Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Music helps us remember who we are and how we belong during difficult and traumatic times
A researcher talks about the power of music in a crisis.
Has the music we listen to, and why we listen, changed during the coronavirus pandemic?
Beyond the well-documented evidence of pandemic music-making at a distance and over social media, music critics have suggested there is an increased preference for music that is comforting, familiar and nostalgic.
Data from major streaming services and companies that analyze them may support this view.
On Spotify, the popularity of chart hits dropped 28 per cent between March 12 and April 16. Instead, Spotify listeners are searching for instrumental and “chill" music. In the first week of April on Spotify, there was a 54 per cent increase in “listeners making nostalgia-themed playlists, as well as an uptick in the popularity of music from the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s."
More than half of those participating in a survey conducted by Nielsen Music/MRC Data at the end of March 2020 said they were “seeking comfort in familiar, nostalgic content" in their TV viewing and music listening. The survey was based on responses by 945 consumers in the U.S. aged 13 and older, plus online responses.
As a researcher who has examined music's power in times of crisis — most recently, exploring the music of people who were refugees from civil war El Salvador during the 1980s — I believe such work can help us understand our apparent desire to use familiar music for psychological support during this challenging period.
Reconnecting to ourselves
In a time when many are confronting both increased solitude and increased anxiety, familiar music provides reassurance because it reminds us who we are as people. Whether it is a hit we danced to with our teenage friends, or a haunting orchestral piece our grandmother played, music lights up memories of our past selves.
Music allows us to create an emotional narrative between the past and present when we struggle to articulate such a narrative in words. Its familiarity comforts us when the future seems unclear.
Music helps to reconnect us to our identities. It also helps us, as all the arts do, to pursue an otherwise inexpressible search for meaning. In so doing, it helps bolster our resilience in the face of difficulty.
People have used music to such philosophical and psychological ends even in times and places where one would think music would be the last thing on peoples' minds.
In one of the most extreme among many examples, survivors of Nazi concentration camps report having sung familiar songs to reinforce their sense of self and their religious identity, when both were gravely threatened.
Civil war survival
My current research considers music's use for such purposes during the 1980s by refugees from the civil war in El Salvador. Subsistence farmers (campesinos/campesinas), who fled government oppression for refugee camps in Honduras, have told me they considered music essential to their psychological survival.
In a sometimes-dangerous new land, away from their war-stricken home, campesinos and campesinas performed, listened and danced to old and new folk songs to help sustain a connection to their pre-war identities in the nation they had left behind. Traditional folk songs were sometimes given new words to document the refugees' persecution.
Songs thus provided both a means to maintain identity and an emotional narrative for traumatic events that were hard to describe in words. This helped the refugees manage the challenges of the present and face an uncertain future.
In 2019, I helped conduct research for a short documentary about one leading refugee singer-songwriter in El Salvador, Norberto Amaya. Amaya's story shows how Salvadoran musicians harnessed music to help their refugee compatriots manage the psychological challenges of their situation. The film was a collaboration between Western University and Juan Bello of Triana Media, with support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
The songs of El Salvador's civil war refugees make clear that music, whether old or new, serves a vital function for humans facing hardship, both on personal and cultural levels.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit some communities much harder than others, and demonstrated how existing inequalities are thrown into even greater relief in times of crisis. Yet in all affected communities, the pandemic has the capacity to trigger anxious feelings about earlier traumas and current separations.
Listening to music we know well reminds us of the friends and family that have made us who we are. In our current situation, different as it is from that faced by Salvadoran civil war refugees, familiar music is similarly permitting reconnection both to personal identity and to a much larger community of family, friends and strangers who also love these familiar songs. This helps us better manage our isolation and anxiety.
This apparent human instinct to seek out mechanisms that enable cultural reconnection is a smart one. Trauma scholars believe that, for some people, familiar cultural practices may actually be more effective than psychiatric treatment in helping people deal with potentially traumatic events.
American poet and activist Maya Angelou once movingly wrote:
"Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness."
Many can surely relate to such a sentiment. We may not yet have the words to articulate our response to the situation in which humanity currently finds itself. But engaging with music soothes us in these difficult times, providing a means to begin to process our emotions, to stay connected to our pre-pandemic identities and to participate in something larger than ourselves, even while we live apart.
- We need music to be political, not just entertaining ›
- How Music Stimulates the Unconscious Mind - Big Think ›
The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.