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Could virtual reality singing have mental health benefits?

Posted on 20 October 2022

Researchers have created a virtual reality choir to understand whether virtual singing could have the same health and wellbeing benefits as group singing in real life.

The team test the virtual reality singing experience in care homes.

When in-person group singing activities were halted during Covid-19 people tried different ways of keeping their choir activities alive, such as ‘zoom choirs’. Researchers at the University of York surveyed over 3000 members of choirs in the UK after the first lockdown to understand what was missing from their usual choir experience.

They found that virtual choirs provided a lifeline for many people by maintaining social connections, but that there was a unanimous sense of loss of the collective process of making music in real time due to the technical limitations of the internet.  

To fill this gap, the team at the University’s AudioLab, developed a virtual reality environment to allow participants to feel fully immersed within the sound of the choir. 

Physiological responses

Professor Helena Daffern, from the University of York’s AudioLab, said: “We have seen from previous studies that have tested physiological responses, like heart rate variability, and sweat levels, that positive emotions are aroused when singing in a group. It can improve people’s sense of wellbeing, especially as it connects people socially and develops a sense of community.   

“We wanted to recreate singing together in a virtual environment for those that had barriers to accessing this type of activity in ‘real life’. The pandemic was one such barrier, but post-Covid we found that we could also apply this thinking to those who struggle to access this type of leisure activity due to health or age-related problems. 

“This could mean, for example, that the health and wellbeing of individuals who might be housebound or suffer from social anxiety, could join a virtual reality choir and have a positive boost to their sense of wellbeing at a time when they need it the most.” 

Care homes

The team trialled the technology in a number of care homes and received positive responses from both residents and staff.  The virtual reality experience was also used in a National Trust exhibition to allow visitors to a museum to sing in a virtual choir in the hills of the Lake District.  

Users of the virtual reality headset, who may or may not have been able to join a choir or climb the steep slopes of the Lakes, also reported elevated levels of enjoyment. 

Professor Daffern said: “It appears that virtual reality choirs could provide a way of reaching out to people who have barriers to this form of social interaction, and although more research is needed to understand the exact health and wellbeing impacts of singing in a group, it is clear that the experience can certainly provide significant enjoyment.” 

Science exhibition

The virtual reality choir experience is now being showcased at Manchester’s Science and Industry museum in a world-first immersive exhibition, called Turn it Up: The power of music, exploring the impact that music can have on individuals and societies   

To learn more about Dr Daffern’s work on virtual reality singing, listen to the University’s podcast, The Story of Things, where the research team discusses the technology and the experiences of working with choirs.

Further information:

For more information about the University's work in mental health visit our Institute of Mental Health Research website. Research at the Institute aims  to improve the lives and care of people affected by mental health difficulties, and mitigate the impact on individuals, families, the NHS, the workplace and whole communities.

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