The technical term for this experience is Flow, and while it can happen in any activity, it seems to happen most in choral singing.
Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (CHEEK-SENT-MEE-HIGH-YEE) began to study these questions in the late 1960s. His research focused on defining the precise conditions of “optimal experience,[i]” or the state in which people are “so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.[ii]” — he was the first to describe this state as “flow.” His scholarship has since spawned reams of research examining the requirements and consequences of flow in a wide variety of situations from sports to business to dance to medicine.
The environment where Csíkszentmihályi himself has most often experienced flow is the choir room. In fact, in 1994, Csíkszentmihályi presented the keynote address to the ACDA Central Division Convention in Chicago. In that speech he described flow as “an engine that leads you toward learning and personal growth,[iii]” and explained how the conditions of flow are so in line with the foundational elements of making music that doing so is “one of the purest ways to get the Flow experience.”
Flow is usually described as a state in which an individual is completely immersed in an activity with a deep sense of control but without reflective self-consciousness. The result is not only improvement in affective wellbeing (it feels good!) and cognitive ability (you think better), but also the development of intrinsic motivation, a critical element in cognitive, social, and physical development.
The tendency of choral musicking to foster flow becomes self-evident when the requirements of flow are defined. They read like a list of prerequisites for an effective music program!
There must be:[iv]
- Clear goals
- Immediate and unambiguous feedback
- A balance of perceived skills and perceived task demands
- The freedom to fully concentrate on the task at hand.
In combination, these requirements show that for flow to occur, an activity must be skill-related. This is why activities that are “passive in character (such as watching a beautiful sunset or taking a relaxing bath) and do not involve a skill component cannot be associated with a flow experience.[v]”
New schools of anthropological thought are strongly suggesting that we evolved to seek out Flow experiences as a means of integrating and retuning an array of neurological and cognitive systems, and that group singing evolved as means of stimulating group Flow in ways that allowed different early bands of our hunter gatherer ancestors to cooperate. The recent research on group singing’s ability to manifest an “ice-breaker” effect in groups of strangers and encourage social bonding makes this seem even more likely.
Regardless of its evolutionary origin, Flow has been consistently shown to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, relieve feelings of isolation, bolster mood, and improve cognitive abilities.
And one of the easiest places to experience it regularly for anyone, is the choir room.
When you add the multiple benefits of Flow to the positive cardiopulmonary, immune, and neuromuscular effects of singing, it is clear that aside from the musical and cultural impacts, making music as a choir singer is also a particularly powerful form of self care.
[i] Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990, 48.
[ii] Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990, 4.
[iii] Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály. “Singing and the Self: Choral Music as “Active Leisure” The Choral Journal 35.7 (1995): 15.
[iv] Bloom, Arvid J., and Paula Skutnick-Henley. “Facilitating Flow Experiences Among Musicians.” The American Music Teacher 54.5 (2005): 24-28.
[v] Keller, J., and Landhäußer, A. (2012). The Flow Model Revisited. In Engeser, Stefan (Ed.), Advances in Flow Research (pp. 52-53). New York: Springer, 2012.