Young at heart is a state of mind

By Laura Fogg

“Awwwoooah. I feel good. I knew that I would now.” So go the song lyrics, sung in the inimitable deadpan style of the ‘Young @ Heart Chorus’. This American singing group for the over 70s visits New Zealand shores on the 6th December, with hugely anticipated concerts in Auckland and other cities. And in case you miss them live, the critically acclaimed film of the same name will be screened on Sunday 5th December on TV3.

The thirty-strong choir takes modern day pop songs, and puts their own twist on the words with all the gravitas and perspective that comes from the twilight years of the life spectrum. Songs include Coldplay’s ‘Fix you’, Talking Heads ‘Road to Nowhere’ and James Brown’s ‘I got you (I feel good)’. Yet why all the fuss for a group of past-it pensioners with average singing voices?

Well watch this choir and you’ll find there’s something highly infectious about the guts, stamina and joie de vivre of their performances. Not only are the concerts inspiring for us all as we grow older, but the energy they convey gives many people hope that old age can still be fun and sociable. For me, it’s a message to enjoy life whatever your age.

But is there anything more scientific going on in our brains as we watch the performances and perhaps sing along? Well research from across the globe seems to be indicating there is. Music making is pretty special neurologically, as it engages so many brain circuits, functions and perceptions. Singing itself is unique, as we humans have an innate ability to produce song as a form of expression, spanning every culture in the world. Sing a song to a toddler, and chances are they will sing along with you. Despite many people claiming they can’t sing, biologically, singing is as natural to us as speaking.

However, research is showing that different areas of the brain control singing compared with speaking. MRI imaging studies by Dr Reiker in Germany show that singing involves the right motor cortex, right anterior insula, and left cerebellum whereas speaking produces the opposite response pattern. This leads many scientists to think that singing could be a therapeutic option for people with speech problems.

The author Oliver Sachs in his popular book ‘Musicophilia’ has documented that people with aphasia, a language disorder frequently caused by stroke, often can’t speak a word and yet can still sing. The potentially miraculous qualities of song are even being investigated by leading neurologists and researchers at Harvard University in the US. Melodic Intonation Therapy, where music therapists sing sentences with the patient, is indeed showing some results for speech improvement.  

Back in Auckland it’s a big theme for the CeleBRation Choir as well. This community choir features patients with stroke, Parkinson’s disease and other brain disorders, who all have problems with their speech. Helped by volunteers like myself from the Centre for Brain Research, and led by music therapist Alison Talmage, the group uses singing as a form of expression and vocal exercise.

Yet more than that, singing is about have a stomping great time with other people. It’s about feeling connected with the group, hearing your own voice harmonising and in unison with others. Most people who sing in a choir report coming away with a feeling of wellbeing, and it’s backed up by research. Dr Stephen Clift at Canterbury Christ Church University in the UK examined 1124 choral singers in Australia, England and Germany, and found a significant correlation to psychological wellbeing.

Belonging to a choir gives a sense of collaboration, meaning and purpose to members who may be experiencing problems in other aspects of their lives. Being part of a wider group requires full cooperation from individuals, meaning they leave behind their own problems as they contribute to the whole. So I for one will be singing along at full volume while the ‘Young @ Heart’ singers belt out ‘I feel good’.


The CeleBRation Choir will be performing in concert on December 11th at 3pm, at Saint Luke’s Church Remuera.