Ground-breaking scientific study shows how singing in virtual choirs is good for mental health
Results show that singing in a Virtual Choir boosts participants’ self-esteem, reduces feelings of social isolation and promotes better mental health
Members of Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir and multiple ‘live’ choirs supply huge data set for compelling comparative research project
Since ancient times, philosophers have sought to cultivate happiness and well-being. Their intuitions about the benefits of shared creative experiences have now been confirmed by pioneering scientific research conducted by University College London (UCL) in partnership with Eric Whitacre and Music Productions. The detailed study, led by UCL Senior Research Fellow and BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker Dr Daisy Fancourt, shows how singing in a virtual choir delivers significant psychological benefits.
Dr Fancourt devised an online questionnaire to gather data from global participants in Virtual Choir 5.0. The results were compared with those from diverse ‘live’ choirs, which were collated and submitted online to the BBC Arts Great British Creativity Test. The two cohorts, comprising 2,316 singers, generated a data set that was used for statistical matching and comparative analysis. Daisy Fancourt and her colleagues used the data to focus on the under-explored area of the psychological impact of virtual creative experiences.
Virtual and ‘live’ choral singers answered questions about social presence, the connections made by individuals through face-to-face or online communication, and how they used singing to help regulate their emotions. Both groups reported experiencing improved self-esteem, greater individual confidence and a strong sense of personal agency.
Their responses also suggested that the virtual choir experience can help combat feelings of social isolation and promote a sense of connection to others. The message is clear: choral singing, whether of the traditional or virtual variety, is good for mental health.
“It was really exciting to conduct one of the first studies looking from a research perspective at how new technology affects our creative experiences,” comments Daisy Fancourt. “We have so much research showing that singing in live choirs is generally good for our health and well-being, in terms of supporting our mental health, for instance. But what we didn’t know before is whether singing in virtual choirs also has health and well-being benefits. This new research is exciting as it suggests that for people who are unable to sing in live choirs, either due to living in a rural area, in a community without a choir or due to illness, singing in virtual choirs could provide similar emotional and social benefits.”
The VC5 experience delivered several exciting results. Participants reported feeling a similar sense of social presence than their counterparts in live choirs. Virtual singers also experienced some emotional benefits, such as the singing helping them to have time way from their stresses, and also giving them the space to reappraise and reconsider problems in their lives, although this was less than in a live choir. However, virtual singers had greater improvements in their self-esteem and confidence. Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 5.0 was especially valued by participants living in remote rural areas and by others whose horizons are limited by social isolation. In short, singing in a virtual choir helps participants feel more socially connected and see themselves as equals in a shared experience.
Eric Whitacre welcomes the study’s findings. The research, he says, confirms anecdotal evidence reported by participants since he launched Virtual Choir 1.0 in 2010. It also highlights the importance of digital technology in delivering meaningful musical experiences and positive psychological impact. “This amazing study shows how the virtual experience brings people together and makes them feel connected,” he observes. “We’ve seen this response so often with each of our Virtual Choirs. The experience is open to people with disabilities of all types, and to those who are isolated geographically. The virtual choir experience is open to people in ways that go beyond what most traditional choirs can offer. We’ve found that communities have developed because of these virtual choirs, with really close bonds forming between people who oftentimes have never met in person.”
Virtual Choir 5.0 involved over 8,000 participants from 120 countries. Each member recorded their respective voice part at their own pace, usually at home, and uploaded the results for inclusion in VC5. Their collective performance can be heard at the close of Eric Whitacre’s Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of Our Universe, a unique online collaboration between the composer, his managers at Music Productions, NASA, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and award-winning designers 59 Productions.
Daisy Fancourt and her UCL colleague, Professor Andrew Steptoe, published the study’s findings in the April 2019 issue of Frontiers in Psychology. Their peer-reviewed paper, ‘Present in Body or Just in Mind: Differences in Social Presence and Emotion Regulation in Live vs. Virtual Singing Experiences’, sets out the comparative statistical evidence for virtual and live choirs in detail, and relates the results to the wider context of virtual creative experiences. ‘Even if they are not technologically sophisticated, digital experiences are equally “real” for participants as live experiences, and can lead to the formation of real, consequential social bonds’, the authors noted. These findings, they continued, suggest that virtual choirs ‘could be valuable interventions to explore further as a way of combatting social isolation’.
Eric Whitacre and Daisy Fancourt first collaborated four years ago on a study of the psychological and physiological benefits of choral singing and concert-going. Fancourt and researchers at the Royal College of Music’s Centre for Performance Science conducted psychobiological tests on volunteers from the Eric Whitacre Singers and their audience for a concert given at London’s Union Chapel in March 2015. The results revealed a decrease in the levels of cortisol and cortisone (the common stress hormones) presented by audience members during the concert, a drop in stress hormones for singers in rehearsal, and an increase in them during performance.
“We’ve found that, far from being fluffy or vague, the effects of making and listening to music on health and well-being are very tangible and very specific,” observes Daisy Fancourt. “We have applied the highest levels of scientific method and rigour in order to test these effects to really work out if music can stand up alongside these other treatments. We can now say that singing, whether in a virtual or ‘real’ choir, promotes well-being and is good for our physical and mental health.”