(Soundbite of "This I Believe" theme)
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Our This I Believe essay today comes from artist, producer, and musician, Brian Eno. He's well-known for so-called ambient music and has collaborated with musicians David Byrne, Bono, David Bowie, Paul Simon, and many others. Although he's recognized for his work with synthesizers, his belief relates to a more venerable instrument. Here's our series curator, independent producer Jay Allison.
JAY ALLISON: We recorded Brian Eno on a recent Tuesday evening in a London flat where he keeps his recording studio. He read his essay just before about 15 guests showed up, as they do every week. Once they arrived, they all stood around the table for a few hours and sang. Here's Brian Eno with his essay for "This I Believe."
Mr. BRIAN ENO (Musician): I believe in singing. I believe in singing together. A few years ago, a friend and I realized that we both loved singing, but we didn't do much of it. So we started a weekly a capella group with just four members. After a year, we started inviting other people to join. We didn't insist on musical experience. In fact, some of our members had never sung before. Now, the group has ballooned to around 15 or 20 people.
I believe that singing is the key to long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, increased intelligence, new friends, super self-confidence, heightened sexual attractiveness, and a better sense of humor. A recent long-term study conducted in Scandinavia sought to discover which activities related to a healthy and happy later life. Three stood out - camping, dancing, and singing.
Well, there are physiological benefits, obviously. You use your lungs in a way that you probably wouldn't for the rest of the day, breathing deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits, too. Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I'd call civilizational benefits. When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That's one of the great feelings - to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.
Well, here's what we do in an evening. We get some drinks, some snacks, some sheets of lyrics, and a strict starting time. We warm up a bit first. The critical thing turns out to be the choice of songs. The songs that seem to work best are those based around the basic chords of blues and rock and country music. You want songs that are word-rich and also vowel-rich, because it's on the long vowel sounds of a song such as "Bring It On Home To Me."
(Singing) You know I'll alwaaaaays be your slaaaaave.
That's where your harmonies really express themselves. And when you get a lot of people singing harmony on a long note like that, it's beautiful.
But singing isn't only about harmonizing pitch like that. It has two other dimensions. The first one is rhythm. It's thrilling when you get the rhythm of something right, and you all do a complicated rhythm together.
(Singing) Oh, when them cotton balls get a-rotten, you can't pick very much cotton.
So when 16 or 20 people get that dead right together at a fast tempo, that's very impressive. But the other thing that you have to harmonize besides pitch and rhythm is tone. To be able to hit exactly the same vowel sound at a number of different pitches seems unsurprising in concept, but is beautiful when it happens.
So I believe in singing to such an extent that, if I were asked to redesign the British educational system, I would start by insisting that group singing becomes a central part of the daily routine. I believe it builds character and, more than anything else, encourages a taste for cooperation with others. This seems to be about the most important thing a school could do for you.
ALLISON: Brian Eno with his essay for This I Believe. For a list of songs Eno recommends for group singing, visit npr.org/thisibelieve, where you'll also find information on submitting your own essay to our series. For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.
(Soundbite of song "Taking Tiger Mountain")
Unidentified Group: (Singing) We climbed and we climbed. Oh, how we climbed.
HANSEN: Jay Allison is co-editor with Dan Gediman, John Gregory, and Viki Merrick of the book "This I Believe Volume 2: More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women." By the way, this music is by Brian Eno, from a 1974 recording called "Taking Tiger Mountain."
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Over the stars to top Tiger Mountain. Forcing the lines through the snow.