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Our summer pilgrimage to my grandparent’s was always a surreal treat. Even before the car stopped we could hear Grandpa’s bellowing from his upstairs bedroom. It must have driven the neighbors mad but since he was half-deaf anyway Grandpa had no idea how loud he was… and I don’t think anyone ever had the nerve to tell him!
Fifty years of smoking had left my grandfather with emphysema as a constant companion in his old age. And his doctor’s prescription, in addition to the ever-present oxygen bottle: singing therapy! To a young child it seemed a little bizarre but little did I know how forward-thinking this old, small-town physician of the early 60s really was.
Back to the future?
Grandpa chose to sing Wagnerian opera and Gregorian chant… maybe being a staunch German Catholic had something to do with it! His opera was terrible but the Gregorian chant was oddly compelling and its therapeutic power was indisputable. It was all quite progressive for the amazing health benefits of song – and Gregorian chant, in particular – are becoming increasingly recognized by medical science.
Grandpa’s doctor was relying on the well-established fact that singing promotes respiratory fitness by strengthening the lungs and increasing oxygen levels in the blood. But recent clinical research reveals that the health benefits of singing go much further. Gregorian chant, in particular (for reasons soon to be explained) has been shown to relieve stress, lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and depression and promote a sense of well-being. It can even enhance performance by increasing levels of certain beneficial hormones.
Dr. Alan Watkins, a neuroscientist at Imperial College London, used a 24-hour monitor to track the heart rate and blood pressure of a group of monks throughout their day. The results showed that both the monks’ heart rate and blood pressure fell to their lowest point when they chanted.
It’s all in the breath control – The secret is in the breathing. A therapy called slow breathing has previously developed around related research findings and is used with considerable success to treat high blood pressure, chronic stress and anxiety. Now it seems that slow breathing and singing are natural bedfellows; slow breathing makes use of a short inhale followed by a long, slow exhale – the same breathing pattern promoted by singing.
Some forms of singing, like opera, require years of dedicated training and conditioning to achieve extreme ranges of tone. But Gregorian chant has certain features that make it totally unique in music as well as a boon for health. These qualities are its highly regular cadence, simple melody and limited range of tone (called monophony). These features are also what give Gregorian chant its otherworldly beauty and hypnotic power. But more importantly, from a health perspective, it’s what makes chant an ideal form of controlled, therapeutic breathing.
Up for a sing-a-long?
From a practical viewpoint, its regular breathing cadence and “monotonous” nature makes Gregorian chant relatively easy to learn, even if you’re tone deaf like my grandfather was! In fact, lessons and groups for singing Gregorian chant are available in many areas and are increasing rapidly in response to its newfound popularity. There are also CDs and home-study programs available on the Internet if you prefer to go it alone.
What’s more, you can enjoy the unique beauty of Gregorian chant even if you may be totally tone-deaf, don’t like singing or if your neighbors are not so timid. In fact, you don’t have to sing at all to reduce stress and reap chanting’s other health benefits. CDs and mp3s are available that combine a special slow breathing soundtrack with Gregorian chant. The breathing track guides your breathing in just the right pattern while you simply relax to this beautiful and hypnotic form of music.
We may not be able to live the relatively stress-free life of a monk but we can easily take advantage of one of their little-known health secrets. My grandfather couldn’t live forever but he did very well indeed considering his emphysema. I have no doubt that Gregorian chant (and maybe a little German opera?) gave him years of extra life and pleasure.