If you’ve been itching to belt out a few tunes but felt hesitant due to COVID-19 concerns, a new study has some good news for you. Go ahead and sing if you want, but try your best to do so at a safe distance from other people. Also, it’s always a good idea to wear a mask while singing as well.
Those are the main conclusions drawn by a team of researchers at Lund University who investigated the usual amount of (potentially viral) aerosol particles released by an individual as they sing. In short, the study’s authors conclude that there is indeed a safe way to keep on singing through this pandemic.
“There are many reports about the spreading of Covid-19 in connection with choirs singing. Therefore, different restrictions have been introduced all over the world to make singing safer. So far, however, there has been no scientific investigation of the amount of aerosol particles and larger droplets that we actually exhale when we sing,” says study co-author Jakob Löndahl, associate professor of Aerosol Technology at Lund University, in a release.
Aerosols are just a fancier name for the small airborne particles every person emits as they exhale. If someone is infected with COVID-19, though, their aerosols become mixed with contagious viral particles.
Singing in the time of coronavirus
The potential for the coronavirus to spread through aerosol particles is one of the main reasons for the use of face masks throughout the pandemic.
One would assume that if viral particles can spread from speech, they must spread at a greater rate from singing. As professor Löndahl mentioned earlier, however, there hasn’t been any research to confirm that assumption. So, the research team at LU gathered 12 healthy singers (seven professional opera singers) and two people with a confirmed COVID-19 infection.
All of the singers were brought into a specially designed filtered, particle-free air chamber. Once inside, researchers observed the amount and mass of air particles each person emitted while speaking, breathing, and singing (different types of songs, with and without a face mask).
Generally speaking, the results of this phase of the study confirmed that singing very much can spread a good deal of aerosol droplets into the surrounding environment. Predictably, the louder one sings the more particles they’ll likely release. Also, researchers noted that lyrics containing lots of syllables also usually result in more aerosol droplets.
“Some droplets are so large that they only move a few decimeters from the mouth before they fall, whereas others are smaller and may continue to hover for minutes. In particular, the enunciation of consonants releases very large droplets and the letters B and P stand out as the biggest aerosol spreaders”, explains Malin Alsved, a doctoral student of Aerosol Technology at Lund University.
The singers recited a Swedish song called “Bibbis pippi Petter” multiple times for this phase of the study. In one instance, participants were asked to sing the song without using any consonants. While all that was happening, researchers measured aerosol droplets using a complex collection of cameras, lamps, and other sensitive instruments.
What about the other two coronavirus-positive study participants?
“We also carried out measurements of virus in the air close to two people who sang when they had Covid-19. Their air samples contained no detectable amount of virus, but the viral load can vary in different parts of the airways and between different people. Accordingly, aerosols from a person with Covid-19 may still entail a risk of infection when singing”, Alsved explains.
All in all, while it’s clear that singing is a risky viral situation under normal circumstances, the research team concludes that if proper safety measures are taken there’s no reason why people can’t sing along with their favorite song or even start a chant at a sporting event.
“Singing does not need to be silenced, but presently it should be done with appropriate measures to reduce the risk of spreading infection”, professor Löndahl concludes. “When the singers were wearing a simple face mask this caught most of the aerosols and droplets and the levels were comparable with ordinary speech.”
Ideally, the research team recommends social distancing, good hygiene, face masks, and if possible a high level of ventilation in the room where the singing will take place.
The full study can be found here, published in Aerosol Science and Technology.