Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

The Secret Ice-Breaker: The Type of Play that Boosts Connection

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The Secret Ice Breaker that Boosts Connection

We humans were born to connect and we were born to play. Put them both together and it can spark off a little bit of magic. When we play, we connect. When we’re connected, we get playful. Play boosts academic success, lowers stress, flourishes our innovative side and nurtures well-being, and that’s all backed by research. As for connection, we thrive when we have it and struggle when we don’t. 

There are plenty of ways to play and plenty of ways to connect, but new research from the University of Oxford has found a brilliant way to do both – join a singing group.

Singing is a powerful way to break the ice and boost feelings of connectedness between a group of people. According to the research, singing groups bond quicker than other types of groups such as creative writing or craft groups.

Every culture on the planet has its singers and the majority of people can sing, but it doesn’t mean everyone does it well. If you’re someone who can’t carry a tune (or someone, like me, whose musical genius isn’t recognised by the people in your life who don’t love your singing the way you do) not to worry – science has the answer.

New research out of Northwestern University has found that singing beautifully isn’t as much a talent as something that we learn that can decline over time if not used. So it’s not that you’re a bad singer, it’s that you haven’t practiced enough. (I knew it! There’s the voice of an angel inside me … they just need to listen to it more – or even better, sing with me. ‘Hey you guys…’)

Being able to sing well seems to have more to do with the kind of practice it takes to play a musical instrument than is does innate ability. Of course having a few good genes always helps, but if singing isn’t in your denims, it’s not a deal breaker – all you need is a bit of practice. As Steven Demorest, lead author of the study explained,

‘People need a place to sing and have fun without worrying about how good they are.’

Yes, we do – and that’s what a singing group can do.

Singing ability seems to have an element of ‘use or lose it’ about it. The research found that while school children receive music lessons at school, their singing improves. Fast forward to adulthood and the ability seems to fade if it isn’t practiced, to the point that some college students have a singing ability comparable to kindergarteners. 

Singing is a great way to play, and anything that nurtures healthy connections with others is a powerful way to keep your mental health strong.

As explained by co-author of the Oxford study, Dr Jacques Launay,

‘Given that music-making is an important part of all human cultures throughout history, we think it probably evolved to serve some purpose. Evidence suggests that the really special thing that music does for us is encourage social bonding between whole groups of people playing and dancing together.’

It seems that singing can act like a bit of a social glue when time is too short for everyone in the group to establish connections with each other.

The Oxford study looked at singing groups, craft groups and creative writing groups that met weekly for seven months. In every class, the participants felt closer to each other at the end of the two hour session than they did at the start and all classes were similarly close at the end of the seven months.

The differences came at the very beginning of the study. Singing seemed to be a better ice-breaker than the other activities as it connected people more right from the start. Singing in a group boosted the way people felt about each other from early on. It seemed to bond the entire group simultaneously. 

One to one interactions will always be critical to establishing and maintaining really close relationships, but singing in a group seems to be something a little bit wonderful, giving all of the benefits of play and supercharging social connections while you’re at it.

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6 Comments

Debi

I love following your blog, and your instagram. You have such a gift for making things so clear, and putting the puzzle pieces together that seem so confusing at times. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us! Over 17k followers on Facebook now…. I told you it would grow like wild fire!! You’re amazing!

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Hey Sigmund

Debi thank you! If I could reach through the screen and hug you I would. Yours was one of the very first emails I received and it meant so much to me. It means even more that you’re still here. Hope you can be with me for the next 17k!

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Lisa Edwards

so interesting! I am a primary school teacher…Australian living/teaching in Fiji. I teach at a brilliant school called the Multiple Intelligence School, Suva..group singing is part of our regular routine. Our whole school sings together for the last 1/2 hour of the week – but that’s for the purpose of teaching ‘synergy’. We also have parent activities once per term…trying to connect people to form a community…you’ve given me an idea for next year…I have always sung in, and taught choirs…and from time to time parents come to me and say ‘maybe you could teach ME to sing’….how cool…love this article. Thank you!

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Hey Sigmund

That’s wonderful! I love that your school sings together for the last half an hour of the week. There are many things that some people and cultures know intuitively what science is still discovering. I always enjoy hearing about these.

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Karen

Wow!!! I just found your website today, (link from a friend about child anxiety) and 5 days ago, you posted exactly what I believe about why my office group should include singing in our team building day. I have put forward idea for the past three years, but haven’t been able to pitch an idea that flies. Are there any more specific recommendations to get adult colleagues to sing as an ice breaker on a team building day?

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Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased you found me! Singing in front of people is one of those things that people tend to run towards with open arms, or away from with jets on their feet. My suggestion would be to sell it as play, rather than as singing. Let them know they can be silly with it and that they don’t have to use their proper singing voice. Give them permission to be dreadful – maybe make that part of the task. This will help people to feel more relaxed and will ease fears about potential embarrassment. Keep going with your idea – it’s a great one. I wish you all the best!

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Hey Warrior - A book about anxiety in children.