The other day I came upon Brian Eno’s article about singing with other people:
There are physiological benefits, obviously: You use your lungs in a way that you probably don’t for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits, too: Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I would call “civilizational benefits.” When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.
The next evening, as if to accidentally confirm this thesis, I went with my sister to see Billy Joel perform at Wrigley Field. And boy was there group singing, 40,000 strong. Not only that, but several times Billy gave the crowd a “fielder’s choice”: he’d name two of his songs and played whichever one got more cheers and applause.
One song he had no choice but to play was “Piano Man”. Because everyone knows it so well, he let the crowd take one chorus a cappella:
Sing us a song, you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us feelin’ alright
Civilizational benefits indeed. That cliche about gathering around a fire to sing “Kumbaya” came from somewhere.