Singing in a virtual choir

Dr Helena Daffern explains how digital technologies can provide easier access to the wellbeing benefits of group singing.

Singing for positive health and wellbeing

The popularity of community singing has greatly increased in recent years, with large numbers of non-auditioned groups emerging such as the Rock Choir, whose membership increased from 8000 to over 20000 over eight years. It’s popularity was strengthened through television programmes such as Military Wives Choirs which spread a message that “singing is good for your health and wellbeing” (This is listed as the 8th reason to join a MWC on their website). Research into the specific health and wellbeing benefits of singing is actually still in its infancy, with very few controlled trials run to date. However, as research begins to measure the potential benefits of community singing, evidence is growing of psychological and physical improvement effects, with an indication that group singing is particularly beneficial over other social and community activities . As a result, group singing is being used as a complementary activity for Parkinson’s, lung disease, and even cancer patients (e.g. Evans et al. 2012, Young, 2009) and being pushed as part of the new initiative to provide Arts on Prescription through the NHS, especially for treatment of certain mental health conditions (Bungay, H., & Clift, S. (2010). Arts on prescription: a review of practice in the UK. Perspectives in Public Health, 130(6), 277-281.).

Accepting that group singing has some positive outcomes in terms of health and wellbeing (even if they aren’t yet fully understood), there are whole communities of people, often those who would potentially benefit most from choir singing, who cannot engage with the activity.

So, how can we maximise benefits of group singing across communities, especially for those populations who cannot, for whatever reason, attend a choir rehearsal or performance?

Digital Technologies

In the Audio Lab at York, much of our work concerns spatial sound and the creation of realistic ‘immersive’ audio situations for applications such as virtual reality (VR). VR technologies are becoming more commonplace in the home, with recent projections suggesting that by 2018 there would be 117 million users of VR worldwide. The majority of users are donning a VR headset to fully immerse themselves in a virtual world of gaming of their choice. However, the potential of virtual reality is now being explored for applications beyond video games, seeing its potential as changing the landscape of the performance arts, museum curation, training and home media.

We therefore set out to combine our specialist knowledge in audio and voice to develop new ways to use digital technologies to enable participation in group singing activities by creating virtual choirs.

Photo Credit: Rob Fraser

York’s virtual choir – VIIVA

As a participant you wear a VR headset and headphones and a small microphone that sits on your cheek. You are now looking down the central aisle of a 15th century church. To your right you see a soprano and to your left a tenor and bass ready to perform with you as the alto completing their quartet. As they breathe you pick up their cue and join them in a unison rendition of Amazing Grace. You can’t be heard or seen by the other three singers, who are prerecorded, but you hear yourself as part of the group, in the acoustic of the church you see around you.

In another VIIVA experience, you will find yourself on the summit of Great Gable in the Lake District, positioned as a member of a 40 strong mixed voice choir. The choir director leads a song or improvisation and, if you chose to sing along, you will hear yourself as part of the choir. This particular experience is part of the AHRC funded project ‘The Hills are Alive: combining the benefits of outdoor experiences with group singing’  in partnership with the National Trust, Keswick Museum and Mouthful Voices. The experience was installed at Keswick Museum allowing members of the public the opportunity to sing as part of a commemorative performance of the gifting of land to the Nation at the end of the Great War, without the need to first complete a long and difficult hike.

We have now created different levels of our VIIVA experience with the fully interactive system described above, a ‘cheaper alternative’ using Samsung Gear headsets and mobile phones, and a freely available experience that can be viewed and listened to over headphones on Facebook 360. The more portable version of the experience was taken to the Lakes Alive festival in Kendal in September, which allowed several users to watch the VR performances on a number of headsets at the same time, while waiting to sing along in the interactive experience. Over 150 people tried the VR experience of singing on the summit with an overwhelmingly positive response. Throughout the project the team have been learning about the technical challenges involved in making this type of recording in hard to access outdoor spaces. We have also learnt about the logistical limitations for spaces such as museums when working with VR, and considered what makes an enjoyable and immersive virtual choral singing experience.

What next?

The next step of this project is to take our experience into elderly care homes and day centres with our new partners AgeUK York and Welburn Carehomes through the AHRC funded ‘Sing from your Seat’ project. As well as giving residents the opportunity to try the experience we will be looking at ways to enable elderly communities to access group singing activities where little resource is available, making content free to download and easy to use. By combining the setting of spectacular landscapes with active music making through group singing we hope to make an even greater positive impact and broaden the potential for this technology to be used to heighten wellbeing across society.

Over 200 people have now tried and enjoyed our virtual choir, and were as enthusiastic as us about the possibilities for the future and potential benefits we can bring to communities across the UK using the VIIVA system.

Our long term aim is to take the technology further and create a system that allows remote choir participation in real time in virtual reality using home technologies, whereby members of the choir can interact with each other rather than singing with a recording.



Bungay, H., & Clift, S. (2010). Arts on prescription: a review of practice in the UK. Perspectives in Public Health, 130(6), 277-281.

Coulton, S., Clift, S., Skingley, A., & Rodriguez, J. (2015). Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of community singing on mental health-related quality of life of older people: randomised controlled trial. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 207(3), 250-255.

Evans, C., Canavan, M., Foy, C., Langford, R., & Proctor, R. (2012). Can group singing provide effective speech therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease?. Arts & Health, 4(1), 83-95.

Young, L. (2009). The potential health benefits of community based singing groups for adults with cancer. Canadian Journal of Music Therapy, 15(1), 11-27.