When participants in the 2019 Global Meeting Exchange (GME) gathered in late March in Montreux, Switzerland, organizers found multiple ways to connect the 280 far-flung attendees, who came from Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, Des Moines, Munich, Paris, New Delhi, Vancouver, Rio de Janeiro, and many more cities around the world. They gathered for a cocktail reception, welcome dinner, and a closing gala, with luncheons, more dinners, and long breaks, all in beautiful settings, in between.
But if there was a single moment during the three-day event when participants stopped being near strangers and became a group, it was on Day Two, about 90 minutes into a two-hour workshop led by Song Division, a global company which designs interactive musical experiences for meetings. That’s when dozens of participants got up on stage at the Miles Davis
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Hall in the Montreux Music & Convention Centre to belt out a raucous version of a Motown-inspired song as everyone else, including me, sang along. GME participants worked together for 90 minutes to write the song’s lyrics, which Song Division’s professional musicians shaped into a song. The final version, backed by a full band, featured a rap interlude that inspired one of the participants to perform “The Worm” — twice — for a cheering crowd.
That’s the power of music. It brings people together and, at least for the length of a song, proves that our planet doesn’t have to be so lonely.
There is no known human culture that hasn’t come together to sing,” said James Sills, a musician and a speaker at the CreativeMornings breakfast lecture series in New York City last December. “Singing is one of the most positive, life-affirming things you can do.” Sills, the author of an upcoming book, Do Sing: Reclaim Your Voice and Find Your Singing Tribe, has organized community and workplace choirs, and a choir for the homeless in Liverpool and North Wales, where he lives, and conducts “choir-in-a-day” workshops around the world.
“My primary aim is to get people singing and to bring people into the joyous world of singing,” he said. “I don’t need to tell you about how important community is and how important face-to-face interaction is,” he told the audience in New York City. “What we do know is that there’s kind of a loneliness epidemic sweeping the Western world in particular. We’re spending more time on our own or behind our screens, and face-to-face interaction has never been more important. Just getting people in the room feels like a good thing.”
But something extra happens to us “when we get together to sing,” he said. “We have a shared goal … we immerse ourselves in something bigger than ourselves.” Not only are we collaborating, “but we feel very, very tightly bonded with the people that we’re singing with, even if we haven’t met them before.”
Sills cited a University of Oxford study that found adults who sang together bonded more quickly and deeply with one another compared with those playing sports or taking art classes. “There’s something very intrinsic about singing,” he said, “that makes you feel connected to the people around you.”
We light up both parts of the brain when we sing, Sills said, because remembering words and rhythms and harmonies is an analytical skill, “and we’re also expressing ourselves,” he said. “But when we’re singing together, our brains also are releasing lots of happy hormones and the one that is responsible for that sense of bonding is oxytocin. [And] each time we hit
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a new harmony or we do a performance, our brain gets flooded with dopamine, which is a lot more wholesome than the dopamine that we get from our notifications on our phones. Our brains release endorphins as well, so we get that natural high when we sing together as well. There’s a lot of evidence that singing lowers blood pressure and lowers levels of cortisol, the stress hormones.”
Sometime conferences can be the very places that ramp up our stress levels. At SXSW 2019, opening keynoter Brene Brown, a social scientist and best-selling author, who spoke on the topic of belonging, commiserated with the audience about the pressure to appear cool at a conference like SXSW.
“How many of you are finding this a lonely time?” she asked the audience. “We’re more connected than we’ve ever been technology-wise, and more lonely than we’ve ever been.”
And then she closed her talk by leading an audience of 2,000 people in the “world’s biggest Townes Van Zandt sing-along” — an a capella rendition of the Texas songwriter’s ballad, “If I Needed You.”
Barbara Palmer is Convene’s deputy editor.