Emotional Literacy: Choral Singing’s Best Side-Effect

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boys work together at their weekly choir rehearsal

The boys listen to one another at a weekly choir rehearsal led by Dr. Eanes.

I have long been a believer that one of the side effects of singing in a choir is the development of above-average emotional literacy—the ability to understand and empathize with others.


Singing in a choir fosters this skill because every task a singer is asked to do requires empathic work.

First, singers must listen to each other. When singing in a choir, you must listen to what the other singers are doing, and adapt your own singing accordingly.

Second, singers in a good choir work together toward a common goal. Whether that goal is small, like a single beautifully tuned chord, or large, like a major concert or recording, they implicitly understand that no single person can achieve this on his own.

Third, choral music is always about something. Whether the text is from a religious tradition or a setting of poetry, choral music requires that we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to understand what we are performing. This is especially true when we perform music that is not from our own immediate culture or language.

Finally, the simple process of coming together every week and working with our friends late into the night, early in the morning, and on long bus and airplane trips teaches us to be patient and to look outside just our own personal needs. When we travel, furthermore, we learn a tremendous amount about how people from other backgrounds find happiness.

Recently, the Ambassadors were working on a South African Gospel song called “Ukuthula.” It came to my attention that this arrangement was causing a lot of controversy in South Africa. Why? Because it is a Zulu song, but the arrangement was written by a white man who will benefit from all the royalties (including some from us). I passed this along to the Ambassadors, and we are primed now to discuss the significance of the song to the people who sing it as a part of their history and culture. Will we continue to perform it? I don’t know, but I look forward to creating a consensus among the boys in the choir about just that. This is the sort of thing that happens every day in choral singing and not just at the Cincinnati Boychoir.

Why is this important?

Those who study such things have documented a steep decline in the level of empathy exhibited by young people. Many attribute this to more time spent anonymously on line. Whatever the reason, employers, for one, are seeking workers with the ability to empathize: how else can we create the next great product or life-saving drug or community-oriented non-profit?

Moreover, in a world that is rapidly globalizing, the ability to empathize – even with people on the other side of the world – is going to be a crucial skill for our children.

I, for one, can’t help but think that much of the political vitriol that we are hearing today is due to the lack of empathy – of emotional literacy (literally, the ability to understand another’s point of view)  – among our leaders.

Unfortunately, a lot of what we watch and hear today would have us believe that emotional literacy isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a masculine trait. This is unfortunate. How can we expect a man to be a good leader, a good husband, a good father, without a strong sense of empathy? How is he to get a job and contribute to society without understanding the thoughts and needs of others?

We’ve decided to study the growth in empathy among our boys this year. We were inspired, in part, during a meeting with a funder who, when I stated that choral singing increased empathy, said, “prove it.”

So we will. We will survey our boys this month, and then again in April. The surveys are anonymous, easy, and optional, and the process is being guided by Elizabeth Drumm, the school counselor at Summit Country Day. We will release the results of the study at the end of this year. Will we see tangible growth in emotional literacy among our students, even over that short a period of time? I, for one, believe that we will.