Stressed about COVID-19? Try tapping into the power of music

Music During Global Pandemic | Video by Aaron Nestor

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Research shows music can help regulate emotion, make us feel connected

By Laura Arenschield, Ohio State News

In Italy, people isolated by the COVID-19 pandemic stood on apartment balconies, singing “Bella Ciao” – “goodnight, beautiful” – together into the night. Musicians in a Dutch symphony filmed themselves playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” individually – then assembled a compilation video titled “From Us, For You.” In Columbus, children played their cellos from their porch so an elderly neighbor could hear.

On Twitter, people shared so many of their “Songs of Comfort” – prompted by the virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma – that the hashtag started trending.

The virus might be keeping people apart; music is bringing them together.

Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick

“Music is a very effective, easy and cheap way of distracting yourself,” said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a professor of communication at The Ohio State University who has studied the connections between people and the music they listen to.

“I think oftentimes we think of other people when we listen to music – it might remind us of other people and just help us feel connected. And that is a buffer against stress – human connectedness helps you to feel less stress.”

That includes the kind of in-person connections made in Italy and Columbus. But it also includes playing a song that reminds you of a happy moment – maybe one from a concert you enjoyed with friends, or a song that reminds you of your partner.

Music can help our bodies manage the physiological response to stress, research shows.

“Listening to music positively affects cortisol levels in the saliva, and it can lower a person’s heart rate,” Knobloch-Westerwick said.

So if you’re feeling stressed or anxious, what kind of music should you listen to?

Research shows it depends on the person, said Lindsay Warrenburg, who finished her PhD at Ohio State in December, and whose dissertation focused on music and emotion. She specifically studied how music affects feelings of sorrow.

“The research on regulation of emotion shows that there are different ways to regulate your mood,” she said, “but right now, during times of stress like we’re living in now, being distracted and actively seeking out something that will make you feel more positive are probably two of the best strategies.”

That could mean listening to upbeat music that makes you feel happy, she said. Or, it could mean returning to music that reminds you of specific moments or broader times in your life that brought you joy.

“There’s a critical period of music listening called the reminiscence, which is from around age 12 to around age 22 – it’s when most of our musical tastes are formed,” Warrenburg said. “I would suggest going back to music that reminds people of that time period.”

Music often prompts memories: We remember where we were and who we were with the first time we saw our favorite musician perform. A cheesy slow jam might take us back to our high school prom. A happy singalong might remind us of favorite friends.

“Just thinking about your loved ones, about good relationships, about the good times in your life has a reassuring effect,” Knobloch-Westerwick said.

People often learn to love music because of their families or broader cultures, she said. That’s one reason listening to music helps us feel connected.

“Maybe you’ve seen your parents enjoy a certain type of music, or maybe you’ve been in a school band,” Knobloch-Westerwick said. “Part of this is cultural. And there are also the physiological responses.”

There is some research that shows the tempo of the music might matter, too: “The beat could help you sort of bring your body back to a normal beat,” she said.

Music, like so many art forms, can also help us process our emotions and feel like we are not alone in them – it’s the reason breakup songs are so powerful when relationships end.

And, ultimately, even though we’re connecting remotely, understanding that we aren’t alone might be one of the things that helps us get through this time, Knobloch-Westerwick said.

“Music is a great way of reminding us that we are all in this together,” she said. “What everybody does counts. So, we all have to really hang in there and support each other. We will see through this. Everything will be better eventually.”

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