Analysis: a new report looks at how people around the world used music to cope with lockdown and the pandemic

By Claire Howlin, Queen Mary University London and Niels Chr. Hansen, Aarhus Universitet Denmark

Last year as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold across the globe, people faced a challenge that they had never faced before: lockdown. Along with the stress of actually contracting the coronavirus, many people faced social isolation and uncertainty combined with reduced income, or the need to combine working from home with childcare duties.

In response to this, the media were awash with reports of how people were responding to the crisis with music. We saw Italians singing from their balconies, Liam Gallagher providing daily health advice on social media and the Vietnamese government developed a public health music video for hand washing which quickly went viral and became the basis of a TikTok dance challenge.

From The New Yorker, how Italians responded with music to Covid-19

What does the research tell us?

Intrigued by these reports, we conducted one of the biggest global surveys on music behaviour to examine in detail how people changed their music behaviour and the full report is now available for free in Humanities & Social Sciences Communications. Music behaviour covers a wide range of activities including obvious ones like singing, dancing, composing, listening to, and playing music. Less obvious activities include reading about music, purchasing music and watching online concerts. Crucially, we wanted to see how these types of behaviours changed during lockdown, and if these changes were related to increases or decreases in wellbeing.

We collected data from more than 5,000 people in India, the US, the UK, France, Italy and Germany in April and May 2020 to see how people adapted their music behaviour. We asked people questions about their experience of lockdown their day-to-day music activities, and why they were doing these activities.

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Liam Gallagher's wash your hands public health videos

The importance of music in everyday life was emphasised by the fact that music listening was ranked 7th out of 29 in terms of importance, putting it just after crucial activities like watching the news, cooking and cleaning and ahead of leisurely activities such as crafting, gardening, and exercising. The most important reasons given for listening to music were because music 'is enjoyable', 'puts me in a good mood', 'helps me relax' and 'energises me'. Interestingly, these reasons were very consistent across each country which indicates that people have quite similar functions for music listening across the globe.

Coronamusic

One of the biggest changes reported across the six countries was that 57% of people who were listening to music reported a moderate to extreme interest in coronamusic. This is defined as the audiovisual products resulting from a range of musical behaviours which explicitly or implicitly reference the Coronavirus or life during the Pandemic. An effective example of Coronamusic in an Irish context is the Garda performance of Jerusalema.

The video implicitly references the pandemic because they all dance while physically distanced from each other. The gardai were dared to the dance by the Swiss Police and took on the challenge to raise morale across both countries. It's a simple but powerful example of how coronamusic was actively used as a tool to help people connect. Although it was a simple dance routine, research demonstrates that moving together in synchrony can increase your pain threshold. This has been demonstrated with fire walkers who move together in synchrony.

Big data analysis

An advanced machine learning model was used to analyse the big dataset. We identified that people who were particularly interested in other people's coronamusic behaviour showed the strongest increases in socio-emotional coping for both making music and music listening.

Additional functions that predicted higher levels of socio-emotional coping from music listening were 'makes me feel like I have company', 'reduces loneliness' and 'makes me feel like I am sharing my experience'. For music making, the model demonstrated that people who used music more 'to help understand their feelings', 'feel like I have company', and 'puts me in a good mood' also had higher levels of socio-emotional coping.

The music activities that increased the most were singing alone, dancing alone, and playing an instrument alone

Overall, the findings indicate that people engaged in music listening to find a sense of solace, while people engaged in music making such as singing and dancing to generate a good mood. Taken together, these findings indicate that both music listening and music making can be used to help people in slightly different ways, to connect with other people, to reduce loneliness, and to help people process their own feelings about life during Covid-19 lockdown.

Oh, what about the balconies?

Curiously, despite its popularity in countries like Spain and Italy, balcony singing did not overall increase in importance as much as many other music activities (ranking 12 out of 13). Instead, the music activities that increased the most were singing alone, dancing alone and playing an instrument alone. So, if you were dancing alone during lockdown, you were not alone in doing so!

This research was completed as part of an international research team in collaboration with Dr. Lauren Fink, and Prof. Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann (Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt, Germany); Dr. Lindsay Warrenburg (Sonde Health, Boston) and Dr. Will Randell (University of Jyvaskyla, Finland)

Dr Claire Howlin is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the School of Psychology at Queen Mary University of London and founding member of the Irish Music Brain Research Network. She is an Irish Research Council awardee. Dr. Niels Chr. Hansen is an Assistant Professor at Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies & Center for Music in the Brain at Aarhus Universitet Denmark. He is the co-founder of the MUSICOVID Research Network.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ