Image previewJared Hammond, MT-BC, Music Therapist and Coordinator of the BRIDGES Day Treatment Program at Ravenwood Health, wrote this month’s #MentalHealthMatters blog. 

If you’re like me, you’ve turned to the arts in this time of physical and social isolation to help you stay in touch with the world around you. Perhaps you’ve taken a virtual tour of a revered or local art museum or downloaded famous works of art into your island paradise in one of today’s more popular video games. Maybe you’ve been binging tv and movies from any number of streaming services as they scramble to add new and interesting content. Those of you looking to learn a new skill might have even started watching YouTube tutorials so you could help make masks or get your new sourdough starter ready for baking.

But if you’re really like me, you’ve been joining the crowd at virtual live music events. Some of our favorite musicians, from the most famous to the tragically local, have taken to television, social media, and even online concert venues to continue touring the world from their living room couch or a studio in the attic. And some of the collaborations have been mind-blowing. Local rapper Machine Gun Kelly covered a Rhianna song because Marilyn Manson asked him to. Lady Gaga pulled together sixty artists from around the world to perform from their homes in support of healthcare workers on the front lines. Jason McGerr of Death Cab for Cutie has given weekly drum lessons featuring other well-known drummers.

So, why are we making and consuming music in this time of crisis? Is it just the entertainment value or is there something music can do to help? What does this have to do with mental health? As a music therapist, I would like to offer my perspective on that.

I believe the answer lies in that collaboration, the social aspect of music. We can’t be physically in the same room together, but we still attended the same event and maybe even socialized in a chat or comments feature on social media.

In Brain and Music, author Stefan Koelsch offers an overview of the social impact of music in what he calls “The Seven Cs”

1. Contact. Social Contact is a basic human need and one that we’re not having met in the same way we’re used to, if at all. Making or consuming music together helps those of us who are doing so to have some form of social contact.
2. Cognition. Social Cognition is the mind’s ability to understand intentions, desires, and beliefs in the behavior of others. We use this skill when attempting to understand music and doing so can aid in practicing and improving that skill, whether we are participating in a music therapy session or just trying to keep our mind sharp while we are more isolated than usual.
3. Co-pathy. Co-pathy is the social function of empathy. Beyond acknowledging and understanding a person’s emotional state, making music together and listening to music gives us the sense that our emotional states are connected and affected by one another. In this way, creating and consuming music together gives us the sense that we are separate individuals, but we are all affected in some way by the emotions of others.
4. Communication. Communication is a means for sharing meaning between people, whether through language or some other form of expression. Making music allows us to share our message with others and listening to music gives us a forum for taking in that message
5. Coordination. It is human to enjoy synchronizing our movements with other people. It gives us a sense of awe to see a marching band or members of the armed forces moving in close coordination. Everyone on Tik Tok wants to do the same dance. We tap our feet or drum with our writing utensil while we’re listening to music. There are plenty of evolutionary theories about why that might be, but the point is we like to do things together, and making music, especially from a rhythmic standpoint, allows us to do that.
6. Cooperation. Cooperation is working toward a shared goal. As with Coordination, it is human to enjoy cooperating to achieve a joint goal. Whether our goal is to create music together, raise money for an important cause, or simply be together in shared space, music allows us to cooperate and that feels good.
7. Cohesion. Social cohesion is a sense of belonging to a social group. There are a wide range of physical and emotional health benefits to feeling part of a cohesive group. Whether we’re in the group making music or a part of the fan-base that loves it, participating in those groups is good for our well-being.

Music is not unique in creating these individual social impacts, but it is rare in that it can effectively activate all seven (Koelsch, 2013). All these similar and related social domains make for a powerful emotional response when activated together, all at the same time, by music (Koelsch, 2013).

It has been said that we’re all in the same boat in this crisis and that’s why we need to stick together. And there have been two different, but very similar and very powerful disagreements with that notion. First, we’re not all in the same boat. Some of us have very nice boats that are very well insulated from the storm, which we have prepared to spend a lot of time in over these difficult months. Others are treading water and don’t even have a boat. Second, we’re not all in the same part of the storm. Regardless of our means, some of us are on the periphery of the storm and unlikely to have our boat rocked too terribly in the near future. Others, no matter how hard they try to be prepared, are deeply affected by the center of the storm.

Instead, I offer this analogy. We are all singing in one voice. It is not the same song. It is not the same kind of music. We have different levels of skill and enjoyment in our participation. We do not have the same training or tools. We do not have the same access to the contributions of others, nor do we have the same reach for our own contributions.

But we are all connected because we have been affected by this crisis. We are cognitively aware that this is a physical and existential threat to our existence. We have a co-pathic understanding that we are all having strong feelings about this and that we have the ability to affect the emotions of those around us. We are taking the time to communicate with the people we love, in whatever way we are able to do so. We are coordinating our efforts, from a safe distance, to do some good in our community or to simply have some fun. We are cooperating with one another to make sure that as many of us as possible make it to the other side. We are becoming a more cohesive group of humans as we see our efforts making a difference in our local community or in some part of the world around us.

There will always be those who will tell us to quiet down because we are inconveniencing them, but most of us are still singing. And I truly believe that, in the end, despite the many scars we will incur along the way, we will have created something beautiful together through our stronger human social connection. In memory and in honor of those we lost, those who sacrificed, and all the suffering, may we all keep singing.

For more information about how music affects the brain, how music impacts society, and the origins of music, I recommend the following books: Brain and Music by Stefan Koeslch. This is Your Brain on Music (eBook  audiobook)  and The World in Six Songs by Daniel J. Levitin. Musicophilia (eBook  audiobook) by Dr. Oliver Sacks. The Origins of Music by Carl Stumpf.

For fun, I am currently reading the Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

Ravenwood Health | Mental Health and Addiction Services