Music in a Pandemic
Not too long ago, we watched videos of people in Italy making music from their balconies during the COVID-19 lockdown. They were creating instruments using household supplies, and simply being present with their neighbours.
A particular line from the song Grazie Roma was heard through the streets of Italy:
“Tell me what it is which makes us feel like we’re together, even when we’re apart.”
As the lyrics suggested, singing Grazie Roma brought about a sense of togetherness and relatability amongst the Italians through the pandemic. Interestingly enough, the song was initially written by Antonello Venditti as a tribute song to a soccer team that Antonello was a big fan of. It wasn’t written with the prediction that it would provide comfort during a pandemic.
So what is it that drew the Italians to singing a tribute song, and making music with strangers in a time of fear and chaos?
Music as a Coping Mechanism:
Engaging in music serves as a distractor or an escape from what we’re currently feeling. We can listen to music that represents how we would like to feel and it validates our experiences. It also provides us with a safe distance to explore the emotions we may not understand.
The best part about music in wellness? We aren’t required to verbalize how we’re feeling. We can use the music to externalize our feelings without explicitly stating them.
For this reason, music is an excellent coping mechanism through dark and uncertain times. It has the ability to relieve stress, reduce anxiety, and foster positive feelings, even when we don’t have the words to describe how we’re feeling.
Music as a Connector
In addition to music serving as a coping mechanism, it also behaves as a connector. Something we all struggle with through the pandemic is the lack of physical connection, or the chance to be with each other. We miss physical touch, eye contact, and the freedom to be within whatever proximity we want.
Music used in socially distanced settings, serves as a bridge to fulfill our need to connect with each other. In particular, music as a synchronous activity has many social benefits that make it attractive during a pandemic. The satisfaction we experience from synchronous activities–like making music with others, dancing, and marching– are all influenced by a phenomenon called rhythmic entrainment.
Rhythmic entrainment refers to the process by which independent rhythmical systems interact with each other. This is when two systems fall into phase with each other. This can look like us (independent rhythmical system) tapping our feet along to the beat of a song (another independent rhythmical system), or when a team of rowers match (or entrain) their breathing and limb movements to that of the others on the team.
The perks of rhythmic entrainment during musical interactions with each other, is that music is inherently a rhythmical activity and our neural networks are firing at the exact same time, releasing “feel-good” hormones.
What does rhythmic entrainment have to do with a pandemic?
Rhythmic entrainment is especially important during a pandemic as it nurtures positive social interactions. It is deeply rooted within our developmental, biological, and psychological functioning. We feel a sense of belonging while experiencing social, emotional, and neurological connectedness as those we are making music with. We are mirroring others and being mirrored.
For the Italians and for many of us, engaging in music with others during the pandemic helps to alleviate feelings of disconnectedness. Musical synchrony provides us with the necessary social bonding and acknowledgement we need for survival and optimal health. Through music, we are provided emotional validation and in turn develop healthy coping mechanisms. We synchronize our hurt with that of others, and empathize with how they are feeling through a medium we all know and love.
Clayton, M. (2012). What is entrainment? Definition and applications in musical research.
Keller, P. E., Novembre, G., & Hove, M. J. (2014). Rhythm in joint action: Psychological and neurophysiological mechanisms for real-time interpersonal coordination. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369(1658), 20130394.