Why sing together? 1: Neuroscience and the Creator’s Intentions

21Nov09

Music and the BrainI have argued that the primary purpose of music in corporate worship is to facilitate congregational singing.  And I plan to get into what this means for worship leaders in a later post.  But before I do, I want to take one or two posts to gather some ideas about why corporate singing is such an important experience in the life of the Christian and why I think all churches should strive to make corporate singing their highest musical priority.

I want to try to answer the question from a few different angles, beginning empirically and moving to the theological.  My basic claim is this: God designed us such that corporate singing resonates with our emotions on a deep level.  Singing together instills in us, in a way that spoken theology and other forms of communication cannot, that we are not alone, that we are living members of the glorious Communion of Saints.

A Curious Feeling of Transcendence

Corporate singing, as I mentioned in my post about U2, can create a transcendent feeling of hyper-connectedness.  I’ve never known exactly what to call this feeling, but whatever it is, it’s the opposite of loneliness.  This is why people, even those who have no particular religious persuasions, leave a great rock concert gushing with enthusiasm, ebullient with a feeling of joy and connectedness.  Singing loudly together with lots of people (especially thousands, like at U2 concerts) speaks to us on an emotional level.

Neuroscience, Oxytocin, and Singing

Where does this feeling come from and why do we have it when we sing together? An entire branch of the neuroscience community studies the effects of music on the brain, trying to answer questions like this one.  (See, for instance, the Library of Congress’s series of interviews on the topic.)  If you research a bit, one of the first answers you’ll find for our question is oxytocin.  Oxytocin, (not to be confused with Oxycontin, the pain-killing drug) is a hormone produced by the human brain that contributes to feelings of trust for the people around you.  It is most well known for its role in sexual behavior–oxytocin levels are high after orgasm, leading people to feel tremendously bonded together with their partner.  It’s a bit like neurochemical soul glue.

According to Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, sex isn’t the only thing that leads to high levels of oxytocin.  What’s the other?  Singing, particularly singing with other people, causes the brain to produce unusually high levels of oxytocin.  Just to double check, I found a study at the National Center for Biotechnology Information that lends credibility to this claim: when people sing together, their brains make oxytocin, and that makes them feel trust, solidarity, and connectedness with the people around them.

Some readers may find this a bit anticlimactic.  “Oh, it’s just a chemical in the brain.”  Or if you’re skeptical of religious experience in general, you may say, “Ah ha, see, it’s just a hormone, not any of that holy spirit nonsense.”  I won’t really take the time in this post to respond to the latter charge (although I’ll include a brief comment/footnote at the bottom).

But I do hope that the rest of this discussion addresses the former concern.  Simply because a mental event has a corresponding neurological reality does not make it spiritually or personally insignificant.  God designed our brains as surely as he designed anything else, and he made our brains such that corporate singing causes a profound feeling of solidarity and trust with those around around us.

The Gift of Corporate Music

So why does God tell us to so frequently (in the Psalms) to sing together?  Well, an initial, empirical answer, is that he knows us, and He wants us to not only know cognitively but also feel emotionally what is true.  He designed us such that corporate singing would draw us out of our  self-oriented little worlds and declare to us loudly that we are not alone.  You are not just a lone ranger in your walk with the LORD,  you are, to borrow the language of the Book of Common Prayer,  a living member of the mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people, and an heir of God’s eternal kingdom.

Music is a gift God has given to the church to help declare loudly to us this fundamental theological truth, which is sometimes otherwise difficult for us to believe.  We often feel alone.  I think it’s a product of the Fall that we are so prone to loneliness and disconnection.  Music is one of the primary gifts God has given to help us unlearn the lie that we are alone.  And it’s not just listening to music, it’s corporate singing, that makes the point.

In conclusion: at least one reason why God tells us to sing together in church is b/c he knows that this will help bind us together as a Body, his Bride, and he wants us to know that we are not alone.  Therefore, churches should make corporate singing their highest musical priority because it produces in us a God-given response that helps us feel and know that we really are part of the Communion of Saints.



14 Responses to “Why sing together? 1: Neuroscience and the Creator’s Intentions”

  1. 1 churchmusicblog

    I really don’t want to spark a debate about human origins here. But I do want to give a tiny aside about the skeptic’s charge about brain chemicals, in case anyone is having this issue.

    My basic thought is this: you end where you begin. If you begin with secular assumptions about human origins, then you reach secular conclusions about human life.  And that’s fine, but don’t, at the end of your conclusions, argue that all the evidence you have interpreted in light of your secular assumptions somehow proves your secular assumptions to have been true.  The same is true for theistic beliefs.

    For example, with the existence of oxytocin as a response to corporate singing, you can say, “See, religious experience is just brain chemicals.” Or you can say, “See, God has designed us to respond favorably to singing!” Neither one is a good argument for its respective starting point (secular vs. theistic origins).

    Those with secular assumptions about the origins of the human species will, naturally, speculate about the utility of music-making for survival.  They’ll have to answer the question, “How would the brain evolve to produce oxytocin after singing?”  And there are some fascinating responses, none of which I want to go into here. 

  2. 2 Dana Litke

    This is pretty interesting. I have noticed that choir members tend to be much more social than other groups like bands or orchestras. Singers are notorious for talking a lot in rehearsals, and almost every choir I have sung in has had some type of “social committee” to organize potlucks, Christmas parties, etc.

    I had another thought about your philosophy of the primary role of corporate singing in worship. Typically, people who cannot sing very well or think they are “tone deaf” do not enjoy singing in church as much as people who can sing well or at least on pitch. I know people who do not sing at all during corporate worship because they are embarrassed that people will hear them singing off pitch. I think one solution is educational music ministry so that people can learn to sing through church music and therefore be more comfortable participating in corporate singing. This starts with things like children’s and youth choirs, having a music time during children’s church, etc.

    I believe that most people who are not hearing-impaired can learn to sing if they are taught from a young age. Traditionally, this has been the role of the church, but we have begun to rely more on school music programs and taken this responsibility away from the church. Now that many schools are cutting music programs because of funding issues, the church may be the only place for our children to learn to sing. If we don’t provide educational music ministry in the church, we will end up with more adults standing silently during corporate singing.

    • 3 churchmusicblog

      Dana,
      Thanks for your comments! I appreciate you adding a data point from your experience in choirs.

      I also think you’re right on about teaching children (and adults) to sing.

      Another way of approaching people who do not sing at all due to embarrassment (since we can’t go back in time and teach them from a young age) is to try to convince them that they are simply wrong to refuse to sing. I personally believe (as is probably evident in my posts) that God commands us to sing to Him whether we esteem our own voices or not; He wants to hear us and is worthy of our praise.

      I’m planning to take up this issue later in a post called, “What the Gospel says about your singing voice.” : )

      Thanks again, Dana.

  3. 4 Jeremy Seth Geddert

    Wendell, this is fascinating. I suppose it helps to give reasons for my observation awhile back that choirs tend to bond socially faster than other musical groups.

    Just to throw another opinion on the secular vs religious angle, I think Aristotle would say that there is nothing innately good about the feelings themselves, but he would empirically acknowledge that those feelings are always going to lead us toward whatever end they are directed. Thus, the purpose of life is direct our pleasures and feelings toward our natural(ly good) ends. So even if the feelings are nothing more than chemicals in our brains, that doesn’t mean that they play no role in directing us toward the Good, or that we can’t use reason to guide our emotions in ultimately fulfilling ways.

    Correspondingly, I think Aristotle would say that it is good for us to encourage the release of oxytocin in activities which are directing us toward the development of moral virtue and worship of the transcendent. Likewise, it would be bad for us to encourage oxytocin release in, say, activities which are directed toward engaging in potentially procreative activity in contexts where the progeny will not be fully cared for.

    Thus, I think that even the secularist is on shaky ground arguing for an agnosticism about moral questions which would say that feelings have relation to moral content or role to play in moral development. Unfortunately, most secularists these days are also skeptical about the possibility that (philosophical) reason can direct us to any higher goods. Ironically, the effective overthrowing of Christianity in the academy has gone hand-in-hand with the neutering of philosophy and its use of reason to guide the passions.

    Regarding the actual specific subject of your post, I’ll have to continue to think about it before posting anything else.

  4. 5 Sharon

    Make a joyful noise – doesn’t say anything about being on pitch.

  5. 6 marilyn

    First, thank you for this article. I think we Christians need to think more about this type of thing and learn more about the ways God created us. It has been several years since this article was written, but maybe there are still others coming here too.
    Perhaps you have found the word by now that you were looking for that meant “hyper-connected” and “opposite of loneliness”…I would call it “belonging” and I believe God put within each of us the need to “belong”.
    alsoI believe God created our brains magnificiently so we can deal with trauma and still live and enjoy life with Him NOW, not just in eternity. I loved being reminded that Psalms eshorts us to “sing together”! This brings joy to our soul, which is something that we need to “live” or “thrive”. If you are interested in more about this, look at http://www.thrivingtoday.org/

    • 7 churchmusicblog

      Thanks, Marilyn. I’m glad to have the opportunity to share these thoughts with you! And thanks for the link.

  6. 8 keith

    thank you for posting this article. it seems as though the presence of oxytocin (during a lowering of our psychic defenses) provides us a direction and perhaps a vehicle to pursue a path. it, of course, should not be construed as the destination in itself. the phrase ‘corporate music’ calls to mind the 2nd half of my search regarding brain function… the preponderance of psychopaths in corporate positions. 3 to 4 times greater than the general population. is there a compassion function in the brain that singing stimulates?

  7. A great discussion here. As a worship leader and grad student in counseling I often conceptualize what we are experiencing in communal worship as a psychological phenomenon that is a grace from God, given for our formation. Oxytocin and dopamine are both needed in worship right? We get our high from dopamine but then we experience oxytocin so that our high doesn’t bottom out (like it does with addiction). Instead we level out in a way that promotes feelings of desire for connection with God, self and others. Oxytocin, not dopamine, comes from attachment (it’s often called the cuddle hormone). If people are not experiencing God in an attachment sort of way they still can get a fix of pleasure but it will cultivate more of an addiction experience. (See this article: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-08-20/national/35491417_1_congregants-worshippers-sermons)

    Which is one reason I think it’s helpful to filter the knowledge of Oxytocin in worship through the theory of attachment and neural integration.

    More thoughts on attachment worship and neural integration:

    http://aaronmitchum.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/attachment-theory-and-worship/

    http://aaronmitchum.wordpress.com/2013/07/21/neuroscience-why-we-should-rethink-how-we-choose-songs/

    http://aaronmitchum.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/attachment-worship-a-look-at-the-research/

    • 10 churchmusicblog

      Aaron,
      Thanks so much for the comments and fascinating links. I look forward to reading your posts on attachment theory.

      Wendell

    • 11 Sharon

      Here is an interesting study: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/new-study-shows-how-singing-synchronises-choirs-heartbeat-8698315.html

      • Very interesting. I had heard about mirroring neurons synchronizing people’s body language but not of heart beats connecting through singing. Thank you for sharing Sharon!

  8. 13 Brian

    I was thinking…

    Metal/hardcore songs are typically violent in nature, and their concerts usually have violent behavior, and little to no singing by the participants.
    Punk songs are arguably just as violent (anarchy) and so are their concerts (they both sometimes have mosh pits and punching/kicking), BUT the punk songs usually have simple lyrics that are easily sung as “Anthems” at the shows. No matter how misled the “punks” are with their ideologies, they seem to have passion for their causes and love and loyalty to each other.

    Could oxytocin be the difference?

    I have always noticed that whenever the music drops out and we all sing loudly to God together …it just feels satisfying. We all look around, and feel connected like the church body should feel.


  1. 1 Oozing oxytocin

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