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.

ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

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.

Norberto Amaya

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.

Norberto Amaya [Songwriter] from Triana Media on Vimeo.

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.

Community connection

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.The Conversation

Emily Abrams Ansari, Associate Professor of Music History, Western University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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