Why do we turn to music in times of crisis?

Olivia Wilson May 29, 2020
Why do we turn to music in times of crisis?

The global lockdown has forced countries and individuals to come up with creative ways of entertaining and expressing ourselves during a time of restriction. Stories have been shared from around the world that have presented music as the symbol of hope.

We’ve seen viral videos of the balcony concerts in Italy and the cast of Hamilton singing a rendition of a song from the musical to a young fan on a Zoom call. Bono, the Rolling Stones and Fleur East have released songs about the pandemic, and drive-in music concerts have been held at airport car parks in Copenhagen.

It seems when the chips are down, we pick ourselves up with the sounds of music- but why? How powerful is music in influencing our behaviour and transforming our mindset?

I spoke to professional musician and music teacher, Alexandra Shrinivas, who lives in Glasgow. She has found music to be an accessible communication tool.

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“I work with special needs children and we use music to communicate.”

The 30-year-old musician believes that music is one of the few ways individuals can use their vulnerability to create something powerful and remarkable.

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A tool to manage human emotions

“It’s an extremely effective way of releasing emotion and creating bonds with others when other forms of communication are lacking.  There are very few outlets in life where you can take out your frustrations in a solitary way and work through your emotion honestly through the actual task of performing music.”

Alexandra knows all too well the role music plays in times of hardship, which has been her source of hope and comfort long before the lockdown.

“When my dad passed I initially found it difficult to sing, but over time it became cathartic and was a very healing process. I could express my deepest thoughts and fears through my music instead of feeling like I was putting that on others,” she recalls.

“It forced me to face the darkness that I felt I had to suppress to make it out the other side. And when you’ve looked at the darkest parts of yourself through the medium of music, there’s nothing left to hide, and you can use that to heal your audience in the same way.”

The power of vulnerability

Music has not only been a support in solitude, but provided Alexandra with a support system in the friendships she has formed along the way.

“The friendships I’ve made through my music are one of the most valuable and special in life because of this shedding of armour and exposure to the most intimate, emotional parts of yourself in order to express and communicate.”

Communication and connection

Dr Mark Doffman, Director of the Music Psychology programme at the University of Sheffield, agrees with Alexandra’s view that music can be used as a way of connecting with others.

“Music is one of the two basic human sound systems that we come into the world with – the other being the capacity for language. What contrasts music with language is its lack of meaning or rather its lack of fixed meaning,” Doffman explains.

“We can see its universality in our early development: the way in which caregivers sing to infants and babies seems to be universal and it seems to have various functions – to soothe babies (lullabies are pretty universal), to stimulate play and interaction with others (nursery rhymes).”

Image by Christoph Schütz from Pixabay

Music can shape our brain’s responses

According to Dr Doffman, music has a profound influence on the brain’s responses – though it’s more complicated than the stereotypical assumptions one might hold.

“The idea that music is right brain and language is left, is not really the case. Some processes are more prevalent in one hemisphere but the whole package is much more complex than the way it is sometimes presented.

“Music changes our brains – the brain is now understood to be very plastic – it changes in response to what we do. Musical training (rather than just listening to music) in particular seems to effect change in the brain and a number of studies show how different parts of the brain differ between musicians and non-musicians.”

But can it help our wellbeing in the long term? Or is it a coping mechanism which provides temporary comfort? Dr Doffman says it’s a complicated matter but there are studies that suggest music can significantly impact people’s health and wellbeing in some circumstances.

“I think it is dangerous to see music as working like a drug – you just take it and things change. However, music does seem to have effects on people’s immune systems (studies of group drumming show this) and the effects can be quite immediate,” he says.

“Similarly, group singing and choir projects strongly suggest that the wellbeing effects of music are considerable. Studies show that the rhythms of music ‘capture’ our sensorimotor systems. For example, sufferers with Parkinson’s Disease are often helped in walking through playing music, so the rhythm and pulse of the music creates a form of temporal framework that assists a sufferer in making movements.”

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An instinctive coping mechanism or a source of hope?

But in a pandemic like this, it seems to be human instinct to turn to music for support. How have we all managed to instinctively recognise this overwhelming need to turn to certain pieces of music when searching for hope? In other words, what makes music hopeful?

Dr Doffman says: “hope is seen by psychologists as one of the more complex emotions[…] Some music psychologists like David Huron have argued that the way in which music works is by setting up expectations of what might happen in the music, only to violate this or delay it. For example, particular chord sequences lead you to expect the sequence to resolve to the tonic chord (C in the key of C), and when it does not, then an emotion is aroused in us in some way.

“But also, music might be a source of hope through associations. For example, the national anthem or a tune like Rule Britannia, played at this time of crisis, may give people a sense of hope through the feeling that we associate with those tunes – i.e. we will get through this. Of course, the same tune might be a source of anger for some people.”

It would seem that music has the unique ability to provide everyone, from all walks of life and experiences, with a few moments of escapism from real turmoil and hardship, and can transport you to a world of hopefulness. It can lead us on the temporary path to calm amongst the chaos of a modern world fraught with uncertainty and disillusionment.

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Journalist based in Glasgow, Scotland. Enjoys travelling. Loves coffee. Play ice hockey. Writes about human interest, social issues, politics and LGBTQ+ stories. Former Assistant Producer at LBC. I work predominantly in broadcast.