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Singing risky if loud but no worse than speaking if low volume

by Cara Bentley

Research into the risk of spreading coronavirus via singing shows it largely depends on the volume. 

The study was conducted by a team at the University of Bristol including Professor Jonathan Reid, Director of ESPRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Aerosol Science and Professor of Physical Chemistry, and also a Christian worship leader himself. 

Prof Reid told Premier: "What we found is that there is a little bit more aerosol generated when you sing, it's perhaps maybe a factor of two to three more than when you just speak at the same volume, but the biggest determinant is volume. So, if you speak or sing at the softest volume and then sing or speak at the highest volume, actually you will generate a factor of 20 to 30 more aerosol when you speak or sing at high volume and so really the volume is really crucial." 

The study looked at the amount of aerosols and droplets (through which coronavirus can be caught) generated by a group of 25 professional performers when doing a range of exercises including breathing, speaking, coughing and singing. The experiments included the same individuals singing and speaking 'Happy Birthday' between the decibel (dB) ranges of 50-60, 70-80 and 90-100 dB.

The researchers discovered that there is a steep rise in the amount of droplets in the air with an increase in the loudness of singing and speaking. However, singing does not produce substantially more aerosol than speaking at a similar volume.

And good news for church unity: there were no significant differences in aerosol production between different genres of music such as choral, gospel, rock or pop. 

Professor Reid added that it was of personal interest to him as well: "For me, being involved in worship and singing and playing has been really very much part of my life for 40 years and so I hugely miss being involved in leading worship and singing in church. I'm sure we all hope that we'll be back together collectively worshipping as soon as we can. It's difficult to say how things will change in the next few months and it's a challenge. We're all learning to worship in new ways."

He advised that one of the best ways to reduce the risk of transmission when singing is allowed again in churches is through good ventilation to prevent the droplets lingering and minimising the amount of singing. 

Public Health England and the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, (who are also writing the guidance for the performance industry) will ultimately be the ones deciding, as they weigh up other factors such as the economy, infection rates and lockdown restrictions. However, this research was commissioned by them so it is likely to play a role in how the guidance evolves. 

"It's good that my work is actually proving useful and I can integrate it with my faith" Professor Reid added. 

Listen to the full interview with Professor Jonathan Reid, academic and worship leader, here:

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