Suzanne Purdy

Dr Suzanne Purdy is the head of School of Psychology, Faculty of Science, and Principal Investigator with the Centre for Brain Research (CBR).at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.

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Health & Science

The University of Auckland's Celebration Choir shows the mental as well as physical benefits of group singing for those with neurological conditions 

As most of us know, there is something about music that moves us, uplifts us, brings us together, makes us feel better about ourselves. Music is a big part of most people’s lives, and our ability to make music – to sing – often survives when other abilities fade.

That singing is good for our wellbeing is well-known, and as members of our Celebration Choir – set up for people with neurological conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s and dementia – would testify.

Celebration Choir was started by the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research and was the first neurological choir in the country. Through our team’s research and the advocacy of choir members, similar choirs have now been formed around the country, in Orewa, Tauranga, Christchurch, Wellington and Nelson. These initiatives reflect local and international interest and growing research investigating the potential of singing in neurorehabilitation.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2022, which runs until 2 October, has a theme of “Reconnect with the people and places that lift you up” – and for that, we’d thoroughly recommend joining a choir.

Our choirs survived and thrived during the pandemic, with members using Zoom to sing together. Our various choirs are now attracting new members, as well as fielding enquiries from people who would like to join such a choir.

Members of the Celebration Choir using Zoom during Covid restrictions. Photo: Supplied

Whether they had sung in community choirs when they were younger or hadn’t sung with others since they were a child or had been told as a child they couldn’t sing, our choir members are finding their voices, and advocating for more choirs for more people like themselves.

A neurological condition can affect mobility, communication and all aspects of daily life. The Celebration Choir brings together people who are experiencing the same fears and challenges in a community of mutual support.

Neurological choirs are not your average community choir: they are social singing groups particularly aimed at addressing voice, speech, and language difficulties. We include warm-ups, breathing and vocal exercises, less complex arrangements and part-singing songs for enjoyment and to work on our members’ voice, speech, language and memory goals.

Our research has shown our choir members value choir for improvements in their mood, speech, communication, and breathing

There are psychological, wellbeing benefits of bringing people together to have fun, but also physiological benefits. Singing and speaking share overlapping neurological networks and use the same physiological processes of breathing, vocalisation and articulation. Many stroke survivors struggle with aphasia, a problem with word-finding and speech. Some new choir members are surprised they can sing or learn a new song, when conversation is so difficult for them; others haven’t been able to talk fluently, but they retain the ability to sing.

People with Parkinson’s often develop dysarthria, an inability to control the muscles used in speech resulting in a quiet voice and unclear speech, but research has shown that singing regularly helps such people maintain or improve the strength of their voice.

Our research team recently published a study of 90 adults who belonged to a community choir or a neurological choir and were pleased to find choir participation benefits people living with a neurological condition as much as those who didn’t have such conditions. As expected, people with neurological conditions scored lower in the physical domain than other participants when they completed the World Health Organisation’s quality of life questionnaire. However, scores for psychological, social relationships and environmental questions were similar across all participants, supporting links between choir membership and general wellbeing.

Neurological choirs are bringing researchers together from different disciplines – music therapy, speech science, psychology and neuroscience. While neuroscience researchers extend their knowledge, understanding and treatment options for neurological conditions, allied health professionals, including music therapists and speech-language therapists, play important roles in rehabilitation and psychosocial wellbeing.

Our research has shown our choir members value choir for improvements in their mood, speech, communication, and breathing: for friendship and social interaction, for the no-pressure environment, and the challenge it provides, of learning lyrics, tunes, and then singing them.

Neurological conditions can affect people of all ages, but predominantly older generations. Shifting population demographics throughout the world mean an increase in the proportion of older people and an increase in the prevalence of acquired health conditions.

In an ideal world we would have neurological choirs in centres throughout the country, to offer people living with neurological conditions the psychosocial and physiological benefits of coming together to sing together, to help people who may face an uncertain future to live as well as they can, and with joy in their lives.

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