Coronavirus and music: why the world turned to music in a time of crisis

An analogy between our current situation and my research on music and dementia


Yesterday I had to go out. It was the first time I left my house later in the evening since England announced the new security measures last week. It was about 7.30pm. I live in central London, busy London. Unrecognisable London, empty London is what I saw. Not a single shop open, an occasional soul running past in a daily confused jog, and a police car chasing a motorbike and telling the driver to go home. And I felt a mix of fear and calm, walking through that ghostly dark street, my legs in autopilot mode. Never had I dreamed I would see London like this. Never had I imagined a virus would come and pause the world outside.

In the middle of all this madness, I have been impressed by the amount of videos I find online everyday by friends and colleagues, professional musicians and amateur musicians, playing their instruments, singing, sharing music with the world. And I can’t help wandering: Why is that? Why is it that now, in a time of crisis, people turn to music more than ever?

Today, as I worked on my research project about music and dementia, I was struggling to see what is my real purpose, my true belief and the message I want it to convey. So I took all my research and all my data in my hand, and I squeezed it hard like a juicy orange, I squeezed its whole essence out of it. And after much thought, I could finally summarise my message: dementia takes away our memory and our knowledge of who we are; we forget who and how we used to be, and so we must find ways that allow us to find - or better, re-find - our true self. Music is the way. Music creates a powerful connection with our emotional self even when words fail to, and music is connected to our deepest memories, allowing us to remember forgotten pieces of a past life. Music was there for us before we learned to talk, music was there before we even knew what music was. Music has always been a part of us, even before we were a part of the world.

So as I worked on my research project, my thought was that our turning to music during the coronavirus epidemic is somehow similar to the comfort and relief found in music for those with dementia. Crazy, I know. Let me explain what I mean. In dementia what changes is the inside, our brain; with this epidemic what changes is the outside, our life circumstances. However, in both cases, life as we know it is threatened: in the first case, it is threatened by our memory; in the second case, threatened by the current circumstance, the obligation to stop living our lives as normal and stay home indefinitely. Regardless, in both cases we see ourselves forced to find a way of re-learning to live, by re-finding ourselves, by re-connecting with our identity, our essence.

Dementia makes us feel scared as we can’t remember where we live or what our name is; it makes us feel anxious for having to be exposed to a new person or a new place; it makes us feel sad because we don’t know where our mother went this morning, even though our mother died twenty-two years ago. Life is confusing and we must find ways to live without loosing ourselves. Love is the one real hope, and love can come in the shape of music. Music calms down the fears by connecting us with our emotional selves; music relieves anxiety by making us smile to another and receive a smile back; music diminishes sadness by bringing us back to our happy place, where we are free to feel and sing and dance or just be silent.

And so I believe something similar is happening to all of us now, during these hard times: this epidemic is making us feel scared to live not knowing what will happen to our jobs; it is making us feel anxious not knowing if we will contract the virus on our next journey to the supermarket; it is making us sad not knowing for how long we will have to live isolated, not being able to hug our family and dearest friends. It is a new reality that we are being forced into, and so we must find ways to live without loosing ourselves.

And so love is the cure, and love can come in the shape of music. Music calms down our fears by reminding us that our loved ones are there for us whenever we need support, and it triggers some of our most cherished memories, taking us to our own happy place; music relieves our anxiety because through it we can reach other people’s hearts and connect to others in ways which words cannot, creating powerful emotional bonds; music alleviates sadness because it reminds us we are not alone, and music will always be there for us, never judging, never demanding anything in return.