Photo: Courtesy of Allie X
Why Music May Be More Important Now Than Ever Before
There is no denying that music has a power over us. A simple melody can make us laugh or cry. A harmony from a familiar song can trigger memories of good times and bad times. A catchy line can make our feet tap or heads bob without even knowing it.
All we have to do is allow the sound waves to hit the ear for a swift journey to the brain and, just like that, rhythms, tones and lyrics translate into an emotional reaction that can feel as tender as a hug. In an era when suffering and uncertainty is plaguing our community, nurturing that special, easy relationship between artistic sounds, our bodies and our minds may be more important than ever before.
In a new poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45 percent of respondents identified a decline in mental health as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The added stress of social distancing, devastating unemployment rates, telecommuting, childcare, death rates and overall looming uncertainty is leading to what the World Health Organization deems a “health shock” when "unpredictable illnesses” trigger a diminishing of the general population’s health, exacerbating feelings of loneliness and anxiety similar to the way the Vietnam War and the AIDS epidemic did.
45 percent of survey respondents identified a decline in mental health as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
But trauma of the 20th century didn’t have the technology we have today. Even as depression plagues this uncertain time when we’re stuck at home, most of us have the ability to participate in proven restorative activities like telecommunicative behavioral therapy, calming YouTube videos or mental wellness apps. At the same time, a seemingly endless catalogue of music is just a click away, and its therapeutic capabilities may be more important than ever before.
“People have a direct experience with music throughout their lives and humans throughout human history have had a very close personal relationship with music,” explains Tim Ringgold, an Orange County, CA-based board-certified music therapist. “The first sound we hear is our mom’s heartbeat in the womb. Our hearing is the sense that is used first. We hear the world we enter before we see it.” Ringgold hypothesizes that because we’ve been organically trained to trust music, it may be easier to consciously incorporate it into our lives rather than traditional talk therapy, which only works when we have the right words to express our feelings and the right listener to interpret those words.
Even more so, it’s inevitable to face confrontation with another person—to be scolded, or rejected, or betrayed. Music never betrays us. Music doesn’t judge us, which is why someone can feel more connected to a person performing through their headphones rather than the person they share a bed with. During the unprecedented era of COVID-19, when we’re being ordered to self-isolate, our instinctual craving for human connection doesn’t disappear, so we can listen to an artist who “can give language to some of the most intense experiences and thoughts we've ever had without meeting them” then in that moment, Ringgold says, “we know we’re not alone.”
In order to tap into the power of music listening while also adhering to current stay-at-home orders, Ringgold mentions an option that involves gathering music we already know we enjoy, compiling it in a playlist and then physically engaging with the music—clapping, stomping, swaying, and so on—to the beat of the music. While this active music listening is simply fun, if we want to successfully adhere to the time-based beat, it will require our uninterrupted presence in the moment. “People who struggle with anxiety are consumed with the future and they’re focused on the past when they’re depressed, but we don’t have control over the past or future. We only have control over our bodies in the present moment.” If we’re ready to engage with the music, the brain will trigger a dopamine release—the pleasure chemical—that’s linked to reward and motivation.
We already create playlists for a number of reasons: to help get over heartache, to motivate us when we exercise, to relax us during our commute. “We intuitively know that music helps us perform better as humans,” Ringgold notes. What we may not realize, however, is that our connection to music is directly tied to rhythm. “Rhythm is the organizing principle of the body, so we are wired to be musical because we are organized by rhythm,” he continues, pointing to the rhythm that conducts the heartbeat, the respiratory system, the reproductive system, the digestive system and on and on.
“We don't ever talk about what music does to our brain and body, we always think about what it does to our emotions and our spirit,” Ringgold observes, further suggesting that if hours-long playlists feel overwhelming, a compilation of three familiar and empowering songs can also make an impact. Simply have the mini-collection cued and the next time negative thoughts take over, grab your headphones and walk to the beat for a few minutes. By the time the exercise is over, the nervous system will reset, decreasing the key stress hormone known as cortisol.
Of course, RInggold isn’t the first person to endorse music for trying times. The connection between music and the body was first recorded by Plato (428-347 BC) when he said that, ”Music gives wings to the mind,” but the origin of modern music meets medicine dates back to post-world war II, when musicians visited hospitals across the country to play for those suffering from post-war physical and emotional traumas. Since then, medical studies have recorded music’s ability to tap into final fears, reduce seizures, encourage better communication, boost our immune systems, increase intelligence and even help repair brain damage.
Still, no matter how undeniably powerful music is, the industry is not immune to the havoc coronavirus is wreaking on the world. Any and all in-person music events have been affected, forcing talent— including everyone from The 1975 to Snoop Dogg to Rage Against the Machine—to indefinitely postpone or cancel their tours. The seemingly infallible music global festival circuit shattered and without that promised marketing—without the ability to reach out and touch fans—many artists have also postponed their planned album releases and are waiting out the stay-at-home orders like the rest of us.
Allie X, for example—who confirms she hasn’t stopped working her entire adult life—is now on standstill. “It's weird to talk about because I know that there's so much suffering happening in the world right now. As a global community, it's a very difficult time, but for me personally, I’ve really settled in to having time and space,” says the Los Angeles-based performer, born Allie Hughes. “I think I needed the world to stop to have permission to stop this marathon I’ve been in.”
Since 2015, Hughes has released five studio albums, earned a co-sign from Katy Perry, collaborated with Troye Sivan and BTS, and toured with names like Sivan, Charli XCX and Marina. Each of her projects showcase her signature nostalgia-drenched catchy melodies combined with her honey-like expert vocals, matched during live shows by a string of decadent onstage personas. Her latest work, Cape God (2020), is inarguably her most realized. The artist chooses to abandon her dramatic characters in exchange for depictions of inner turmoil tied up in synth-play so heavy it could comfort even the most melancholy of suburban teenagers.
This March, Hughes was set to travel across North America on a headline tour in support of Cape God. And at the time of our interview in May, she is meant to be singing around Europe, but instead she is in Los Angeles at home and just performed on Sessions, an ongoing live series on Twitch meant to benefit MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund. “I hope that they get something similar to what they would get at a live show, which is community and liberation,” she says of the stripped down performance.
Hughes also hopes that her fans are using this time to explore their relationships with music in new ways. “I’ve always done music, from my earliest memories. I make music for a living, but I feel like I haven’t been listening to music the way I’ve been listening to music lately,” the artists muses. “I’m letting myself feel music as opposed to analyze it and think of it in a business sense.”
“I think I needed the world to stop to have permission to stop this marathon I’ve been in.” -Allie X
For the music makers themselves, creating music during this time—without the distraction of competition or a paycheck—have an even stronger ability than listeners to hack the system and change our state because playing requires total focus. “We’ve become sedentary creatures who are not present and we need to have reliable evidence-based tools that can get us reconnected to our bodies and the present moment,” explains Ringgold, who has been performing during this forced down time and later releasing the calming sounds on his weekly podcast, “Reduce Your Stress with Tim Ringgold.”
So the next time the looming panic of uncertainty takes over, revisit an old favorite album, clap to the beat and see what happens. Maybe, even for a moment, we’ll forget we’re in the middle of global pandemic for a turn at self-discovery. One day the fatal feeling in the air will subside, we’ll be able to go outside and, thanks to music, our minds and bodies could be stronger than ever before.
Learn more about how you can donate to or apply for assistance via the Recording Academy's and MusiCares' COVID-19 Relief Fund.
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