'Imperfect Harmony': How Singing With Others Changes Your Life
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Ari Shapiro, in Washington. We start off this hour with a look at the pleasure, joy and physical benefits of singing in groups. Writer Stacy Horn found herself divorced and miserable at age 26. She decided to audition for the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York, even though, as she says, she doesn't have a great voice. That was more than 30 years ago, and she's been an active member of the group ever since. Here's the choir under music director John Maclay singing Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Opus 123, known as "Gloria."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, MISSA SOLEMNIS, OPUS 123)
CHORAL SOCIETY OF GRACE CHURCH: (Singing) In excelsis gloria, gloria, gloria, gloria, gloria, gloria, gloria.
SHAPIRO: We want to hear from you this hour. If you sing with friends around a campfire, around a piano or in a professional chorus, tell us about a time that raising your voice with other people changed you. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, an argument that meals win wars. But first, Stacy Horn joins us from our New York bureau to talk about her new memoir. It's called "Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others." Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Stacy.
STACY HORN: Thank you for having me.
SHAPIRO: OK, so you write that you tried kayaking, banjo playing and hip-hop dancing, but singing, you say, is the one skill I've tried that makes my life better, and it works even though I'm not particularly great at it. So how does that happen?
HORN: Well, actually, I found studies that said the exact same thing. In fact, I found this one academic paper that said it - in the most straightforward terms, it said group singing and performance can produce satisfying and therapeutic sensations, even when the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.
SHAPIRO: We're going to get into the science behind singing in a little bit, but you also go into the history of group singing, and you emphasize so many instances in which this is not a rarified practice of the elites, but rather the thing that the masses do. You know, you start by talking about Pennsylvania coalminers in the '60s. Later, you talk about something called the People's Choral Union. Explain what that was.
HORN: Well, I wanted to emphasize in the book that this is something that amateurs can do. I mean, certainly, professional singers join choir, but, you know, as long as you can sing in tune - and most people can - you can find incredible joy in this music. And the People's Choral Union was started by a man named Frank Damrosch in 1892, and he came from a very wealthy family.
But he was a good man, and he immediately thought of all these people that were not benefitting from the same thing that he'd grown up with. So he started the People's Choral Union, and charged 10 cents for classes. And I just love the descriptions. The very first class was at Cooper Union. And he was afraid nobody would show up.
And when he walked up to the place, there were people on the street, and he literally had to - he gave a lesson to everybody inside, and then changed everyone out, and the people that were out on the street came inside, and then he gave the whole lesson again.
SHAPIRO: That's a great story. Another aspect of this sort of like singing for the people that you mentioned is an "Ave Maria" that I had heard before that I had no idea was written to be sung by a group of not particularly talented people, a group of firefighters who want to do choral music. We have a bit of this that we're going to play, but first, just tell us what we're going to hear.
HORN: That is such a beautiful, transcendent piece. Just because something is simple doesn't mean that it won't provide a complicated and enriching experience to sing it. But one quote I love, Randall Thompson - another composer that I wrote about - he said if a piece of music is too difficult for amateurs to sing, the chances are that it is not good enough.
And I love that quote, because it should be something that's accessible to just about anyone. So yeah, this piece is beautiful.
SHAPIRO: So, this is an "Ave Maria," composed by Franz Xaver Biebl to be sung by firefighters. Here's a recording of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AVE MARIA")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Ave Maria, gratia plena, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.
SHAPIRO: Stacy Horn, I could listen to that forever.
HORN: Yeah, you know, the slower you are, it gives us just that much more time to luxuriate in the harmonies that you produce.
SHAPIRO: Can you describe what the feeling is when you are in a tight harmony in a chorus?
HORN: That's a good question. You know, actually, on the way over here, I was thinking about Eric Whitacre's music. He's a composer, and he writes these harmonies that are very close and dissonant. And it's very hard to maintain, but if you do, it creates this shimmer, not just a sound, but a physical shimmer that you feel when you sing it, and you don't want it to end.
SHAPIRO: At one point in your book you describe it as almost like creating a hologram, which I thought was such a good image.
HORN: I know, I know. There's so many ways to describe it. I mean, when you're in harmony with a bunch of other people, it's almost like coming out of a coma or a zombie-like state into this world with many more dimensions.
SHAPIRO: We have a quote from Linda Bevard(ph) here. She writes: I sing with two a cappella groups in Denver, and here's one of my favorite quotes: "I don't sing because I'm happy. I'm happy because I sing."
HORN: Exactly, exactly.
SHAPIRO: Let's go to Alison(ph) in Salt Lake City, Utah. Hi, Alison. You're on the air. Go ahead.
ALISON: Hi. I was just calling to tell you I grew up singing in my church and in choirs and stuff, and recently, I've lost the religion of my childhood, and I don't have the chance to sing as often anymore. And this past year, my children's school choir asked me to co-direct. And so I have been doing this for the past year, and I did not realize how much my soul had missed singing and how - what a wonderful release that was.
And it's just children's music. We're not very good. In fact, I'm going over to do the concert for the school kids in about 10 minutes here. And...
SHAPIRO: Oh, great.
ALISON: We're not great, but it's so wonderful to have that emotional release that I didn't realize how much I missed.
SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, and good luck with the concert in about 10 minutes.
HORN: Yeah, yeah. I used to hear - I asked a lot of people in my choir: Why did you join the choir? And a lot of people said something similar. They said: I knew something was missing in my life, and it was music and connection to other people.
SHAPIRO: Stacy Horn, you write about a composer I love named Morten Lauridsen. And there's a piece he wrote called the "O Magnum Mysterium," which many different people have set to music. But I want to play a little bit of his version, and then read a quote that you write in your book from him. Let's listen to a bit of Morten Lauridsen, "O Magnum Mysterium."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O MAGNUM MYSTERIUM")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Oh magnum mysterium.
SHAPIRO: And Stacy Horn, you write in your book, when asked point blank in a radio interview about what it is about his music that goes so deep inside us, Lauridsen admitted: I don't know. We strive to go to those places, whether you're a composer, sculptor or a dancer. We try to go to those places that are beyond words, that cannot be explained. For me, these are very sacred places, he says, when you experience something that is so profound, there is no way you can begin to express it through words or really by any other means. Occasionally, as artists, this composer writes, we reach that spot.
Well, now we have a guest who actually has tried to put a name to what is going on when that happens. Daniel Levitin is a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University. He's the author of "This is Your Brain on Music," and also a book called "The World in Six Songs." He joins us from the CBC Radio in Montreal, Canada. Professor Levitin, thanks for being with us.
DANIEL LEVITIN: My pleasure.
SHAPIRO: So I don't know if you heard that Morten Lauridsen quote, but what is this thing that cannot be expressed through words or, he says, any other means? What's going on scientifically?
LEVITIN: Well, there's a lot going on, and I guess I'd like to focus on two things in particular. One is that when we sing, it brings us outside ourselves. It forces us to think about what another person is doing - now, I'm talking about singing in a choir, not singing by yourself in the shower, right. We've got to pay attention to what someone else is doing, coordinate our actions with theirs, and it really does pull us out of ourselves.
And all of that activates a part of the frontal cortex that's responsible for how you see yourself in the world, and whether you see yourself as part of a group or alone. And this is a powerful effect.
The second thing, of course, is there's a whole neurochemistry to singing. We now have evidence that when people sing together, it releases oxytocin. This is the neurotransmitter that...
SHAPIRO: The friendship chemical, or the trusting chemical, or the empathy chemical.
LEVITIN: Exactly. It's associated with social bonding. So, for example, if you show people speeches of politicians, different politicians, and you give them a dose of oxytocin before they see one particular speech, they're more likely to trust that candidate, want to vote for him, give him money. It just - the oxytocin sets up this real bond and sense of trust and well-being towards the other person. And we get that when we sing.
SHAPIRO: You know, Stacy Horn, there's something you wrote in your book that ties right into what Professor Levitin just said. You say it's easy to pretend you're listening when you're not. In quartets, you must be listening. There's no faking.
HORN: Yeah, one thing John Maclay - the music director of our choir - did, and which I will always be thankful for, is he separated the singers into quartets. Usually, when you sing in a choir, all the sopranos sit together and sing together, all the altos sing together, et cetera. But he mixes us all up. So it's always soprano, alto, tenor, bass.
So I'll be singing around voices that are singing something different than myself, and because of that, you actually feel the harmony more. I mean, it's like you're vibrating like tuning forks with all the people around you.
SHAPIRO: We have an email here from someone named Sydney(ph), who writes: I started performing with my middle school group in fifth grade. I didn't have a lot of friends, and had sort of shut myself off from everyone else. Our first show was "Beauty and the Beast," and I was a servant in the Beast's castle. I sang along with everyone else in "Be Our Guest." When I realized how much fun it was, I began talking to the other actors and gained wonderful friends who I am still very close with today.
Our guests are Stacy Horn, author of "Imperfect Harmony," and McGill Professor Daniel Levitin. And we want to hear from you. Tell us about a time when singing with other people changed you. The number is 1-800-989-8255. You can also send us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll be back in just a minute, so stay with us. I'm Ari Shapiro, and this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHAPIRO: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro. Musician, composer and producer Brian Eno is both a legend and a pioneer. He played synthesizer with Roxy Music in the 1970s. He's largely credited with developing ambient music, and has produced records for Devo, the Talking Heads and U2, and collaborated with many more, from Paul Simon to Coldplay to Grace Jones.
He is also - as he shared with NPR for This I Believe - a fan of singing together. And one of the most critical elements to make it work, he says, is song choice.
BRIAN ENO: You want songs that are word-rich, and also vowel-rich, because it's on the long vowel songs of a song, such as "Bring It on Home to Me" - (singing) you know I'll always be your slave - that's where your harmonies really express themselves. And when you get a lot of people singing a harmony on a long note like that, it's beautiful.
SHAPIRO: Our guests today are Stacy Horn, author of "Imperfect Harmony," and Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University. And we also want to hear from you. If you sing with a group for fun or professionally, occasionally or regularly, tell us about a time when singing together changed you. Call us at 1-800-989-8255. Or send us an email: email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We have Paul from Maui on the line. Hi, Paul. Go ahead.
PAUL: Hi, I was - when I was in college, I was a singer in Connecticut, and we were pretty good singers. We traveled to Europe, and we had the opportunity to sing with Duke Ellington.
PAUL: And - yeah. He sent us his "Sacred Mass" about three months before the concert, and we were like - I mean, we were really good singers, and it was the hardest music I ever experienced in my life. But the transformational experience that I had was when he walked onto the stage, and he sat down at the piano, and he hit the first note of the concert, you know, before - when we were doing a rehearsal, all the music made sense, immediately.
SHAPIRO: What do you mean by that?
PAUL: It was the most remarkable experience I ever had in my life, because, you know, I'd been singing all my life, since I was in kindergarten, and I still do. I sing every week at a madrigal group here on Maui, and also in a big choir. But it was as if the music made absolute sense at that moment, for the first time in the whole - I mean, it was just remarkable.
And we were so good, I guess, that he asked us to come to New York and record. And we're actually on his "Sacred Mass" recording, our choir, the Central Connecticut State College Singers." It was a totally transformative experience for me.
SHAPIRO: So let me ask Paul about the difference between singing in front of an audience and singing in the studio, when there was no live audience listening. Is that a big part of the dynamic?
PAUL: You mean the audience?
SHAPIRO: Yeah. Is it important to have people there listening and responding in real time? Or is it just important to make music with the people you're with?
PAUL: Well, the studio experience was so different from singing in a concert because, you know, first of all, he was - his studio was on 57th Street right, next to Carnegie Hall. And so it was a giant sound studio, and, you know, the whole band was in there. And then they separated us off with a little wall, and we recorded, and it was - you know, you were really separate from everything.
So it - you didn't feel the communal aspect of the entire performance. It was very different from the performance. And we weren't even sure whether we were, you know, whether the take was going to be good enough or anything, because it was really - it's very different when you sing in front of a group.
For example, we did the Brahms Requiem a couple of years ago, and at the end of the Brahms Requiem, our instructor asked - our conductor, rather, asked the audience not to applaud at the end of any of the movements. And so when we finished the last note of the chorus, the entire audience was completely silent.
PAUL: It was one of the most remarkable experiences I ever had onstage, because you don't expect that. And what we saw, what he asked the people do - because it was a requiem - he asked the people to commute to themselves about a person in their lives who had passed and allow that person to come through the music. And I - you could actually see the energy coming out of the people's heads and going up to the top of the - of the church that we were in.
And then the entire audience, after about five minutes, absolutely erupted and, you know, rose to their feet screaming and yelling and hollering. It was an incredible experience.
SHAPIRO: What a vivid memory. Thanks for the call, Paul.
PAUL: Well, thank you.
HORN: I love when things like that happen.
SHAPIRO: We also have an email here from Charlie in Columbus, Ohio, who writes: I was flying back to the States on September 11th, 2001, and our plane was diverted to Newfoundland, where I and thousands of others spent several days waiting to fly home. After a few nights on Army cots in a fire station, we were able to get back on our plane about 5 p.m. on Friday, September 14th, and go home.
When we landed, the passengers spontaneously burst into "God Bless America." It was one of the most moving experiences of my life, and I will never forget the time spent with other Delta Flight 37 passengers or the feeling of togetherness captured singing that song together as we celebrated our homecoming, knowing that others were not so lucky. That's from Charlie in Columbus, Ohio.
HORN: Yeah. That's - the one thing great about music is it always seems to do just we need it to do. I mean, sometimes, that's to be joyful and happy, but sometimes that's to give us strength and courage when we need it.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, we have another call from Johanna(ph) in Davis, California. Hi, Johanna. You're on the air.
JOHANNA: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
SHAPIRO: Sure. Tell me your experience.
JOHANNA: Well, I've suffered from anxiety and depression since I was a teenager. And the only thing that I've really found that helped was singing in a group. And I sang in a group starting in middle school. I had terrible stage fright. But then when I went on, I felt so exhilarated, and the adrenaline rush was just exactly what I needed.
JOHANNA: And I've sung ever since, and I'm OK.
JOHANNA: But I'm not great, and I sing with my church chorus, and it's so - it's my healing experience.
SHAPIRO: I'm curious as to what Dr. Levitin makes of the science behind that. Daniel Levitin?
LEVITIN: Well, you know, one thing I think that's interesting to look at the science - anthropological science behind it, is a lot of the callers, including Stacy, have said - made a kind of value judgment: Oh, I'm not very good. I'm only average. And this is a kind of foreign concept when you look at human beings as a species across our history.
For most of human history, people sang together, and it wasn't seen as a competition or a contest or any kind of a judgment of who was better or who was worse. It was a joyful, communal experience. And, of course, some people were better than others, but there was very little emphasis on that. And still today, throughout most cultures, it's not seen in any competitive light.
Related to that is that it's only been in the last 500 years that we've had concert halls, which set up a separation between the performer and the audience that didn't exist in human history before that.
LEVITIN: So now we pay the experts, the Paul McCartneys and the Alicia Keys, to go up on stage and sing for us, because they're better than the rest of us. And when asked to sing, we say oh, well, I'm not good enough, or we kind of sheepishly agree to sing along. Some of us mouth the words while not actually making any tone at all.
But the joy of singing that Stacy discovered and the nonjudgmental aspect of it, the communal part of it, the part where differences are reconciled and we're all just in it together, that's the truly uplifting power of it. And I think that's important to keep in mind. The history of music was always that it was that, it was communal.
SHAPIRO: You know, we got an email from someone named Joseph, who writes two words. He wrote: drinking songs - which is funny, but at the same time, gets at one of the few places where people do sing together in the sort of informal way that, Dr. Levitin, you're talking about, they were doing hundreds, thousands of years ago.
LEVITIN: Well, and there's an interesting link there, which is that the part of us that's saying, oh, I'm not very good, is an inhibition circuit in the frontal cortex. It causes us to not shout out obscenities. It causes us to engage in socially appropriate behaviors and to be a bit self-conscious. And it's that very center in the prefrontal cortex that alcohol acts on. As we know, people who drink are less inhibited. And so with that removed, you can sing joyously without wagging the finger in your mind at yourself.
SHAPIRO: Well, I want to get into another recent development in singing that would have been impossible without technology that, Stacy Horn, you write about in your book: the virtual choir. Before we listen to some of it, tell us what this is.
HORN: Yeah, anybody who wants to can participate in the virtual choir, and you take - you make a video of yourself singing a part from one of Eric Whitacre's pieces - he's the one who started it - and you upload that. And then they're all put together later to form the finished piece. And that's like - Daniel could probably explain what is happening there again.
But here, again, you're experiencing all the same wonderful feelings, and you're not even in the same room with these people.
SHAPIRO: And so, literally, you get tens of thousands of people from around the world singing one song together, as uploaded in tens of thousands of individual parts. Let's listen to one of these recordings. This was Virtual Choir Number Two. The song was called "Sleep."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLEEP")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) If there are noises in the night, a frightening shadow, flickering light.
SHAPIRO: David, would this kind of an experience have a different effect on the brain from a traditional choral experience?
LEVITIN: Well, it's hard to say. I don't know of any experiments on this, but you're not getting the immediate feedback from the others, and you're not looking them in the eye. But you are part of something larger than just yourself, and you're trying to coordinate your actions with someone else's. You're using your breath and your body as an instrument, just like when you're singing with the other group members there.
And like dance and like acting, it really requires that you step outside yourself and see how you fit into a larger whole. You're not just doing and executing your part. You're trying to make it merge with the parts of others, and I think most of the effects come from that.
SHAPIRO: Hmm. All right. Let's take another call. This is from Angela(ph) in Neenah, Wisconsin. Hi, Angela. Go ahead.
ANGELA: Hi. Back in 1979 through 1981, I was at UW-La Crosse, and we had a thing called the Choral Union, which was a choir of both, like, just people from the community and students that were taking it as credit, which was really interesting to see the dynamic, you know, the age variation.
ANGELA: But the director, Dr. Molina(ph), told us from the beginning that he had a neurological condition. He was - his health was worsening. So of the two years' time, we saw him gradually get to the point where he wasn't able to get to a concert, unable to raise his hands to conduct us. But he - we were all just with him, watching him, and he would do it with his eyes, with his, excuse me...
SHAPIRO: And did that work, that he was able to conduct with his eyes and with shrugging his shoulders?
ANGELA: Oh, I think it was just because we just loved him so much. We were all just riveted on watching him because he was giving everything he could and we wanted to give right back.
SHAPIRO: I can tell how much you miss him.
ANGELA: Yeah. He was a wonderful man.
SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Angela.
ANGELA: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: Stacy Horn, you write that it's actually only recent that conductors actually conducted by waving their hands.
HORN: Well, we didn't even have conductors in the beginning. The choir would be directed by the first violinist, and the conductor would actually be off to the side. And it was - I forget...
SHAPIRO: You say at one point he was stomping his cane on the ground, and then at one point conductors would wander around the choir whispering to the singers.
HORN: I know. I read that in one book, you know, just quietly whispering directions. And when the conductor first stood in front of the choir, he faced the audience and not the choir so as not to appear rude.
SHAPIRO: Hmm. Daniel Levitin, we've talked a lot about the experience of singing. What about the experience of listening?
LEVITIN: So listening activates some of the same networks in the brain, but different ones, as well. So it's a different experience. It can be more solitary, although when we go to concerts together, it's possible that we get some of the oxytocin release, that social bonding hormone, just by being with others while we're listening.
But listening, I guess, you could describe in most cases, as relatively passive compared to singing, which is active, although I think that does it a disservice. When you're listening to a piece of music, whether you know it or not, and whether you're a musician or not, your brain is, moment to moment, trying to predict what's going to come next.
LEVITIN: There's circuits in the prefrontal cortex just behind your eyebrow that are trying to figure out, well, if the music did this, what might it do next? And the composer's and the musician's jobs are to reward those expectations some of the time, but not all the time, or you get bored, right?
SHAPIRO: Ah. Uh-huh. Syncopate and go off the beat and do things that the listener may not be expecting.
LEVITIN: Yeah. Or if you're a singer or a violinist, you might use what they call expressive intonation. You might go a little flat, intentionally, to delay the gratification of that into note.
SHAPIRO: We're talking about the experience of music, what making it and listening to it does for the brain. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go to Christine(ph) in Lake City, Florida. Hi, Christine. You're on the air.
CHRISTINE: Hi. I just wanted to talk about my experience 20 years ago in high school. We sang, and we were very good. We were an ensemble that was under the direction of a man named Norman Choice(ph). And we were headed to a festival to sing for competition, and he was killed four days before our competition, in a car accident while listening to our music.
And, you know, he was so dedicated to the young people there at the high school. We were such a tight-knit group. We were changed by that music. And when he died, we carried on. We sang at our festival. We got the superior(ph). And two days later, we sang at his funeral. And when I meet these people in the same small community 20 years later, we still remember all that music. We still have all those memories. It changed all of our lives.
SHAPIRO: Can you take me back to that moment singing at his funeral and describe what that felt like?
CHRISTINE: Yes. I was one of his star students. I was the one that was going to go on and sing for the rest of my life, because that feeling, whatever's going on in the brain, I was hooked on it.
SHAPIRO: You were a drug addict.
CHRISTINE: And - yes. I was so hooked on it because it just does something to you. It's heavenly. It is the language of angels. And as I sang, it - my life was like - you know, I could hold it together for that moment, to sing for him and for his family and for the hundreds of people that were there. And when we finished, I just fell apart, because it - I could do it for the music, but then the emotion took over. And, I mean, it's still so raw 20 years later. When you sing like that...
LEVITIN: You know, it's interesting. Life is so unstructured and disorderly much of the time, but music is highly structured and ordered. And so the structure of the music, while you're in the middle of it, really helps you to make sense of what's going on. And then you have that music end, and you feel like everything flails apart, right?
CHRISTINE: Yes, yes.
SHAPIRO: Well, thank you so much for the call, Christine.
CHRISTINE: Thank you. Appreciate it.
SHAPIRO: I want to end with this email from Muriel in Roosevelt, California, who writes: Close to Christmas 1995, my mother was dying in a hospital in Calgary, Canada. My sister, father and I were all there. The evening before my sister was going back to California, she decided that since it was so close to Christmas, we should sing some carols. We each chose one, mom, dad, Sandy and I. Dad, Sandy and I sang them, then finished off with the old hymn, "Abide with Me." As far as I know, that was the last music my mother heard before she died. It was about 7 PM, and by the time we were finished, the extremely busy hospital floor was silent. It was an incredible experience, she writes, feeling connected to everyone on the floor in a very personal way, even though we couldn't see most of them.
Well, we can't see most of you listening, but we want to thank you for joining us. And special thanks to our two guests, Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University. He's the author of "This is Your Brain on Music." And Stacy Horn is a member of the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York. Her book "Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others" goes on sale, July 7. Thanks to you both.
HORN: Thank you.
LEVITIN: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: And when we come back, the opinion page. I'm Ari Shapiro, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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