Monty Python and the Science of Safe Singing

Commentary by Tim Fisher

Two powerful ideas are colliding in the COVID world which may shed valuable light on both these crucial matters to society’s benefit. The first relates to the importance of singing and the dangers it may cause in the midst of a pandemic. The second is the value of science and the rampant scepticism that has emerged as to the value of the scientific approach.

To set the scene it is valuable to introduce the seminal work of Monty Python to illustrate how easily our understanding can be waylaid. Click on the video to reveal the classic Python lesson on logical thinking.

Bedevere uses the Law of Syllogism (i.e., the Law of Transitivity) repeatedly in his argument. If one relates to a second, which relates to a third, then the first is related to the third. His findings aren’t peer reviewed. His logic and his method are flawed.

Enter community singing, stage right. Singers have been advised that COVID-19 can be transmitted in the air well before the WHO were persuaded of this last month. Since March there have been reports of mass infection events in choir rehearsals in several countries as the world started to go into the first lock-down. A conclusion drawn in these reports is that singing is therefore more dangerous in a COVID-19 world than other activities.  

The line of reasoning presented is that speaking creates more aerosols than breathing, loud speaking creates more aerosols than quiet speaking. Singing is louder than loud speaking. Therefore singing must create more aerosols than loud speaking making it more dangerous as an infection source. Thank you Sir Bedevere.

In fact singing, due to the breath control and occlusion of airflow through the vocal chords, produces very little airflow from the mouth. The method of generating sound in singing through resonance rather than air flow means that the Law of Syllogism does not hold here. The image conjured in the learned articles of “geysers” of aerosols flowing for many metres from every singer is simply incorrect and yet journalists, and occasionally experts in other fields, have been drawn to these conclusions due to a logical error.

This is not to say that singing is without risk.  People vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 should make informed decisions about all activities that they undertake in a pandemic and singing in groups is an activity that may lead to risk of infection in the event of community transmission of the virus.  The concern is that singing is being unreasonably targeted through insufficient knowledge and flawed logic.

Other experts are being more scientific and conducting experiments to measure how many aerosols are generated when people sing. This must be good news because when these results are in we will not be inferring knowledge but instead will have hard facts…..right? Probably not. If our goal is to understand how to mitigate the risks of contracting COVID-19 from singing rehearsals and performances then we need a lot more facts if sensible conclusions are to be drawn. An incomplete picture, how many aerosols are produced by a singer, does not enable a risk mitigation to be devised unless we also know:

  • what is the equivalent risk of conducting other acceptable activities within a pandemic?
  • How many aerosols are produced in a wide range of other activities such that the relative risk can be assessed?
  • How much viral load is required to become infected? How many aerosol particles from an infected person contain viable virus? How many virus containing aerosols must be inhaled or absorbed through the mucous membranes to cause infection?
  • How long is an aerosol particle viable? Is evaporation a significant variable? What is the effectiveness of various barriers, masks and baffles such that mitigations in addition to physical distancing can be quantified?
  • What is the impact of the volume of the room and the type and quality of ventilation? What is the impact of singing outside?

Fundamentally, the initial science being directed at the question of whether singing can be conducted with an acceptable level of risk during a pandemic is unequal to the task. And rightly so. There are much more pressing questions that science could be tackling in a comprehensive manner at this point, like why health workers with approved PPE are able to catch COVID-19 at such high rates in Victoria more than 4 months into a worldwide pandemic where data must be available as to what works and what doesn’t in the healthcare setting.

However, the lack of scientific testing, experimentation and conclusive results around the question of the risks posed by singing should not be seen as an opportunity to exercise “an abundance of caution” and ban this fundamentally human and social activity as has been suggested in a number of opinion pieces since March. If we accept that we must take risks to survive in a pandemic then we must make a judgement as to what risks are worth taking.

Singing is as beneficial as sport and is practiced by roughly as many people as participate in organised community sporting activity. It is probably less aerobically energetic than most sporting activities and much more controlled than a rugby scrum, a football tackle not to mention a trip to the supermarket or the shopping centre.

As expressed by leading British composers, musicians and choral directors in an open letter to the Guardian newspaper last month:

“Singing in a choir is not only about communality, social cohesion and

harmony; for many it is an essential source of emotional wellbeing and

positive mental health. Moreover it is a powerful expression of our culture

and humanity, and it cannot be allowed to fade away.”

We allow science to fall into disrepute when we fail to understand its limitations. We allow our communities to fall into fear and recrimination when we seek absolute safety in the face of a pandemic. We allow our lives to become meaningless if we don’t strive to preserve the cultural and artistic fabric that enriches us.

If data emerges that singing represents an infection risk greater than going to a restaurant, interacting with hundreds of people at a supermarket, sweating next to dozens of people at a gym, socialising at a noisy pub or joining your extended family at a dinner table then let’s find ways for people who have low vulnerability to complications from COVID-19 to do so at a lesser risk rather than opting to ban it outright……unless it is necessary to ban all of these things outright in order to control community transmission. Singing is as important to our wellbeing as any of these things so let’s find a way.

If the data that emerges isn’t sufficient to demonstrate or quantify that risk then let’s not act on it as if it does.

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