A Study of Play in an Unlikely Place

I always have my eyes and ears open for good stories about the power of play.

This week, a story came from an unlikely place. This is the first time in my experience a story about play has originated in extreme abstemiousness. I didn’t think it was possible, but it turns out, removing all forms of play can serve as an excellent controlled study of it.

Alfred A. Tomatis, a French doctor, pioneered 20th century research in the neurophysiological effects of chanting on the minds and bodies of listeners (which, by the way, has had far-reaching influence in the modern field of musical therapy). According to his theory, there are two kinds of sound: "discharge" sounds (those that tire, fatigue and drain the listener) and "charge" sounds (those that give energy, life and health).

In the 1960s, Tomatis was brought in by the Vatican to study the Benedictine monks of Nursia, Italy. After a three-month period of decline, the monks were all mysteriously exhausted. The abbot (top dog) at the monastery was at a loss to explain the phenomenon, which seemed to have coincided with his arrival at the monastery exactly three months earlier.

When this abbot arrived, he learned that the monks, according to Benedictine tradition, were singing seven times a day. When he added it up, the total hours amounted to about six. The abbot believed this was a waste of the monks’ time. Singing produced nothing useful, he posited, so he reassigned them. If they weren’t working, they would spend their time in silent prayer and reflection.

Within three months, as you already know, the men were physically and mentally drained. The doctor analyzed their diet and a variety of other possible factors. He wondered if it might be anemia from lack of protein, or bacteria or metals in the water. He found that nothing had changed in those three months, and certainly nothing that could explain what had happened. Nothing, except the singing.

Many neurological studies since have shown that singing is healthy. American neurologist and writer Dr. Andrew Newberg discovered through MRI and other brain scanning technology, that worship behaviors like singing and prayer are nutritious to the brain.

My humble research has also shown that singing is good for you, because it represents a form of play. Play, remember, has no purpose other than to refresh or otherwise occupy the mind of the player, but in this case, purposelessness does not equal ineffectiveness. Singing to oneself or with a choir falls under that category. It is energizing to the mind, and that’s why the monks, when they gave it up, found themselves exhausted. They had no other form of play, which makes this an excellent controlled study. Remove that one playful outlet, and you have people whose emotional tank is never refilled. 

Some interested researchers suggest that Gregorian chants have a special quality that calms people. That’s possible. Benedictine monks have recently recorded an album, so you can test it out for yourself.


I enjoyed this story and have added it to my repertoire on the effects of play. As I have always held, play comes in multiple forms. A lover of singing myself, I’m a believer, but I also know that no form of play suits everyone. The goal is to try them and find the ones that stand out as particularly revitalizing. (Amateur science is also a fun form of play.)

The monks have also recently taken up brewing beer. I presume brewing it is even more fun than drinking it!

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