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Timeline: Why We Sing

Another featured episode from Timeline's vault...

Originally aired December 4, 2017

Why do humans sing? Why do we make music at all?


We’ll start with the sound of crickets, well two sounds actually. In the foreground we hear chirping crickets as they sound to our ears; in the background we hear their song slowed down many times. At that speed it’s a chorus of voices singing in the night. Only male crickets make this noise and it’s quite risky behavior because not only are they trying to attract a mate, at the same time they could be attracting a predator as well.

The nightingale has a beautiful voice and they typically have as many as 180 different songs made up of a vocabulary of 250 unique sounds. Current research suggests that male nightingales sing complex songs to communicate how good a father they will be to their young; the better the singer, the better the dad.

So Why?

I mean, I personally have observed music as a means to attract mates and communicate values, but beyond the puffery what is the point? Singing is just air in the wind and music is a fleeting sequence of sounds in our ears, right? What purpose does it serve? German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that “If music confers no survival advantage, where does it come from and why does it work?”

John Lennon, not the Beatle, but a retired professor of Emporia State University, believes that singing is vital for human beings. He writes “most animals use sound to express emotion.” Lennon observes that infants sing or make audible noises as a spontaneous emotional release. Singing is “a very basic human need, the need to express emotions in a way that completely satisfies the unified BodyMind of each individual.” For instance, we sing the blues not just because we are sad, but to give the emotion voice. I think all of us have had the experience of knowing the emotions of a performer by just hearing them sing or play.

Credit U.S. Public Domain

So we sing to express, but why is it a means of expression?

Harvard University researcher and scholar Leonid Perlovsky believes that “music is an evolutionary adaptation, one that helps us navigate a world rife with contradictions.” Like the old adage says, “Where words fail, music speaks.” Perlovsky also writes that, “while language splits the world into detailed, distinct pieces, music unifies the world into a whole. Our psyche requires both.” Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin would agree. He cites that according to over 400 studies, music has more effect on people’s anxiety and cortisol levels than prescription drugs.

We sing to express. We sing to cope.

Studies show that singing for 30 minutes with other people releases a considerable amount of oxytocin into the system. This chemical is also released in physical and sexual contact, and is especially prevalent within nursing mothers and infants. In other words, it’s a bonding chemical. Even listening to music together has been found to increase oxytocin levels and allow for greater social cohesion. We live longer and have stronger bonds through music and this is no accident.

We’d love to hear what you think: Why do you sing? Why do you make music? What does it mean to you?

Tell us your thoughts; comment below or on Facebookand we’ll revisit this topic and explore the multitude of answers to this question, why do we sing?

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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