The Power of Music in Maintaining Mental Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 outbreak hit us in March 2020, in the second year of my undergraduate Psychology degree. I experienced the national lockdown in London and was restricted by international flights and a 14 days hotel quarantine making it hard to get back to my home country, China.


Last September, I came back to London for my professional placement programme, but the second lockdown kept me alone inside a 22m x 2 studio for most of my time. I believe many overseas students like me would have felt the same. Being away from family and friends for 6 months or even the whole academic year, while at the same time being exposed to uncertainty and changes, is definitely an unpleasant life experience.


Cancellation of direct flights and extended quarantine duration made my way home a more complicated procedure. I found myself trapped in depressive thoughts and had the feeling that there was nothing I could do. I even thought to withdraw from my placement programme. But I am proud to say that eventually I was not defeated by these challenges because music guided me to escape from this trap.


I spent most of my leisure time on music. I listened to my favourite songs every day before bedtime and after waking up. I also had online singing lessons once a week with my coach in China.

Although I’m not able to tell you the whole story in these short paragraphs, I want to use this opportunity to tell everyone who had similar COVID experiences or who is currently suffering from long-term social isolation not to give up on music. If music is something you can’t live a day without; if music is one of your hobbies, just keep doing it. Music heals me, and I hope it can also heal you all. With this piece, I will introduce others’ stories with music and what science tells us about the power of music, specifically during this pandemic.


Recently, I was deeply moved by a heart-warming story of a friendship formed during lockdown. I watched a video on YouTube, where a young man, Giorgio Lo Porto, found out that his new neighbour was a pianist. Driven by strong curiosity behind the piano sound, Giorgio left a note to request whether they could play “My Heart Will Go On” for him. After getting a reply of “Yes”, Giorgio started to meet his mysterious neighbour by playing duets every weekend. This was his way of saying, “I don’t know who you are, but I’m here. You are not alone”.


Later, Giorgio finally got to know that his new friend, Emil, was a 78 years-old man originally from Poland. Coronavirus has taken his wife away last December, and the piano was all he had left.

As a farewell gift, Giorgio wrote a song to picture Emil’s life and to memorise this special friendship.


Unfortunately, the story didn’t get a happy ending because Emil sadly passed away one night before moving out. Nonetheless, the healing power and hope passed through the wall made Giorgio realise that playing duets with Emil was not only about fighting loneliness during lockdown, more importantly, it is about kindness.


“I knew very little about you, but you’ve changed my life.” I believe that music connects us, even between strangers. Music brings hope during lockdown; also, music itself is hope.


We saw this in a worldwide example showing that music can convey motivation with the famous balcony singing, which started in Italy during the first lockdown. Using balconies, windows and rooftops, people sang to each other and played music to applaud and show gratitude to their healthcare workers and lift one another’s spirits.


What does science tell us about the impact of music during the pandemic?


Music may be one of the most effective tools in maintaining mental wellbeing during the pandemic. While listening to music has been shown to improve life satisfaction, watching TV/movies/streaming videos were associated with reduced life satisfaction.


As another example, a cross-cultural study demonstrated that music would be the most helpful activity for achieving different wellbeing goals across age, gender and culture. Compared with physical activity, reading, chatting, computer games, hobbies and meditation, music worked best to maintain a good mood, release negative emotions, and connect with oneself. Music was also efficient in distracting people from the COVID crisis and loneliness.


Compared with sports and moving residence, listening to music may be the best strategy to manage stress under COVID restrictions. Although international students, like me, experienced greater COVID-related stress than local students, listening to music could maintain wellbeing scores around the same level in both cohorts.


Music also maintains wellbeing in families during the COVID-19 pandemic. The interactive music engagement positively predicted attachment between parents and their children regardless of child age and change in time parents spent with children.


Why does music help?

Now you may be curious as to why music is so helpful for mental wellbeing, and here are some interpretations. Firstly,relative to social media use, listening to music is an active activity that involves more cognitive efforts. The more people have control over what is heard, the more positive outcomes they tend to experience.


More importantly, music influences how we feel. Consistent evidence explains this aspect in three folds.


Firstly, music can regulate emotions. Emotional regulation is an ability where people manage and respond to current emotions in order to maintain a state that favours them. Emotional regulation usually involves either down-regulation (e.g., reducing sadness by recalling something happy) and up-regulation (e.g. imminent challenge calls for excitement).


For example, music distracts people from pain. In a recent study, adult participants focused their attention on a series of laser pauses which would make them experience pinprick sensations on their hands. The electric activity seen in the brain by scanning showed that participants reported the lowest pain unpleasantness while listening to their preferred music, compared with those who sit in silence or listened to white noise, who felt more pain from the pinprick. In this case, preferred music enables people to immerse themselves in a pleasant emotional state which offset pain perception.

Secondly, music can induce desirable emotions which make people feel better. Unlike emotional regulation, emotion induction means genuine emotions can be generated or evoked from a relatively neutral state. It’s something just like crying at a moving movie. Due to differences in musical features, sad songs are usually thought to be unpleasant and less relaxing, whereas happy music would induce happiness and joy.


This may be surprising as one of the studies I mentioned previously, by Vidas et al. (2021), where university students were asked to nominate a song that helped them get rid of COVID-related stress, they actually preferred “sad” songs. You may also find it counterintuitive because perceived emotions are sometimes different from felt emotions. Although sad music will be perceived as sad, the experience of listening would evoke positive emotions. In this study, participants perceived sad music as more miserable but actually felt more romantic, more delightful and less tragic.

Thirdly, music promotes communication. Parent-child singing of lullabies and play songs contribute to better emotional regulation and development in children. Now you could understand why increased music engagement led to improved parent-children attachment during the pandemic.


What about Music Therapy (MT)?


Music therapy (MT) is the clinical use of music instructed by therapists, which usually involves receptive (e.g., listening to music) or active (e.g., improvisational and composing music) activities. MT is an evidence-based technique to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals.


Although there aren’t many studies published, the usefulness of MT in maintaining mental wellbeing during the pandemic is still promising. A 5-week receptive MT session could significantly reduce perceived sadness, fear, worry intensity, and tiredness. Listening to customised music tracks provided more of a profound positive influence than listening to pre-selected music tracks.


Similarly, participants who received a combination of yoga and receptive MT session 30 minutes a day over one month reported alleviated severity of depression, anxiety and stress dramatically, regardless of whether they were diagnosed with mental disorders or not.


If someone were to say that COVID restrictions close the door to the physical world, then I think that music is a key that could lead us to our spiritual world and to each other’s spiritual world.


Although not many new studies have looked at music and mental health during this pandemic particularly, the effectiveness of music therapy can be generalised in treating a wide range of mental disorders. For example, the SHAPER project (Scaling-up Health-Arts Programmes: Implementation and Effectiveness Research), led by Prof. Carmine Pariante and Dr. Daisy Fancourt, aims to provide singing, dancing and music sessions to hundreds of patients with postnatal depression, Parkinson’s disease and stroke. According to previous literature, researchers expect that this large-scale study could help mums reduce symptoms of postnatal depression, improve social wellbeing and fluidity of movement in patients with Parkinson’s, and enhance recovery in stroke patients. If you are interested in reading more about music and mental health, you can read previous blogs on InSPIre the Mind, such as Singing Out: Music and Mental Health, When Hip-hop Meets Psychiatry, and When words fail, Music speaks: Dementia and the Power of Music.


Every time when I look back on my past 6 months, I appreciate that this pandemic gives music a new meaning rather than it just being my favourite hobby. That is, music became the most effective tool to help me release COVID-related stress and it became my best friend, accompanying me through one of the most difficult moments while studying abroad.


As we have seen, the research shows that both recreational and professional use of music can have some very powerful effects which will continue to impact our lives, even after the pandemic.