Need to reduce blood pressure? Join a schola cantorum!

This is in from the Daily Mail:

Gregorian chanting ‘can reduce blood pressure and stress’

Last updated at 16:03pm on 2nd May 2008

Stress levels could be reduced simply by participating in some Gregorian chanting, researchers claimed today.

Dr Alan Watkins, a senior lecturer in neuroscience at Imperial College London, revealed that teaching people to control their breathing and applying the musical structure of chanting can help their emotional state.

He said: "We have recently carried out research that demonstrates that the regular breathing and musical structure of chanting can have a significant and positive physiological impact."

The research involved five monks having their heart rate and blood pressure measured throughout a 24-hour period.

Results showed their heart rate and blood pressure dipped to its lowest point in the day when they were chanting.

Dr Watkins pointed to previous studies that also demonstrated such practices have been shown to lower blood pressure, increase performance hormone levels as well as reduce anxiety and depression.

The lecturer also runs Cardiac Coherence Ltd, a company that helps executives perform under stressful conditions.

The Halo computer series has supposedly made an impact on the demand for Gregorian music after it appeared on the game’s soundtrack.  [Wanna raise your heart rate?  Play Halo on the "legendary" setting.]

He said: "The control of the breathing, the feelings of wellbeing that communal singing bring, and the simplicity of the melodies, seem to have a powerful effect on reducing blood pressure and therefore stress."

"We have found that teaching individuals to control their breathing, generate more positive emotional states and connect better with those around them – all key aspects of Gregorian chanting – can significantly improve their mental state, reduce tension, and increase their efficiency in the workplace."  [So, employers, start a schola today!]

Record company Universal recently chose the monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz, Vienna to make an album after responding to a public interest in the genre.

The company also believes the Halo computer game series, available on PCs and Xbox consoles, sparked a resurgence in the music traditionally sung in male church choirs, as Gregorian chant-like melodies form the main soundtrack of the games.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Melody says:

    Recently while singing along with the plainchant Alleluia at the local NO in Latin, I became choked up with emotion. It was like the music was made for a person crying, “Save me Lord.” I noticed that all the pauses (rests?) in the music are perfectly timed for a person trying to sing this way.

  2. RBrown says:

    I assume the lower blood pressure factor means going out for eggs, biscuits and gravy, sausage, and hash browns after mass isn’t pro forma for a chant choir.

  3. Jason says:

    Do you need to be a singer to chant? Could ordinary people volunteer at a parish, if chanting were revived?

  4. Volpius says:

    I can’t decide if this is good or bad thing, chanting for health benefits kind of misses the point doesn’t it?

  5. SFCM Organist says:

    Jason, I want to reassure you that ordinary people (aren’t we all?) most definitely can chant! The notation system is relatively easy to learn, and rhythm is almost entirely dependent upon the movements of the conductor. Rome gave us two options for chanting in the GIRM: the Graduale Romanum, which is the complete body of the restored chant of Solesmes as it pertains to the Ordinary Form, and the Graduale Simplex, which is a Vatican publication that has simplified the Graduale Romanum for beginning chant scholas. There is a middle way of sorts called “By Flowing Waters,” an ICEL translation of the Graduale Simplex. I’m not a huge fan of that one, myself. All three books are readily available online. I think GIA even sells them. More complex chants aside, the entire order of Mass can be chanted, including the readings (like this: )

    Volpius, I’m not sure anyone is going to want to run out and start a schola simply because of the potential health benefits–the kind of people who would do that are probably very much opposed to the theological content of the chants. On the other hand, one could say that the proper worship of God could bring about a less stressful parish environment for everyone involved. The Chant perfectly follows the times and seasons established by Christ and the Church for our well-being and redemption.

  6. materfamilias says:

    It looks like the study, being done on monks, refers only to those who sing chant daily for the offices as well as Mass. Alas, I wish that singing chant at rehearsal and at Sunday Mass would have lowered my blood pressure.

  7. Ray from MN says:

    Last Spring I had the opportunity to stand in the middle of a bunch of seminarians in cassock and surplice at a protest demonstration and sing along with them.

    I surprised myself, having always believed myself to be on the tone deaf end of the musical range. But when sopranos weren’t standing next to me, I found it relatively easy to sing along with other men.

    A few weeks later, I happened to be introduced to the director of a local parish choir and he invited me to participate in a small schola he wanted to start. I told him I played no instrument, had sung nothing more difficult than Jingle Bells, hadn’t had any musical instruction since grade school, but that if he was willing to work with me, I would be willing to try. I did study Latin in high school so the pronunciation wasn’t difficult for me.

    And I had been attending Saturday morning Mass at a local parish that featured the N.O. with the congregation singing the Latin responses and the priest celebrated ad orientem.

    To make a long story short, the priest was excited about the possibility of a schola singing the first Saturday of every month and a few Holy Days and a half dozen of us met weekly last Summer for practice. The others were all musically trained and played instruments.

    Learning the notation wasn’t difficult at all and the director, who is a math teacher on the side, is an excellent instructor. He hasn’t thrown me out so I must be a passable performer.

    Since September, three to five of us have showing up and our performances have been well received. We just wear white shirts (and pants, too) as our “uniform.” We try to learn something new each month and practice the more difficult or new pieces only for twenty minutes before each Mass.

    The director emails us the sheet music and mp3 copies of new pieces.

    I don’t know how much it does for my blood pressure which, unmedicated, is high, but it’s been wonderful for my spiritual health.

    We are in the Twin Cities. We are looking for more members. Please contact me if you are interested.

  8. Cory says:

    Fr. Z plays Halo? On Legendary???

  9. Matt says:

    TLM and Halo! I understand completely.

  10. RichR says:

    Our schola cantorum has been a godsend. I think it helps me with my blood pressure because I feel like I am doing something to bring reverence back to the Mass – as much as I can as a layman. Visit our website anytime:

    And here’s a link to a song we sang at Tenebrae this past Holy Week:

  11. Mary Jane says:

    Adn don’t forget to cherish the ladies! Anything a schola cantorum can do for your health can be done by a schola cantorae. Women’s voices work well with chant – and again, a lifetime of musical study is not a prerequisite to learning chant. What is needed is the ability to match pitch, blend with other voices, and a sincere interest.

    The health-giving effects of chant were marked by the French physician Tomatis in the 1970s when he consulted on the case of a monastery suffering from physical doldrums. After they restored their chant rituals, their energy levels soared.

    Our modest schola cantorae in St. Augustine, Florida has six members. I shall have to inquire about my singers’ blood pressure.

  12. Cory: Yep. Halo II. I don’t have an XBox CCCLX, so I can’t play Halo III, though I have seen it. I can play through Halo II on Heroic pretty well, but Legendary is a little hard for me.

    Though I have to say I once knocked off two Hunters with nothing but the magnum pistol. Rather proud of that moment, and I got killed a lot trying to get it done. I wonder if I could do it again?

    I only play this when I am on the exercise bike. It really helps to “kill” off the boredom and help time pass quickly.

    It gives me great pleasure to stick things with plasma grenades. Very satisfying. And if I have a sniper rifle or that other plasma beam thing, nothing survives.

    I am not generally the “rush in and start killing” sort of player. If I have a chance, I take my time and do as much damage from afar as possible before going in to clean up the area. I also like taking ghosts into places you really wouldn’t imagine they can go, just for the added firepower.

    But I digress.

  13. Cole M. says:

    And they say TLM supporters like us are all old, washed-up fuddy-duddies with our heads stuck in the 19th Century. Not so! Father Z’s Halo-playing is proof!

  14. SFCM Organist says:

    You should try Supreme Commander some time, Father!

  15. Argent says:

    I can’t decide if this is good or bad thing, chanting for health benefits kind of misses the point doesn’t it?

    Dear Volpius,

    We do sing for our health, our eternal health, no?

  16. SFCM: Supreme Commander

    Never heard of it. Of course, if there were one named “Benevolent Dictator”, …

  17. R.V. Miole says:

    I think my brain just exploded at the sheer awesomeness of Fr. Z playing Halo II.

  18. RV: I would not be too surprised. It is a great way to make time pass quickly when doing something as dull as peddling an exercise bike. It doesn’t work for running on a treadmill or using an elliptical cross-trainer. I also can’t just read on the bike, as I used to. I read so much that I need something entirely different for my mind during that period. Halo is really different.  On the other machines I can often use audio books, which can be wonderful.

  19. R.V. Miole says:

    Fr. Z:

    I’ve used the Halo soundtrack to make a point to my youth group: music matters at Mass.

    When you’re dodging plasma grenades, leaping onto a Scorpion as you gun down Grunts, and dealing massive amounts of carnage upon your alien enemies, the frenzied electric guitar riffs are appropriate and fitting.

    But then you have moments in the game where the camera pans out to reveal a stunning landscape or some scene of epic drama…and the Gregorian-sounding chant strikes a haunting note. And, well, it’s so damn beautiful it makes you want to cry sometimes. It fits. The chant effectively conveys the EPIC-ness of the game in a way that the rockin’ guitar riff doesn’t.

    My point? Some forms of music are more appropriate for certain settings. Some forms of music are better able to convey certain truths or ideas or states of mind. So, the music we have at Mass should reflect and convey what is objectively being done on that Altar–the sacramental re-presentation of Calvary. Chant just has a way of conveying something EPIC to its listeners.

    Enough of my rambling. Thoughts?

  20. Tomás López says:

    To Volpius’ comment, that this misses the point: I could not disagree with you more; grace builds upon nature.

    Further to Mary Jane’s mentione above, look Dr Alfred Tomatis’s (largely ignored by the Church) discovery of more than forty years ago; here is a relevant post from a musictherapy weblog, (my translation, from Spanish):

    “Alfred Tomatis, a French doctor specializing in Otolaryngology has, for the last forty-five years, worked with the functions of the human ear and the importance of listening. He discovered the therapeutic effects of high-frequency chant when the spiritual directors of a Benedictine monastery sought his assistance. After the Second Vatican Council, the new abbot of the monastery believed that the monks’ six or eight hours of chant were pointless and thus the chanting ceased. In a short time, the monks became fatigued and depressed. Different doctors were consulted, who determined that the monks were undernourished. They concluded that the monks’ diet, almost completely vegetarian, was harming them, and therefore prescribed a diet based on meat and potatoes. (The doctor had forgotten, apparently, that the monks had been vegetarians since the 12th century and flourished, despite a strenuous lifestyle). The monks got worse. Then Dr Tomatis discovered that the monks had given up their daily practice of Gregorian chant. Without the therapeutic effect of the chant, the monks could no longer bear their austere schedule of work and prayer. Once Dr Tomatis had restored daily change, the monks were able to return to their heavy work schedule. According to him, one of the ear’s basic functions is to supply, by means of sound, not just the cerebral cortex’s charge, but 90% of the body’s total charge.”

    Based on the findings of Dr Tomatis, don’t you find it reasonable to conclude that the “pride of place” that the Council Fathers awarded to Gregorian chant is hard-wired into our beings?
    Wake up and smell the vente, half-caf / half-decaf, half-skim / half-soy, mocha drinkachino, people!

    PD Just google “Tomatis Method” or even “Mozart Effect” to learn more about how God designed us to interact with sound.

  21. Dan says:

    Father Z,

    I think it should be “XBox CCCLX.” Haha. It gave me great pleasure to hear that it gives you great pleasure to “use stickies,” as we say in the Halo generation. (Use plasma grenades) I just told my roommate about your Halo playing, Father, and he reminded me that priests are human too! It’s a good thing to remember, but this still really made my day!

    Oremus Pro Invicem,

  22. Dan: It gave me great pleasure to hear that it gives you great pleasure to “use stickies,” as we say in the Halo generation. (Use plasma grenades) I just told my roommate about your Halo playing, Father, and he reminded me that priests are human too!

    Sometimes, they are.

    “Stickies”. Okay. Good term. It is pretty amusing to watch those lizard guys react when they get “stickied” with a plasma grenade. Or should it be “stuck”.

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