Science Shows How Singers’ Brains Are Different From Everyone Else’s

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Tom Barnes August 27, 2015

Onstage, singers get all the attention.

They make the audience comfortable and keep them engaged. They’re often the ones most sought after for interviews to explain their art and intentions. Their voices define the music they make, whether they’re solo artists or part of a band.

But offstage, singers remain a mystery. We know very little about what makes them tick, and while researchers have delved into the brains of many types of musicians (piano players, drummers, those who have taken general music lessons), they have not gone nearly as deeply into the how singing impacts the development of the brain.

The few studies that have, however, have revealed some incredible findings: Singers develop strikingly different minds and bodies than instrumentalists do. In many ways, they are neurologically better suited to handle the pressures that come along with being the center of attention than others.

Fitter, happier, more productive: Many people can attest to singing being an absolute joy, and the full-bodied release it provides can help singers manage the stress of performing.

Much of this comes from the fact that singing stimulates the production of oxytocin, a chemical involved in happiness and bonding. Surveys of individuals who sing regularly report sustained high levels of emotional stability and well-being. Even professional singers, whose singing literally determines whether they’ll be eating or not in the future, still experience a sense of relaxation and energy after singing.

In addition to emotional wellness, singing can also impact one’s physical health. Studies have found that people who sing regularly exhibit increased levels of secretory immunoglobulin A, an antibody critical for the health of the respiratory and digestive tracts. Studies comparing the bodies of amateur and professional singers found professional singers exhibit greater cardiovascular fitness while singing than amateurs. This is why not just anyone can take the stage every single night on an aggressive touring schedule and belt for a full hour and a half, like Beyoncé or Freddie Mercury.

Singing also sharpens cognitive abilities. As one might guess, considering that singing relies on lyrics, semantics and syntax, singers have exceptional linguistic abilities. A 2009 study found that the language processing centers responsible for grammar and comprehension develop “earlier and more strongly” in young, highly trained male singers than in other children.

For those that continue their training, another 2009 study found that classically trained and opera singers develop a number of other cognitive faculties. Trained singers develop better verbal working memory and show higher activation in the basal ganglia than laypeople (ie. medical students), “resulting in more efficient information processing and implicit motor control,” according to the study’s authors. Singers also show increased activation in portions of the prefrontal cortex for maintaining goal-directed attention through changing sensory information.

These skill obviously help in a big way while singers are onstage. While training their voices, singers also train their minds to block out distractions and keep focused on the task at hand.

Beyond developing a sweeping range and expressive style with their training, singers derive a number of neurological, emotional and cognitive benefits from their craft. Even amateurs can get a good deal of emotional release from letting their vocal cords loose. The benefits people can get from finding their voice and using it to bring beauty into the world are too good to pass up, and it seems we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of all there is to know. Make more music.

Singing show tunes helps fight off dementia, Alzheimer’s disease: study

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BY David Harding
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Singing show tunes helps fight off dementia, Alzheimer’s disease: study
A recent research study found that those suffering from moderate to severe dementia did particularly well singing show tunes from movies and musicals such as ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Oklahoma!’ in group settings and had a marked improvement in their remembering skills versus those who simply listened during the sing-alongs.

The hills are alive with the sound of music, which could help people with Alzheimer’s stave off the effects of the debilitating disease.

A study by U.S. scientists has shown that the brain function of those suffering from dementia can be improved if they belt out their favorite show tunes.

Researchers working with elderly residents at an East Coast care home found in a four-month long study found that people who sang their favorite songs showed a marked improvement compared to those who just listened.

Among the songs sung during 50-minute sessions were hits from “The Wizard of Oz,” “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music.”

The most improvement was among those sufferers with moderate to severe dementia.

Jane Flinn, one of the scientists involved in the study who works at George Mason University in Virginia, concluded singing was beneficial.

“Even when people are in the fairly advanced stages of dementia, when it is so advanced they are in a secure ward, singing sessions were still helpful,” she said.

“The message is: don’t give up on these people. You need to be doing things that engage them, and singing is cheap, easy and engaging.”

How to keep boys in choir when their voices change

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By Lindsey Bever February 13 at 5:12 AM, THE WASHINGTON POST

The world’s best boys’ choirs have been losing their sweetest sopranos earlier and earlier to puberty. Every choir director knows that the crack, croak or squeak from a young singer means the boy will soon have a different sound. Many boys never stick with it through this voice change to see where it takes them.

That’s why the Cincinnati Boychoir is partnering with researchers from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to study the science behind boys’ changing voices and learn better ways to help them transition as singers.

“Many choral directors and voice teachers believe that the voice change is a primary reason for boys quitting singing as they enter puberty,” Christopher Eanes, Cincinnati Boychoir’s artistic director and co-author of the upcoming study, told The Washington Post in an e-mail. “Who can blame a boy who, when singing, becomes uncomfortable for a time, follows his friends to the football team, never to look back at his musical career.”

“When one thinks about the fact that boys’ voices in the 18th century changed at 17 or 18 years old, and now they change around 12 or 13 years old, one can only conclude that boychoirs are heading for extinction,” he added.

Later this month, researchers will begin to study the physiological, aerodynamic and acoustic changes that happen when boy singers hit puberty. Some 20 Cincinnati Boychoir members from ages 5 to 11 will participate in the study, which is expected to last about two years. The boys will speak and sing in a sound booth, and researchers will examine their larynxes and voice boxes to see how they change during certain tasks, co-author Alessandro de Alarcon, an ear, nose and throat doctor at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, told The Post.

Over time, the researchers said, they hope the study will shed more light on how the male voice changes during puberty, particularly in vocalists, so voice teachers will know how to intervene to help them move into their adult voices.

“My personal hope is that we can, on some level, anticipate voice change stages in order to assign the appropriate voice part for a boy, or to design appropriate vocal exercises to strengthen certain aspects of the singing voice,” Eanes said. “Overall, anything we can do to make the voice transition more comfortable for boys will help us as teachers and conductors.”

SINGING WITH A COLD

Singing With a Cold

by Anthony Jahn, M.D.

CLASSICAL SINGER

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It’s most singers’ nightmare. Two days before an important engagement, it begins: the stuffy, itchy nose; the headache; and the congestion. A cold is on its way, and your engagement cannot be canceled. You know the cold will usually run its course in a week—but you must sing now, and make the best of it. What to do?

Short of canceling (a wise choice, if it is an option), you can do several things to make the course of your infection shorter and less severe, and lessen its impact on your voice.

Colds are caused by rhinoviruses. Normally transmitted by physical contact or the aerosol droplets of a sneeze, these viruses can survive outside of the body for up to 72 hours—you don’t need to be infected in real time by someone with a cold.

As the name implies, rhinoviruses have an affinity for your nose. Typically, they begin the infection by attaching themselves to the mucous membrane in your nasal passages. There, they start to multiply and the clinical symptoms begin. Rhinitis progresses to nasal congestion, postnasal drip, then laryngitis, cough, and possibly, bronchitis.

What can you do once the viruses have landed?

Everyone has his or her favorite routine for dealing with a cold. I would like to give you some of mine, and, if the show must go on, some tips on singing with a cold.

Numerous scientific studies have shown that zinc can help. Zinc gluconate tablets, or nasal swabs (such as Zicam), when wiped over the infected mucosa, can be beneficial. Zinc not only shortens the duration of the cold, it also lessens the severity of the symptoms, and (attention choral singers) shortens the period during which you are contagious. Zinc seems to work only once the cold has begun, however—it has no preventive effect, so you don’t need to take daily zinc prophylactically.

If your nose is not too congested, you should begin (or increase) using saline nasal spray or irrigations. You can find many manufactured solutions at the drug store, but I recommend a Neti pot with lukewarm saline that you make up yourself. Why? It’s cheaper and easier.

Unlike Zinc, vitamin C does have some preventive effect. Whether you take vitamin C preventively or not, you should increase your intake once the cold has started. I recommend 4,000 mg in divided doses daily, though some physicians recommend even more. Since vitamin C is water soluble, you won’t poison yourself with excessive amounts—it is simply excreted in the urine. Side effects however may include mild diarrhea and heartburn.

Echinacea and goldenseal are two herbs often recommended for treatment of a cold. Again, you should take them once you have a cold. Whatever benefit they may confer, they do not prevent inoculation of the virus.

OK, you’ve done all you can, yet the cold continues. What to do, what to avoid?

As much as possible, avoid antihistamines. Antihistamines, especially the proprietary mixtures such as DayQuil or NyQuil, are very drying and make phonation difficult. Decongestants such as Sudafed, on the other hand, are a bit drying, but the benefit may outweigh the negative effect. Inhaling warm steam before the performance is helpful, perhaps with a drop or two of eucalyptus oil in the pot. This soothes the upper airway and loosens sticky mucus.

From the vocal point of view, your difficulties will be on the top and in the passaggio. Swelling and thick mucus on the vocal folds affect the top, and irritation of the pharynx affects the passaggio. This may require you to push, to muscle the voice more than usual. Support may also be affected, especially if you have chest congestion and are dealing with a cough.

When singing with a cold, it is important to be aware of support, and also to realize that you may temporarily need to use suboptimal technique to get the voice out. As soon as the cold passes, conscientiously revert to your good technique, opening the pharynx, lowering the larynx, and anchoring the voice in the lower abdomen and pelvis. In other words, do whatever is necessary to get the voice out, but as soon as possible, return to your normal good technique, otherwise your temporary compensation may itself become a problem.

Many singers think they “sound better” with a cold. They don’t. When you have a cold, more sound is absorbed into the swollen tissues of the upper airway, so to your ears the voice (conducted directly through the body) sounds louder. This conducted sound favors lower frequencies (with longer waves), so the sound seems not only louder, but also deeper. The voice coming out of your mouth, however, is not what you hear inside, so don’t be deceived.

Perhaps most importantly, you must rest your voice after your ordeal. You can get through one or two performances with a cold perhaps, but continued singing while impaired can cause damage.

Norman Punt, the English laryngologist, once quipped that the difference between a professional singer and an amateur is that the professional can sing even when he doesn’t want to, and the amateur can’t, even when he does. The singer with a cold exemplifies this aphorism. None of this advice will lead to a great performance, but it can be an adequate one.

Anthony Jahn M.D., noted author and professor of clinical otolaryngology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, has offices in New York and New Jersey. His book, The Care of the Professional Voice, now in its second printing, is available on the CS website.
E-mail the author at: jahn@classicalsinger.com

Why singers like Sam Smith, Adele and Meghan Trainor are going silent

Posted July 28 2015 — 7:54 AM EDT
BY: Eric Renner Brown

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Back in February at the Grammys in L.A., Sam Smith joined Mary J. Blige on stage for a rousing performance of his smash hit “Stay With Me.” It was a triumphant moment for the artist, who picked up multiple awards for In the Lonely Hour, one of the biggest albums of 2014. But three months later, his luck ran out: He suffered bleeding on his vocal cords and had to cancel a run of tour dates. After undergoing a procedure and resting up for just under two months, he returned to the road for his U.S. trek. “My throat is looking bloody fantastic,” he wrote on Instagram July 16. “So it’s amazing news.”

Smith isn’t the only artist to recently suffer in silence. Meghan Trainor postponed shows in July due to a vocal hemorrhage, while back in 2011 Adele, the singer with the golden voice, was plagued with a polyp, which can develop if bleeding is left untreated. Artists ranging from Steven Tyler to Julie Andrews to John Mayer have also had to mute their pipes to heal. “I’ve been on tour for the better part of this year, which has been amazing but can be a lot of work for my little vocal cords,” Trainor tells EW. “They’re like muscles, and I feel like I basically pulled a muscle.”

If it seems that visible cases of vocal-cord issues among music’s MVPs are on the rise, they are. So what’s behind the recent spate? “Most of the performers that I care for, they know how to sing,” says Dr. Steven M. Zeitels, a leading surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital who has treated Smith and Adele. “More often than not, the injuries occur because of their unbelievable work ethic. I don’t think there’s an increase in injuries. I think it’s being diagnosed more frequently because of awareness.”

Back in February at the Grammys in L.A., Sam Smith joined Mary J. Blige on stage for a rousing performance of his smash hit “Stay With Me.” It was a triumphant moment for the artist, who picked up multiple awards for In the Lonely Hour, one of the biggest albums of 2014. But three months later, his luck ran out: He suffered bleeding on his vocal cords and had to cancel a run of tour dates. After undergoing a procedure and resting up for just under two months, he returned to the road for his U.S. trek. “My throat is looking bloody fantastic,” he wrote on Instagram July 16. “So it’s amazing news.”

Smith isn’t the only artist to recently suffer in silence. Meghan Trainor postponed shows in July due to a vocal hemorrhage, while back in 2011 Adele, the singer with the golden voice, was plagued with a polyp, which can develop if bleeding is left untreated. Artists ranging from Steven Tyler to Julie Andrews to John Mayer have also had to mute their pipes to heal. “I’ve been on tour for the better part of this year, which has been amazing but can be a lot of work for my little vocal cords,” Trainor tells EW. “They’re like muscles, and I feel like I basically pulled a muscle.”

If it seems that visible cases of vocal-cord issues among music’s MVPs are on the rise, they are. So what’s behind the recent spate? “Most of the performers that I care for, they know how to sing,” says Dr. Steven M. Zeitels, a leading surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital who has treated Smith and Adele. “More often than not, the injuries occur because of their unbelievable work ethic. I don’t think there’s an increase in injuries. I think it’s being diagnosed more frequently because of awareness.”