Catalyst for Social Change: The Transformative Power of Choirs

Maren Amdal, MSc, CAE May 09, 2024

Learn more: chorus management

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As we navigate the complexities of modern society, choirs emerge as essential players, weaving together threads of community, diversity, and personal growth. In cultures where social harmony is ingrained, and amidst the surge of loneliness and isolation exacerbated by the pandemic, choirs stand as vital agents of change.

Cultural Harmony

In many cultures, social harmony is the norm. Japan, South Korea, and Thailand offer insightful examples: Japan's cultural cornerstone, "Wa," emphasizes harmony and unity, encouraging individuals to prioritize group well-being over personal desires. 

South Korea's concept of "Nunchi" similarly underscores the importance of social awareness, fostering an environment where individuals gauge and adapt to collective emotions for the sake of harmony. Meanwhile, in Thai culture, "Kreng Jai" promotes considerate behavior to avoid inconveniencing others, reflecting a commitment to communal well-being.  

In each of these cultures, there is a strong choral music tradition - Japan's "Gasshō" choral music emphasizes harmony and unity, South Korea's widespread school and community choirs emphasize precision and unity akin to "Nunchi," and Thailand's choirs blend traditional and Western repertoire, embodying the spirit of "Kreng Jai" through harmonious collaboration.

Contrastingly, the United States, steeped in the ethos of “rugged individualism,” places a premium on personal achievement and autonomy. While this cultural narrative has fueled innovation and entrepreneurship, it can pose challenges in collaborative settings. Choirs, as microcosms of cultural dynamics, often grapple with the delicate balance between celebrating individual talents and fostering a collaborative spirit. 

Negotiating these cultural nuances becomes essential for American choirs to harmonize effectively, showcasing the beauty that emerges when diverse voices, influenced by both individualistic and collective cultural values, come together in unity. The American choral tradition thrives on the tension between individualism and collaboration, finding ways to harness the unique strengths of each singer while working together toward a shared artistic vision.

The Arts – especially our choirs – have the capacity to soften and support the unique cultures of our communities toward the common good.

Music is a uniquely human language that transcends cultural, religious, and linguistic barriers. In the mosaic of a choir, individual voices come together to create a collective masterpiece, symbolizing the potential for unity in diversity. The power of music to bring people together cannot be overstated, and choirs provide a rare space where individuals from various backgrounds can find common ground.

In his 2009 book 'Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,' Daniel Pink explores the science of motivation and introduces his research on motivation theory, which he summarizes as three key elements: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Drawing on research from psychology, economics, and neuroscience, Pink reasons that intrinsic motivation, fueled by these factors, leads to greater satisfaction and success in work and life.

Singing in choir aligns with this theory, providing for these fundamental human needs. As individual singers strive to master their own unique instruments, they embrace both individual and collective responsibility, driven by a shared purpose. Motivation theory supports the effectiveness of choir participation in fostering self-fulfillment and actualization for its participants.

Embarking on a journey with a community choir welcomes introverts, music enthusiasts, and social butterflies alike into a unique space where diverse voices blend seamlessly. People looking for diverse connections discover in choirs a unique space where backgrounds converge, creating a vibrant social tapestry that extends beyond the confines of their daily lives.

Individuals new to a community find solace in the chords of a choir, forming connections and transforming a new town into a welcoming home. Advocates for mental health and well-being recognize choirs as therapeutic spaces, where collective singing not only produces beautiful music but also reduces stress and enhances well-being. For those interested in social justice and advocacy, the choir stage becomes a platform for change, amplifying voices that resonate with a shared commitment to a better world.

Community choirs stand as inclusive spaces that cater to a spectrum of individuals, with each note contributing to the collective melody of connection, understanding, and personal growth. Whether you're seeking friendship, artistic expression, or a refuge from the challenges of modern life, joining a choir is an invitation to be part of a collective where every voice, regardless of background, finds its unique place in the harmonious tapestry of community.

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The Therapeutic Aspects

In 2022, a study conducted on the psychological and social benefits of group singing, particularly in community-based populations was published. Singing for Wellbeing: Formulating a Model for Community Group Singing Interventions - PMC ( It underscores the crucial role of choirs in fostering individual wellbeing.

This comprehensive research proposes the Person-Centered Social Activity Model, emphasizing autonomy, connectedness, competence, and positive self-identity as key components. In alignment with these findings, choirs stand out as essential community hubs that address diverse psychological needs and contribute significantly to mental and physical health. In another example, during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic period, the BBC called singing “The World’s most accessible Stress Reliever.” The world's most accessible stress reliever (

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of loneliness and isolation has been exacerbated, prompting concern from the US Surgeon General, who released an Advisory in May, 2023. New Surgeon General Advisory Raises Alarm about the Devastating Impact of the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in the United States |  The advisory states that loneliness was already a pervasive issue before the pandemic, affecting nearly half of U.S. adults and posing significant health risks such as heart disease, stroke, and depression. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy calls for a ‘National Strategy to Advance Social Connection’, outlining six pillars to address this crisis and emphasizing the critical role of social connection in improving individual and community health. Community choirs clearly tick the box for pillar one, Strengthen Social Infrastructure, and pillar six, Cultivate a Culture of Connection.

Amidst the Surgeon General's urgent call to address the epidemic of loneliness and isolation in the United States, community choirs emerge as vital agents of change. Our organizations serve as powerful connectors within our communities, fostering belonging and shared purpose. As cultural ambassadors, we contribute to a culture of connection in everyday life. By aligning the Surgeon General's vision with the work our organizations are already doing, we can further realize potential not only to produce excellent music but also to catalyze individual healing and social resilience.

Beyond the sheer joy of singing, choirs contribute significantly to mental health and personal wellness. Therapists could well advise patients to join a local community choir, recognizing the benefits of communal singing. And, many do. Stanford University has even started writing “prescriptions” for arts as a remedy for students struggling with mental health challenges, in partnership with a new Atlanta-based company called Art Pharmacy. Latest prescription for Stanford students’ mental health woes? Art (

The act of singing itself releases endorphins, reducing stress and enhancing overall well-being. Moving to a new town becomes less daunting when you have a choir to connect you with people from all walks of life. Choirs, therefore, are not only a source of artistic expression but also a crucial element in the holistic health of individuals and society. In this collaboration of voices, we find the potential for a healthier, more resilient, and less lonely society—a testament to the transformative power of the arts in the pursuit of collective well-being.

Choirs as a Catalyst for Social Change

I was invited to stretch beyond my then-novice skills when I accepted an invitation to take on the role of Artistic Director for Calliope Women’s Chorus in Minneapolis in the early 2000’s.  I learned many powerful lessons – like when Jane Ramseyer Miller took me on as a mentee, offering conducting coaching and life lessons. Early on, when I felt completely out of my depth, one of my clearest memories is of her coming to help me practice my conducting technique in front of a mirror before rehearsals.  She reassured me once by saying something along the lines of, ‘you can teach technique and practice a skill, but you can’t teach passion or personal motivation.’  

I leaned in on learning as much as I could, and as my confidence and knowledge increased, so did my ability. Serving as choir director of an historic feminist organization was a profound experience which opened my eyes to women’s movements, the LGBTQ community, and to the broader social and cultural impact choirs can have on society.

Choirs serve as agents of change, social justice, equal rights, and education. Calliope sang on the steps of the Minnesota State Capital in support of marriage equality; we sang at rallies for equal pay for women; we raised our voices for breast cancer awareness, food insecurity, farmworkers rights… We sang songs of joy and love, pain and perspective; we challenged ourselves and our community to look at the world through a different lens. 

Through our performances and advocacy, choirs can raise awareness about important issues, contributing to the cultural fabric of a community. This role extends beyond the stage, influencing singing members and audiences alike to think critically about the world around them.

As a young musician in my early 20’s I had no idea what I didn’t know – and my life was ‘changed for good’ by my association with Calliope, the Twin Cities’ Queer Music Consortium, and the broader GALA Choruses community. I met so many mentors and friends, many of whom I’ve remained connected with for two decades – relationships that brought me travel, music, inspiration, and even work.  Another such relationship started at a GALA Conference, where I met Dr. Tim Seelig during a “Speed Networking” breakout session. He graciously, patiently, offered me mentorship and advice at that conference and long after. 

I stayed connected with Tim over the years, as my career evolved into nonprofit administration, enjoying long-distance advice and once, an invitation to sing with him in Dallas for Maya Angelou’s 80th birthday!  A decade later, our paths crossed again in San Francisco, and I was privileged to spend several profound and important years working with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, many of whom became part of my ‘logical family.’ 

Working with SFGMC in the Castro, I had the pleasure to meet Armistead Maupin who introduced this concept in “Tales of the City:” Logical families represent chosen relationships founded on mutual understanding and support, contrasting with the notion of "biological family." The idea highlights the importance of chosen bonds over genetic ties in defining one's support network and sense of belonging - a perfect description for the community that San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus has become.

My years consulting with SFGMC included working on the Lavender Pen Tour, the dedication of the Arts Portal at the National AIDS Memorial Grove, many strategic planning sessions that brought us to own the building now known as the Chan National Queer Arts Center, and more recently the opportunity to celebrate Tim’s “retirement” and a role as Co-Chair for the national search committee to select the chorus’ new Artistic Director, Jake Stensberg.

Within the rich tapestry of the choral community, GALA’s member choruses stand out as poignant examples of how music can be a catalyst for profound social change. Over the past 40+ years, GALA Choruses has grown into a global network of LGBTQ+ choruses, offering far more than just fabulous melodies and harmonies. These organizations are dynamic advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, utilizing the universal language of music to create safe spaces, foster inclusivity, and challenge societal norms. 

The voices within these choruses not only amplify the stories of marginalized communities but also serve as powerful agents of transformation, breaking down barriers and promoting acceptance. Performing at LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations, advocacy events, and community gatherings, GALA Choruses and similar movements transcend the realm of music, becoming influential advocates for social change, and weaving a compelling story of resilience. 

In the face of discrimination, these choruses harmonize not only in song but also in their mission to create a more accepting and equitable world. By challenging stereotypes, fostering understanding, and providing platforms for expression, these choirs exemplify the profound ability of music to shape perspectives and break down barriers. 

The harmonious blend of voices within GALA Choruses resonates far beyond concert halls, echoing a message of acceptance and unity that reverberates in our communities, inspiring change and fostering a more inclusive world for all.

GALA and its member choruses are an incredible example of the power of arts to impact social change.  All of our choirs have this same power… when we choose to use it.


The age-old global tradition of communal singing stands as a testament to the enduring power of harmony – and our choirs have the opportunity to emerge as local beacons of hope and unity. Joining a choir is not merely an artistic endeavor but a commitment to fostering a sense of belonging, understanding, and shared humanity – creating a world where the chorus of voices echoes the richness of our collective spirit.

As Arts leaders, how do you see the role of community choirs in addressing social issues? What are some examples of the transformative power of music you’ve observed within your own choir? Share your insights and experiences in the comments below.


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Maren Amdal, MSc, CAE

Maren’s two-decades’ leading associations and arts nonprofits has involved collaborations with people of all walks of life, across varied industries. With personal roots in religious and community choruses, to professional performance and directing opportunities, her experience spans arts, social justice, education, and nonprofit sectors. She loves solving problems, helping develop purposeful organizational plans and mission-focused strategies. She earned her M.Sc. in Strategic Planning, in addition to holding an AA in Vocal Performance and a BA in Marketing. A life-long learner, Amdal earned the Claritas™ Investment Certificate offered by CFA Institute, and is a member of the American Society of Association Executives through which she maintains the Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation. Choirs have been a cornerstone in her understanding of human connections, social justice, and personal growth. Now the Executive Director of the Oakland Interfaith family of choirs, Maren knows the resonance of a choir extends beyond the blending of voices, to building communities.

Maren Amdal, MSc, CAE