Couch choirs, balcony opera, quarantine playlists … in a short time, COVID-19 has prompted a chorus of musical responses to help us cope with isolation – and for good reason.
Music is one of the most powerful influences on human mood and behaviour, according to Australian Catholic University Professor of Music, Professor Tim McKenry.
“People are self-medicating with music because they can feel it making a difference. They are following a social pattern that goes back thousands of years to turn to music in times of stress,” he said.
Professor McKenry said many of the traditional forms of music such as hymns, slave songs, and military music developed for a similar reason to the musical expressions now arising out of social isolation.
“Music helps us process and express emotions which is particularly important at a time when we are experiencing so much change and uncertainty,” he said.
“Throughout history, humans have intentionally used music to influence mood and behaviour. We use songs to revel and rejoice, to worship and work, and to remember and reminisce. It is absolutely consistent that we use it now to deal with the contemporary challenges of the pandemic.”
According to Professor McKenry, the greatest benefits from music were gained by participation – but you don’t have to be an expert musician: just connecting with the rhythm and melody helps.
“When people sing, dance or play together that creates a sense of wellbeing and connectedness. At this time of social isolation, we can magnify the connections we are able to have – whether by having family music time or by connecting with neighbours, as Italians have demonstrated so beautifully by singing from their balconies.
“But we can also simulate that sense of connection to some degree and gain some of the benefits by singing, dancing or clapping along with recorded music or with friends over video-conferencing technology. It might feel strange at first but the research shows it works.”
Music also provides intellectual and physical stimulation which is important for those whose usual work, study, interests and exercise have been curtailed, to help them cope with isolation.
“The majority of people who have instrumental lessons in childhood, give up in their teen years. Now is a great time to rediscover the pleasure of playing music. You can hire an instrument and many teachers are offering lessons over video-conference,” Professor McKenry said.
“If you use this time to develop your musical skills, it can make these difficult months much more productive and have long-lasting positive impacts.”
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