All Together Now: Tuneless Choirs

| Maria Passingham

What would it take for you to walk into a room of strangers and sing at the top of your lungs, fearing that you’re totally out of tune? For a lot of us, the idea is unimaginable. But for 31 groups around the country it’s a regular part of life, and one that gives them confidence and joy.

What started in 2016 in West Bridgford, Nottingham as a local group for people lacking in ability, practice, or confidence to sing in tune, has in three years become a nation-wide collective of Tuneless Choirs.

Founder Nadine Cooper was spurred on to create a new type of choir when she read that singing releases endorphins (feel-good hormones) and realised she’d been avoiding singing in public for years, after she was discouraged from joining in at school. It turns out many of the Tuneless Choir members had similarly negative formative experiences and as a result stopped singing altogether.

“I just remembered how much I’d enjoyed belting out great pop and rock songs when I was younger. I wanted somewhere that I could sing and have people laugh with me rather than at me!”

Nadine Cooper

The first meeting drew a crowd of 60, all willing to set aside their nerves and embarrassment in the hope of a good time. As Cooper and Musical Director Bernie Bracha watched the group relax, mingle, and start to enjoy themselves, they realised that this “crazy idea” had legs, and lungs.

Three years on, and Tuneless Choirs all over the country are catering for the demand with inclusive and tolerant spaces where anyone can sing their heart out without fear of judgement.

However, while the ‘anyone is welcome’ approach is the main allure, it’s becoming clear that there’s a number of beneficial side effects that are attracting members back week after week.

Multiple studies over the past decade have shown an undeniably positive link between the act of singing and a person’s mental and physical health, including reduced mental distress, decreased physical indicators of stress, and increased self-confidence.

Indeed, Cooper’s heard from several members that being part of a Tuneless Choir has helped them through struggles such as bereavement, stress at work, and overwhelming caring responsibilities.

More significantly, singing as part of a group has even more pronounced benefits, largely around social-bonding. Research published last year showed that as well as providing enjoyment and improving emotional states, group singing allows participants to develop a sense of belonging

It’s also been shown that people who sing together tend to bond more quickly than if they are part of a similar group such as creative writing or crafts. Researchers at the University of Oxford call this ‘the ice-breaker effect’. Over seven months, singing and non-singing groups were studied, and at three time-points (months 1, 3, 7) participants rated their closeness to the group. The results clearly showed that although by the end of the study singers and non-singers felt equally close to their groups, singers experienced much faster bonding, with the non-singers catching up over time.

The scientists propose that this may be partially down to a ‘willingness to coordinate’, which, by their nature of being a collective activity, choirs demand. However, does a choir that prides itself on its ‘49 part harmony’ as one member called it, provide that same group motivation

Absolutely, says Cooper. They may not sing in distinct parts like traditional choirs, but Tuneless members still sing with a sense of “we’re in this together”, something that Cooper says very rarely breaks down. In fact when it does, it’s usually due to a too-challenging piece of music rather than the singers themselves. Other elements such as slowed down breathing rhythms and synchronised heart rates help to encourage that awareness of coordination, and are factors clearly paralleled in both standard and Tuneless choirs. Helpfully, slowed-down breathing also helps to reduce blood-pressure.

It is important to note that the research mentioned here has only looked at traditional, tune-ful choirs, but Cooper believes that the impact may be even greater for Tuneless Choir members, who are relieved of any pressure to perform ‘correctly’, or to learn, improve, or even measure their performance at all. It’s purely a space to be, and to sing, with no achievable (or fail-able) objectives.

However, that doesn’t mean that Tuneless Choirs as a whole aren’t achieving anything. Cooper was surprised to learn that there was a demand for live shows, and groups from around the country have been performing at events in order to raise money for mental health charity Mind.

“We certainly wouldn’t charge good money for people to listen to us… We tend to ensure we’re either supporting a charity event, or proverbially shaking a bucket.”

Nadine Cooper

Since the start of 2018, Tuneless Choirs have raised over £10,000 for the charity, which surely is only another reason for its members to come away feeling positive.

Maybe the question we should ask then, isn’t ‘what would it take’, but ‘what would it give you’ to walk into that room and sing at full blast?

Find out more about Tuneless Choirs at www.tunelesschoir.com, follow them on Twitter @tunelesschoir and check out their YouTube channel.


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