The Power of Music: Getting Through These Times with the Help & Healing of Music

Week 7 of coronavirus shutdown. Life has changed so quickly, and in a way that was probably unimaginable even at the beginning of March. Whether you’re homeschooling, working remotely, have been laid off, or are an essential or healthcare worker putting in those terrifying hours day-in and day-out—you are likely stressed. You are likely struggling in some way—whether financially, emotionally, psychologically or physically. So how are you coping? How are you facing this uncertainty and still getting through it, every day?

While it may seem trite, music can actually be one of the things that gets you through. Oliver Sacks, acclaimed neurologist and author of Musicophilia, wrote, “Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears—it is a ready, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more—it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.” And having access to movement, speech, and life is exactly what we all need right now.

You’ve probably seen more than a few of those Youtube parodies of families adapting some classic or musical theater song to the current moment of coronavirus. I’m sure you’re also familiar with the stories and videos of Italians singing their hearts out on their balconies; you should definitely check out Yo-Yo Ma’s #SongsofComfort with musicians including Paul Simon, Hamed Sinno, members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and also ordinary people around the world, contributing music new and old; and scientists at MIT even turned the structure of the coronavirus into music, assigning a unique note to each amino acid.

There is a reason people turn to music in times of stress, discomfort, and even panic. And there is a reason that this particular type of turning to music we are seeing right now is happening. As The Atlantic pointed out in April, “The model of listening that revolves around headphones, singular geniuses, aesthetic subcultures, and record-industry behemoths is…not what’s generating heat right now.” Instead, it’s these inclusive, inherently connecting, participatory and sometimes silly music moments—basically, sing-alongs!—that are drawing people in during the pandemic.

Why? Because singing with others, according to Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music, actually releases oxytocin, the chemical involved in social bonding and instrumental in the feelings of togetherness and friendship, while also activating serotonin and dopamine, two powerful neurotransmitters responsible for our moods and tied to our pleasure centers. And even when you’re not the one singing at every moment—in a call-and-response situation, for example, or even just in a recital in which one person sings one song, you sing the next, etc.—the act of listening when singing in groups actually synchronizes your brain with the other singers. “If your brain waves themselves are synchronized, that would sure be a way to make you feel closer to others wouldn’t it?” Levitin asks us.

So consider the sing-along. What if you got your family together once a week to sing all the songs you know together? ABCs, Twinkle Twinkle, Day-O. You’d be a) keeping those ever restless kids occupied for a moment and b) generating real feelings of togetherness and bonding. Or, if you’re by yourself, that’s no reason to say silent. The act of singing—whether alone or with others—actually brings oxygenated blood to the brain, according to Levitin. When you sing, no matter the context, you are basically forcing your body to do a deep breathing exercise.

But you should also consider those other musical activities, even, dare I say it, the headphones-centric ones. As we’ve written many times before, in “Music as Medicine: How Music Reduces Stress & Keeps You Calm,” for example, or in “Music as Panacea: Music Therapy’s Myriad Applications & Benefits,” listening to music can lower your blood pressure as well as your cortisol levels, the stress hormone responsible for your “flight or fight” reflex. So if you need a stress-reducer but can’t or don’t want to do it with others, pop your favorite playlist onto your headphones and dance around your room for 30 minutes.

While it may be hard to even consider doing anything joy-filled or self-care-promoting on certain days during this shut-down, try to take just a few minutes every day to engage with music: whether singing with your family IRL, zoom singing with friends, or enjoying a solitary moment with the music in your headphones, you will absolutely feel that renewed access to movement, to speech, to life.