How singing affects the brain

14 July 2023

Singing has the power to engage audiences, help connect you with others and express yourself, but it also has a positive effect on the brain. A central part of opera, singing is at the core of Welsh National Opera, so let’s take a quick look at some of the ways it alters our brain chemistry and psychology.

The effects of singing and music-making on the brain are so powerful that science is only just beginning to uncover the true influence it has on our day-to-day mental health, wellbeing and psychology. In recent years, scientists have learned that music’s effects on the brain can become addictive, acting on the same parts of the brain as illegal drugs (but without the side effects). In this way, singing can help improve psychological wellbeing and reduce symptoms of agitation, anxiety and depression. By increasing blood flow through the body, singing also encourages the brain to release feel-good chemicals such as endorphins, and helps to strengthen neural pathways and increase neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change and adapt to new experiences).

Bodily movement and coordination can also be strengthened by singing, with the brain multitasking in processing rhythm and producing sound, singing can increase alertness. Due to its many positive effects on coordination, singing plays a key part in music therapy, which is used as a non-medical intervention to treat various conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and those who are neurodiverse or who have a stutter. After a traumatic injury or accident which sees the brain lose the ability to process speech (such as aphasia), singing as a music therapy can help patients recover the ability to speak. Residing in the right hemisphere of the brain, the musical skill of singing can be applied to reengage the lost language skills of the damaged left half.

Music and singing have been found to improve memory, particularly in people with dementia. Extraordinarily, people with dementia can retain the ability to sing long after their ability to talk has diminished, and singing can act as a bridge of communication between them and their loved ones. This is because singing can reach parts of the damaged brain in ways that other forms of communication cannot, and the emotional memories associated with music from a person’s past are among those that never fade from the brain. While there is still no cure for dementia, singing now plays a key role in helping alleviate some of the disease’s symptoms and lifting the spirits of those with dementia and their carers. The rise in popularity of dementia choirs across the UK has taken off in the last few years, including WNO’s own Cradle Choirs, based in Llandeilo and Milford Haven and soon to be in Llanelli.

The positive effects of signing on the brain can be experienced by everyone, so no matter your age or singing ability, why not give singing a go?