How Joining a Choir Helps Tune into Bereavement Recovery

by Staff Writer
December 18, 2023 at 10:15 AM UTC

Joining a choir offers significant mental health improvements, including reduced depression and enhanced well-being, for individuals grieving due to cancer.

Clinical Relevance: Singing with a group may help tune out depression

  • In a study, choir singing significantly reduced depression symptoms by 11 percent and increased overall well-being for those grieving cancer-related losses.
  • Participants in choir sessions show a notable 17 percent rise in self-esteem and a 10 percent increase in self-efficacy over 24 weeks.
  • Unlike typical music therapy, this intervention functioned as a community-driven mutual support initiative, fostering an environment for emotional healing and resilience.

When mourning a loss, a recent British Medical Journal study suggests that singing in a group may hit just the right note. People who had experienced bereavement due to cancer in the last five years had less depression and a better sense of overall well-being if they joined a choir. 

Harmony in Healing

The novel study involved 58 bereaved volunteers who were not in therapy or taking any medication for anxiety or depression. Half the subjects chose to join a choir while the other half chose not to join in group song. The choir goers participated in weekly 90-minute singing sessions for 12 weeks, with a follow-up at week 24. Researchers from the department of Behavioural Science and Health, at the University College London measured changes in the subjects’ levels of anxiety, depression, well-being, self-efficacy, and self-esteem over time, adjusting for various factors like demographics and the time that had passed since the death of someone close to them. 

Singing clearly lifted the spirits. Depression symptoms in the choir participants decreased nearly 11 percent by week 24. Their well-being rose by approximately the same amount as well.  Self-efficacy among choir participants increased by almost 10 percent. Self-esteem notably rose by 17 percent. The control group didn’t experience any statistically significant changes in any of these measures. The results held even after other factors, such as age and sex, were considered. And, although the singing subjects didn’t report direct improvements in mental health per se, they did enjoy more stable mental health compared to the controls. 

Voicing Resilience

The study extends previous research on the therapeutic benefits of group singing, particularly for individuals affected by cancer, including those who have lost someone to the disease. The earlier studies also backed up the idea that singing can reduce anxiety and depression and improve confidence, self esteem, and perceived health over time. For example, similar effects have been observed in group drumming programs, which also foster self-awareness and positive identity.

The researchers concluded that belonging to a choir provides a sense of community and belonging, which is essential for individuals coping with loss. The sense of shared experience and empathy made it easier for members to express their emotions and feel understood. Additionally, the act of singing together can be a powerful emotional release, offering a way to channel grief and find solace in the collective expression of music.This mutual support, combined with the learning and resilience-building aspects of choir participation, help explain the positive effects, the researchers concluded. 

Moreover, the variety of songs performed in a choir, ranging from reflective ballads to uplifting pop tunes, helped participants navigate the complex mix of emotions associated with bereavement. Singing songs that resonated with personal experiences of loss was therapeutic, while belting out more upbeat melodies offered a sense of hope and positivity. Singing a dynamic range of musical expression allowed individuals to explore and reconcile their feelings in a safe and “protective” environment. 

Tuning into Emotions

The study had several strengths that make its results noteworthy. For one, it concentrated on a specific type of grief  – cancer bereavement – which the analysis  differentiated from other grieving experiences such as mourning a sudden, violent loss. This specificity allowed for a more targeted and analysis of the effects of choir singing so the findings could offer a robust foundation and comprehensive insights into its long-term effects on mental health. 

Unlike some music therapy studies, this choir intervention was not led by therapists. Instead it functioned as a mutual support initiative. The authors noted this removed barriers for participation, making joining a singing group a low cost, yet effective alternative to dealing with grief.

Further Reading:

Bereavement, Complicated Grief, and DSM

Treatment of Complicated Grief in Survivors of Suicide Loss

Prolonged Grief a Major Theme of Prince Harry’s Memoir

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