Every year I look forward to the Sweetback Sisters’ Christmas Sing-A-Long Spectacular – a honky-tonk festive romp featuring hits like ‘Walking In A Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Rocking Around The Christmas Tree’, all performed on banjo and double bass, while the crowd throws in harmonies of varying degrees of skill. For the final song, the lights switch off and the whole room sings ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ a cappella. It starts off ironically, but by the end we can all feel the magic. That is – until we try a verse in German and the hilarity returns.
I’ve always loved singing together. As a kid, my family would drive for hours from the UK to Holland to visit family, and we’d be singing the whole way. Simple rounds, old folk songs, bad 90s pop songs, show tunes, made up songs – we sang it all, and we sang them together.
Too often, singing is dismissed as silly entertainment. But it’s much more powerful than that. It’s a social technology.
Singing expresses what words cannot. Singing together helps us overcome social formalities (anyone singing Bon Jovi at Sunday Assembly will know what I mean), and can cheer you up when you’re feeling down. It can even help diffuse tension and refocus our work. Civil Rights leaders in America would often turn to songs in the middle of difficult meetings to help remind them why they were working for freedom and to help renew their courage.
The health benefits of singing are well documented. Recent research in Sweden demonstrates that when we sing together, the physicality of breathing at the same time brings our heartbeats into sync, lowering our heart rate variability. Singing can help improve our memory and overall wellbeing. Scholars such as David Huron go further and argue that music even fulfills the Darwinian function of helping humans bond. Some of the most amazing hospice work involves teaching those who are dying songs that they can sing together in their final weeks of life.
Singing is a social technology because it allows us to do things normally out of reach. We can’t all talk at once, but we can all sing together. Singing allows for each voice to contribute in its own way, and creates harmonies impossible to craft on your own. The songs we sing connect us to people and places that matter to us. Not only what the song is about, but whom we learnt it from and with whom we’ve sung it since.
For those of us building new SA communities, the songs we choose can set the tone for who we become. Take time to reflect on the songs that matter to you and the community you’re building. What do you want to remember? To celebrate? To commiserate? Songs can help you do all this and more.
José González has a new track out this week that features the Sunday Assembly congregation in Gothenburg, Sweden. At the end of the video, as the song comes to a close, you can see a magical joy in the faces of everyone singing along. As they sing, “Let the light lead you out”, a knowing smile crosses José’s face as Sanderson wildly claps along in the background. As a musician, he knows the power of song. May that be true for all of us.
Casper ter Kuile is training to be a minister for non-religious people at the Harvard Divinity School. He’s the host of Living The Questions, a podcast exploring questions that matter.