"To stop being me for a little while and to become us": Byrne (and Eno) on the social power of the choir
We like choirs on A/UK, and respect their social power - see Reverend Billy’s, or their role in social prescribing - so we delighted to find this video, reported by Happy Mag, on Talking Heads’ David Byrne - a favourite of this site - singing with Canada’s Choir! Choir! Choir!. The story goes:
Choir! Choir! Choir! is a Canadian musical organisation. Instead of a traditional model, the choir is structured so that basically anybody who wants to attend an event is welcome to perform. They are known for their tributes to musical legends like Leonard Cohen and Chris Cornell, which are usually performed by choirs upwards of 200 people.
Apparently Byrne is a big fan, recently posting on Facebook that he’s “sat mesmerised watching online videos” of the choir.
Speaking about the Heroes performance, Byrne said:
“There is a transcendent feeling in being subsumed and surrendering to a group. This applies to sports, military drills, dancing… and group singing. One becomes a part of something larger than oneself, and something in our makeup rewards us when that happens. We cling to our individuality, but we experience true ecstasy when we give it up. So, the reward experience is part of the show.”
It’s quite something to see Byrne lose himself to the optimism of the song, and the collective joy of the crowd. Byrne’s great pal, the UK musician Brian Eno, once commented on his kitchen-table choir:
I believe in singing. I believe in singing together.
A few years ago a friend and I realized that we both loved singing but didn't do much of it. So we started a weekly a capella group with just four members. After a year we started inviting other people to join. We didn't insist on musical experience — in fact some of our members had never sung before. Now the group has ballooned to around 15 or 20 people.
I believe that singing is the key to long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, increased intelligence, new friends, super self-confidence, heightened sexual attractiveness and a better sense of humor. A recent long-term study conducted in Scandinavia sought to discover which activities related to a healthy and happy later life. Three stood out: camping, dancing and singing.
Well, there are physiological benefits, obviously: You use your lungs in a way that you probably don't for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits, too: Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I would call "civilizational benefits."
When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That's one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.
More here. And see this from Aeon, more scientifically, on the power of collective singing, inspired by the clip from Live Aid, where Queen rouse their audience into song:
[Speech] conversation groups seem to have a size limit of around four speakers before splitting into subgroups. And given that laughter often occurs in natural conversation groupings (outside of the fairly recent phenomenon of stand-up comics who fill stadiums), this might mean that laughter is best-suited to small-group bonding.
In contrast, singing can bond hundreds of individuals at the same time – and this can stretch into the thousands when there is a focal point keeping everyone together, for example, a band such as Queen.
We still don’t know whether it is the act of singing per se that has this effect, for example through stimulating endorphin release via coordinated muscular effort, or whether it is the shared goal of producing music that creates the cohesion.
We also don’t know whether it is coordinated rhythm that stimulates the bonding effect, or whether the increased coordination required for producing harmony ramps it up.
But whatever the case, part of the success of a band like Queen is that, by encouraging audience participation in its music, it successfully taps into an evolutionary mechanism of potent social bonding that creates strong connections quickly with large numbers of people from all around the world.