Can Gregorian Chant synchronize hearts?

Some people quote the phrase “He who sings, prays twice!” and they (wrongly) attribute it to St. Augustine of Hippo.  The phrase does not appear in anything we have of Augustine.

Also, it would be better if you said “He who sings well, prays twice.”

What Augustine actually said was: “cantare amantis est… singing belongs to one who loves”.

It can be argued that singing (well or not) is very much a matter of the heart.

I found this story, sent by a priestly reader, pretty interesting:

Choir singers ‘synchronise their heartbeats’
By Rebecca Morelle

Choir singers not only harmonise their voices, they also synchronise their heartbeats, a study suggests.

Researchers in Sweden monitored the heart rates of singers as they performed a variety of choral works.

They found that as the members sang in unison, their pulses began to speed up and slow down at the same rate.

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the scientists believe the synchrony occurs because the singers coordinate their breathing.

Dr Bjorn Vickhoff, from the Sahlgrenska Academy at Gothenburg University in Sweden, said: “The pulse goes down when you exhale and when you inhale it goes up.

“So when you are singing, you are singing on the air when you are exhaling so the heart rate would go down. And between the phrases you have to inhale and the pulse will go up.

“If this is so then heart rate would follow the structure of the song or the phrases, and this is what we measured and this is what we confirmed.”

Sing from the heart

The scientists studied 15 choir members as they performed different types of songs.

When you exhale you activate the vagus nerve… [one of the 10 cranial nerves!  “On old olympus towering tops…”] that goes form the brain stem to the heart”

They found that the more structured the work, the more the singers’ heart rates increased or decreased together.

Slow chants, for example, produced the most synchrony.  [Schola cantorum anyone?]

The researchers also found that choral singing had the overall effect of slowing the heart rate.

This, they said, was another effect of the controlled breathing.

Dr Vickhoff explained: “When you exhale you activate the vagus nerve, we think, that goes from the brain stem to the heart. And when that is activated the heart beats slower.”

The researchers now want to investigate whether singing could have an impact on our health.

“There have been studies on yoga breathing, which is very close to this, and also on guided breathing and they have seen long-terms effects on blood pressure… and they have seen that you can bring down your blood pressure.

“We speculate that it is possible singing could also be beneficial.”

Gregorian Chant can synchronize our worship.  The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council mandated that Gregorian Chant have the first place among all choices of sacred liturgical music.

It can synchronize the Church’s own worship and, thus, her own beating heart.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Pedantic:
    12 cranial nerves…;) On Old Olympus’ Towering Tops, A Fin and German Picked Some Hops. At least that’s how I learned it way back in Dr. Kerns’ Bio 101 at Fordham…:)

    I – Olfactory nerve
    II – Optic nerve
    III – Oculomotor nerve
    IV – Trochlear nerve
    V – Trigeminal nerve
    VI – Abducens nerve
    VII – Facial nerve
    VIII – Auditory nerve
    IX – Glossopharyngeal nerve
    X – Pneumogastric nerve
    XI – Spinal accessory nerve
    XII – Hypoglossal nerve

  2. AndyMo says:

    The study refers to “slow chants,” they really meant “Taize-style ostinati,” not Gregorian plainchant. Since those ostinati are already rhythmic, it’s not surprising that they would effect the heart beat.

    I’d be interested to see this study applied to plainchant, though, and see what the results are.

  3. jaykay says:

    Well, being in three different choirs all of which practice in the evening from 8 to 10 after a long day’s work, I can certainly testify that the yawning and tiredness I typically have at the start of the practice is long gone at the end, particularly when it’s towards performance time and the piece, or pieces, are at polishing stage, note-bashing is (mostly) over and everybody is at the “una mente et corde” stage. Terrific feeling, everybody content, great buzz. I have high blood pressure and although I take medication and get regular monitoring I’d love to know what it’s like after a really good practice, or performance. Certainly sleep a lot better after the good ones anyway.

  4. Gregg the Obscure says:

    While it’s clearly not the original intent of the phrase, it does call to mind cor ad cor loquitur.

  5. jaykay says:

    Gregg: good point actually. While my church choir unfortunately doesn’t do much chant, one of the highlights of the year is Holy Thursday when we typically do it. The procession to the Altar of Repose with the Pange Lingua, slowly because of the size of the church, all a cappella: total focus on the Blessed Sacrament and the phrasing and musicality just seem to come from a depth within. Utter serenity is too shallow to describe it. Tears have been seen in eyes… cordes ad Cor loquntur.

  6. Hank Igitur says:

    8th nerve now usually called Vestibulocochlear and 10th Vagus, which necessitates a different mnemonic

  7. Elizabeth D says:

    Yet another reason not to sing Gregorian Chant superfast… there are so many reasons.

  8. Littlemore says:

    Why learn the mnemonic ?
    You have to learn doubly as you also have to know what each letter means of “on old Olympus etc. ”
    when doing my nurse training I decided just cut to the quick and learn “olfactory, optic, oculomotor etc” and be done with it.

  9. Old wisdom from long ago: You can often judge the peace of and how well the members of a community are getting along by the cohesiveness of the singing.

  10. The Masked Chicken says:

    I delivered the first paper on this phenomenon back in 2003 when I was doing theoretical modeling of large-group laughter using a mathematical model of respiration in the brainstem (excitation of respiratory neurons). I never published the model, although, now, it looks like I will have to. The computer simulations show that respiration does phase-lock, but it takes a certain amount of time for the locking to occur (the locking time is too long for it to occur in short laugh bursts). I should have published, since the model can be used for a lot of things (like explaining yawning and why it is partially contagious). It’s not that I don’t like to publish, but I thought the phenomenon should have been empirically verified, first, but I didn’t have any funding :(

    Yes, the phenomenon is real, if the chant is low enough and the people are focused enough. If everyone ate a lunch of garlic bread and pizza, the coupling would probably be lost and the locking would disintegrate.

    The Chicken

  11. StWinefride says:

    Fr Z, I forwarded this link to you last year, I don’t know if you saw it – but I share it here with everyone as it concerns Gregorian Chant and birdsong:

    …While Messiaen found birds to be “sovereign” in their creative capacity, he also said they are “the closest to us, and the easiest to reproduce”. I should assert that the only man-made music ever, perhaps, to come close to birdsong is Gregorian chant. This music, the music proper to the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, manifests the same flexibility of both melody and rhythm. There is even evidence to suggest that the Gregorian melodies we have written down were the basis, in fact, of improvisation – which of course further reminds us of the sounds of the natural world….

  12. Pingback: Father Jim’s Seven Ways to Pray | Truth & Charity The Intersection of Faith & Life

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