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Face the music: Loyola musicologist discusses the benefits of music during COVID

Photo of Remi Chiu, musicologist

Remi Chiu, Ph.D., associate professor of fine arts and musicologist, specializes in Renaissance music and the history of medicine. He wrote “Plague and Music in the Renaissance,” which examines the role of music and music-making in the medical, spiritual, and civic strategies for combating pestilence. His research into the music of past epidemics has yielded some unexpected insights into music-making during COVID.

Chiu shares some of his expertise in a Q&A:

How does music help people during difficult periods?

Music is tremendously useful in regulating our moods and emotions. Many of us have daily experiences of this—we use music to pump ourselves up when we exercise or calm us down when we need to relax. This is especially the case in difficult periods. During the global lockdowns, researchers found that mood management was one of the primary functions of music. People reported in surveys that they have spent more time listening to (and performing) music last year, and they reported more positive views of the impact of music on personal well-being.

Why is music so powerful?

How music influences our emotions—our brains and bodies—is a complex question, and there are a number of possible mechanisms. One common explanation is that music connects us to personal memories in a powerful way and is useful for recalling better times. Another fascinating effect is called “rhythmic entrainment” where rhythms of the music influence the rhythms of our bodies—heart rate, or breathing for example—and that in turn, affects how we feel. What’s especially interesting about entrainment is that it can promote social bonding; people who dance or perform music together, or even just tap out rhythms together, like each other more. Beyond emotions, music has also been found to do great things for our bodies, from lowering blood pressure, to increasing pain tolerance, to boosting our immune systems—all good things during a health crisis.

In what other ways have people been using music during the pandemic?

Aside from regulating our mental and physical health, music has been a useful tool in getting around one of the biggest disruptions of the pandemic: social isolation. We saw from the earliest days of the global lockdown, neighbors coming out to their balconies to sing with each other or maybe just to clap, ring bells, and bang on pots and pans together for encouragement. Besides all the benefits already mentioned, these rituals allowed neighbors to check in on each other to make sure that the health of the community is fine. Moreover, they allowed participants to demonstrate compliance with quarantine rules. After all, why do it unless you believe the pandemic is real and serious, and that social isolation is important? And as opportunities for social interaction decreased, there was also a marked increase in collaborative music playlist making and sharing, according to Spotify. It seems that curating music became a social activity, a permissible and safe way to communicate, share individual tastes, and engage in virtual gift-giving.

Music has been useful, too, for communicating information about the pandemic. There are many “public service announcement” type songs that, often in humorous ways, explain the causes and symptoms of COVID and all the safety procedures we should undertake. I remember—in the early days of the pandemic, when we were more worried about surfaces than aerosol spread—being told to sing happy birthday twice while washing our hands to make sure we are scrubbing them for at least 20 seconds. That was another unexpected use of music to regulate our behavior.

How have people used music during plagues and pandemics in the past?

Early-modern Europeans used music in pretty much the same ways that we do. Fifteenth- and 16th-century doctors were very worried about emotional disturbances. It was thought that thinking too much about the plague would cause you to become infected spontaneously. In turn, their advice was to avoid bad news, gather with friends in gardens and lovely places, and tell stories and play music. Fast forward to 2020, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published guidance on coping with stress during COVID. Chief among their advice is to take breaks from doom-scrolling through the news, talk with friends and loved ones, and make time for hobbies and recreation. So people from centuries past already knew about the emotional and social benefits of music. In fact, during an outbreak in Milan in 1576, the citizens, who were under lockdown, came to their windows and doors seven times a day to sing together—just as we did last year.

What are you listening to now? Do you have any recommendations?

Based on what I said above, I recommend having a handy playlist of songs tied to good memories. Last year, according to Spotify, there was an increase in streams of “chill” music—more acoustic, more frequently instrumental, less danceable, and lower energy. I would definitely recommend a go-to playlist of that. For me, “chill” music means a lot of Ravel and Renaissance choral music. For uplift, I’ve been really enjoying the new albums by St. Vincent and the electro-pop duo Polo & Pan.