and in a most unusual internet location, I found a wonderful little article written by Julia Lawton. And while Ms Lawton generally focuses on the pleasures of choral singing, she at least attempts to address the issue of why you can feel so good when you sing.
Because there’s so little research to draw from, and because the topic holds such intrigue for me that I can’t imagine it doesn’t hold a similar interest for at least some others, I thought I’d draw on my own experience and personal reflections to help understand the psychological power of singing. I’ve been a singer for a good deal of my life. And about a year and a half ago I stopped singing. I didn’t stop because I wanted to, but because I had to. Years of “silent GERD” (gastroesophageal reflux disease so mild and chronic that it goes unnoticed until long after its damage has already been done) did a real number on my vocal cords, and trying to sing only led to bouts of complete hoarseness. For several months after I lost my voice I was pretty darned depressed. For one thing, my voice is the only “instrument” I have ever played with any degree of artistic skill. So, losing it made me a most frustrated musician, always feeling the desire to make music, but having no instruments at my disposal to play well. But, as I have reflected on things, it occurred to me that even more devastating than the loss of the instrument itself was losing my most treasured means of personal expression. Yes, I still write books and articles. I even write an occasional song or two. And I still get satisfaction communicating thoughts and ideas via those channels. But absolutely nothing compares to the feelings I had when I sang for the pure joy of it, or witnessed someone respond positively to a message I managed to adequately convey in song. For me, there’s simply no greater channel of emotional release. Capturing the most meaningful human sentiments in words and tune, then pouring them out — whether there’s anyone else out there to hear you or not — is a means of expression like nothing else in the world. And for that reason, no matter what it takes or how long the quest might have to last, I’m determined to find a way to sing again.
Perhaps there are some singers among the readers, or at least some appreciators of song, who can identify with my musings on the nature and power of singing, and my heartache at losing my voice. Perhaps they might even have some stories or tips to share. For now, I think I’ll go fix myself another batch of ginger tea. It seems to help a little.
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