A new scientific study (1) has released its findings that shows that singing carries about the same risk as talking:

“New collaborative research has shown that singing does not produce very substantially more respiratory particles than when speaking at a similar volume.”

This innovative study look at the amounts of aerosols and droplets (up to 20 µm diameter) generated by a large group of 25 professional performers when breathing, speaking, coughing, and singing. The tests were carried out in an orthopaedic operating theatre, which enabled the measurements to be taken in an area of “zero aerosol background”. This allowed the team to “unambiguously identify the aerosols produced from specific vocalisations”. (1)

Isn’t singing always louder than talking?

So, singing and talking at the same volume produce similar amounts of aerosols. But surely singing is a lot louder than talking anyway? Not necessarily. It’s all to do with projection of sound, not breath.

As the BBC Bitesize website explains (3):

“Sound waves travel at 343 m/s through the air. The waves transfer energy from the source of the sound, e.g. a drum, to its surroundings. Your ear detects sound waves when vibrating air particles cause your ear drum to vibrate.” 

So what you hear when someone sings is the sound waves created by the singer, not a sound carried on their breath.

As Janice Watson, former member of ENO and one of our top British opera singers said in a beautifully concise reply to a post on Facebook:

“The actual production of the voice is done at a reasonably quiet level but the resonance carries it in the air in vibrations.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. As opera singers, we control and use our breath to create a sound that will travel. We need to be heard across 50+ instrumentalists in the orchestra, then to the back of a theatre packed with sound-absorbing audience. What’s more it’s not just a sound, it’s words too. We do that by honing our sound so it is clear rather than ‘woofy’ and travels via vibrations, not by pushing the sound forward on a massive exhalation of breath.

Singing at church funerals; calm, controlled, appropriate

When we sing at funerals, we don’t need to sing as loudly because a church’s acoustics will often do much of the work for us. Churches are resonate for a reason! That’s why a single chorister singing a solo line can easily be heard the entire length of a vast cathedral, not because he/she is singing loudly, but because the sound waves the voice creates travel and reflect off the stone and wood surfaces.

Every church we’ve ever sung in works exactly the same way, from medieval stone country churches to modern urban wooden roofed churches. Their design is why we can be heard without the need for microphones, and without the need to singing any louder than we would speak a eulogy.

What’s more, singing loudly in church as if we were in a rock band is neither appropriate not required. We temper our sound to the acoustic AND the occasion. If it’s a reflective piece, we’ll sing gently, but with no less intensity of emotion. If it’s a joyful solo for the exit, we’ll sing up a notch to celebrate a life well lived.

Crematorium and graveside funeral singing

In crematoriums, we can sing without much volume, as few are as as large as a church in terms of seating capacity. We can also maintain a safe distance from those attending the funerals buy positioning ourselves carefully, and not relying on being beside the organist or near a fixed podium microphone.

Most people are amazed that we sing outside at graveside with no microphones, and how our voices can carry right across the cemetery. Again, we’ve had years of experience singing large outside opera performances and know how to ‘spin’ the voice so it travels without loss of clarity, even in the rain!

Masked singing: stopping the aerosols

The study measured the amount of aerosols released when the test subjects sang into a close-fitting rubber mask mask. (See image). When we sing at funerals, we singing in custom-made cloth face masks which will also capture some of the aerosols we exhale. Not all aerosols, we know, but a proportion. So that further reduces the risk of our solo singing in church for those attending the funeral.

Social distancing and non-stop singing

The Culture Secretary announced that in response to the study, “We can get performers back on stage without extra social distancing – 3m becomes 1m with mitigations.” Mitigations in effect means masks and/or screens, which are required for stage performances where performers are almost constantly singing for the entire performance, such as choirs.

We don’t sing all the time at a funeral. We singing what families ask, up to eight separate number, but few last monger than four minutes total. So, we remain away from the mourners until we sing, then move so we can be seen but still maintain a 3 metre distance if we can. (1 metre may be OK for Mr Dowden, we prefer 3 metres for everyone’s peace of mind.) Then we sit down again until the next number, in our mask, breathing normally. We also change face masks after we arrive, so we sing in a fresh clean mask.

Why singing became ‘bad’

When three choirs all got sick before lockdown, singing became a possible “higher risk” activity. Not everyone was convinced, however, that it was the singing that was the actual problem. Many pointed to the fact that the choirs cited hugged and chatted before and after their long rehearsal, shared refreshments at a tea break, didn’t social distance, and were in poorly ventilated halls.

What was needed was proof that singing per se may be a factor, but not the whole story. This is why the aerosol study is so crucial. The study team team concluded that:

“Musical organisations could consider treating speaking and singing equally, with more attention focused on

  • the volume at which the vocalisation occurs
  • the number of participants (source strength)
  • the type of room in which the activity occurs (i.e. air exchange rate)
  • the duration of the rehearsal and period over which performers are vocalising.

Indeed, … singers may not be responsible for the greatest production of aerosol during a performance and ways to ensure adequate ventilation in the venue may be more important than restricting a specific activity.”

No COVID in this choir

It’s also fascinating to note that the Yorkshire choir who all got sick after Christmas, and who were suspected of having had COVID-19, have all subsequently tested negative for COVID-19 antibodies. All of them. The choir never had COVID-19 in the first place.

Good news for the arts

The aerosol and singing study could be key to opening up arts venues again, which is so important for us as performers and an industry too. As Jonathan Reid, Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Bristol, said:

“Our research has provided a rigorous scientific basis for Covid-19 recommendations for arts venues to operate safely, for both the performers and audience, by ensuring that spaces are appropriately ventilated to reduce the risk of airborne transmission.” (2)

So, fling wide the doors, throw open the windows, switch on the air con, and let singing be part of every funeral service again. We can’t wait!

If you’d like to book Singers for Funerals, or discuss live singing in your church or funeral business, just call us on 01252 511 762.

(1) ‘Comparing the respirable aerosol concentrations and particle size distributions generated by singing, speaking and breathing’ by Gregson et al. on ChemRxiv  ow.ly/o8Mg50B4MCX
(2) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-53853961
(3) BBC Bitesize: How sounds travel
More about sound waves here: https://www.explainthatstuff.com/sound.html