Move Over Laughter, Singing May Be The Best Medicine

When Daniel Pink tweets that choral singing might be the new exercise, you know I have to investigate even if it is just clickbait.

There seems to be some scientific basis to the claim, however.

Choral singing calms the heart and boosts endorphin levels. It improves lung function. It increases pain thresholds and reduces the need for pain medication,” Pink claims, citing research published in Evolution and Human Behavior. It also seems to improve your outlook, boosting mood and self-esteem while alleviating feelings of stress and depression.

These aren’t simply effects of singing. “People who sing in a group report far higher well-being than those who sing solo,” he notes. It’s about synchronizing with others. Rowers and dancers have similarly shown a greater capacity to endure pain when performing in time with others.

While there are some benefits accrued from the physical flexing of lungs and diaphragm, most of the benefits seem to result from the collaborative and communal aspects of choral music.

So even for those who don’t want to participate because they don’t enjoy singing, this seems to point to there being some benefits in active participation in arts and cultural activities. The close coordination found in choral, dance, theater productions seem to bring the best benefits, probably because they require a employing social skills connected with concession and negotiation.

But I have to imagine people would gain some benefits, albeit to a lesser degree, participating in a social, hands on creative activity with others versus passive observation.

The study in Evolution and Human Behavior looked at the bonds formed between people who met frequently (~once a week) in small choral groups and then came together with other choral groups to form a mega choir once or twice a year.

Importantly, we show that even after only a single session of singing, a large group of unfamiliar individuals can become bonded to the same level as those who are familiar to each other within that group.


Our results suggest that communal singing can cause a significant increase in social closeness of large groups of unfamiliar individuals (c.f. Pearce, Launay, & Dunbar, 2015). In other words, communal singing may bypass the need for personal knowledge about other individuals that more intimate relationships require.

I suspect the shared experience and interest in singing helps form these strong bonds quickly. The study says music specifically has a pivotal role forming bonds across human evolutionary history. The study also seems to say there is an aspect of social bonding that allow these connections to coalesce quickly even during less formal and infrequent contacts.

Something to think about and explore.

Could It Be That Pretty Much Anything Is More Engaging Than Test Focused Learning?

Via is a piece from the Brookings Institution titled, “An unexpectedly positive result from arts-focused field trips.”

After crunching some numbers as part of research being conducted for the National Endowment for the Arts, the article author Jay P. Greene writes,

The surprising result is that students who received multiple field trips experienced significantly greater gains on their standardized test scores after the first year than did the control students.

Before you get too excited about that, the cause and effect relationship probably isn’t what you assume.

Greene notes that this was surprising because previous research has found there is no skill transfer between arts and other subjects.

…there is little to no rigorous evidence that art improves performance in math or reading, just as there is little evidence that math or reading improve performance in art.

Createquity presented similar information in 2016 when they examined the strength of existing research on the benefits of the arts.

Greene writes that based on the strength of previous research showing there was no positive transference of skills from the arts to other subject areas, they didn’t include that as part of their research design for the NEA study. However, since it wouldn’t cost more to process the data to answer the question about whether skills were transferable, they added that to part of their analysis assuming it would confirm past research that there are not statistically significant effects.

Even though they did find a statistically significant effect, Greene says that given the strength of previous research, their findings are not sufficient to invalidate what has been found.

We still do not believe that arts instruction and experiences have a direct effect on math or ELA ability. We think this because the bulk of prior research tells us so, and because it is simply implausible that two extra field trips to an arts organization conveyed a significant amount of math and ELA knowledge.

Our best guess is that test scores may have risen because the extra arts activities increased student interest and engagement in school. Looking at two different measures of student conscientiousness,…we find that treatment students experienced a significant increase on these outcomes, which may be indicators of school engagement…Maybe arts-focused field trips do not teach math or reading, but they do make students more interested in their school that does teach math and reading.

Greene says that this is just a guess or that their results might just be a fluke.

For my money, the arts improving student interest and engagement is a much better claim than improving test scores. As I have discussed before, the arts are not well served when they are seen as having a utilitarian purpose. While improving student engagement in subject matter is still a utilitarian view, it is a much more general measure than test scores. You start to move away from how many concertos and paintings are needed to raise test scores by five points.

However, just like with the economic value argument, I strongly suspect that you can substitute other activities in the arts’ place and find student engagement improves. Increasing opportunities for free play, recess, field trips, experiential learning, etc and focusing less on tests will probably improve engagement quite a bit.

Taking Arts & Culture’s Measure

I have been cautioning the non-profit arts community about citing the economic value of the arts for over a decade now. The first time was in 2007. I wrote about it a few times in the interim, but I didn’t really start to devote time and space to the idea until the last 2-3 years.

However, if you don’t put stock in my arguments, perhaps you will find statements by celebrities with English accents to be compelling. Check out the following videos from an Arts Emergency Service convening at the Oxford Literary Festival where author Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series) makes the same point cited in just about every piece I discussed in previous posts:

“Keep clear of economic justifications for the arts. If you do that, if you try that, you hand a weapon to the other side because they can always find ways of proving that you are wrong about it, you’ve got the figures wrong. You invite them to measure everything in terms of economic gain. My advice would be to ignore economic arguments altogether.”

Noted graphic novelist Alan Moore chimed in about “…the ridiculousness of, sort of, having to have impact. To appoint words like that to the arts, its criminal, its ridiculous.”

Pullman makes another statement that aligns with the assertions by Carter Gillies I often cite that just because something can be measured, doesn’t mean the measurement is relevant. (Diane Ragsdale also wrote a piece along these lines.)

“The government, you see, asks us to do something and then gives us the wrong tools to do it. [unintelligible] says, ‘Look I want you to measure this piece of wood. And here’s a tool for you.’ And gives you a grindstone. And one thing you can say is, ‘Why do you want to measure this wood anyway? This is firewood, I’ll burn it to keep myself warm.’ Questions arise from that. What is the right tool for measuring the arts and do we need to measure them anyway? What are we measuring them for?”

There is another video on the Arts Emergency page where the panel, which includes Arts Emergency co-founder, Josie Long, discuss the false dichotomy between art and science that is worth checking out.

As I was looking back at all the posts I made on this subject, I found the following tweet I had linked to many years ago.  It struck me that if you can’t entirely control the language your advocates use, request they make this one small change in terminology can help start to shift the “economic benefit” mindset. (Though perhaps not something to use in the context of immigration discussions.)

Uncaging The Ticket Office Staff

Ken Davenport made a post last month about the way the New York City subway system is shifting their practice. Since more subway riders are able to pay for rides with their credit cards and even have refillable Metro cards sent to their homes, there is less need for the booth attendants.

But, NYC has been slow to adopt any changes unlike other cities around the country.

Starting to sound familiar? Labor intensive? Slow to change? Tickets that can be received at home, or from a “machine.”

However, the booth attendants aren’t necessarily losing their jobs.

In the subway case, they are talking about allowing station agents to help passengers off the train, providing service to the riders looking as they stand on the tracks, etc. They are talking about getting them out of the glass box and interacting directly with our consumers.

Why? Because riders polled LIKE having the station agents. And I bet our ticket buyers LIKE having our box office attendees as well.

As we become more and more cashless, and as we become more print-at-home, maybe an idea is to allow our box office personnel to become even more of an integral part of our promotion and advertising team (they are the few folks that actually talk to our customers). Maybe we just get them out from behind those glass walls that, frankly, are so antithetical to any sales process (ever been to an Apple store? It’s no coincidence that their salespeople walk the stores, conducting transactions from a phone that fits in their pocket).

Davenport draws the line between the station attendant and the ticket office staff which has always been regarded as the first point of contact 95% of people have with an arts and cultural organization.

About two years ago I made a similar post about using technology to unmoor the ticket office from a permanent physical location in a lobby. (Check it out, there were some good comments.) Davenport takes the next step astutely noting that the function of physically transferring tickets to someone is becoming less necessary whereas personal contact with visitors is just as, if not more, important.

Personally, knowing the subway station attendant would be getting out of those booths makes me relieved on their behalf. Ever since I was a kid (this is back to when “Y” tokens were used) those booths made me feel anxious because the attendants looked like they were imprisoned in the claustrophobic cubes while everyone else was free to travel about.

Since it has been pretty apparent in a number of places I have worked that the ticket office was the last space an architect designed, this is probably an experience shared by a lot of ticketing staff.

Getting the staff out among the visitors may bring a constructive psychological and perceptual change to the whole relationship.