The Rise of Nostalgic Music During COVID-19: How it helped us cope
Music has a constant presence in our lives. Whether it was playing in the background during our most precious moments or brought to life the scenes of our favourite movies, we always find songs that seem to perfectly express our feelings at a given space in time; songs that become meaningful reminders of important events in our past. Thus, it is to no surprise that music is one of the most powerful means through which people experience nostalgia, a sentimental longing for a bygone period or time in one’s life. During the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown restrictions, I found myself craving certain songs that reminded me of past moments in my life. I listened to songs that brought back memories of pre-COVID-19 times — summers spent with my closest friends, songs that reminded me of home and family. Data suggests a growing trend for nostalgic music during the COVID-19 lockdowns in Europe and the United States of America, symbolised by the increased streaming of songs released from over a decade ago, as well as songs from the 1980s and 1990s, on streaming platforms like Spotify. This suggests a collective desire for nostalgic music over this period, leading to questions such as why was this desire present? And what effects did this have on our wellbeing? Research on nostalgia suggests that we seek it during times of anxiety or uncertainty as a coping mechanism. For many, anxiety and uncertainty highlight their experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the period of lockdown restrictions and the unknowingness of when these would be lifted. I recall my isolation in university halls, far away from family and friends, not knowing when I could return home or see people again, experiencing a constant state of uncertainty. Looking back now, I realise that my yearning for music of the past was not simply a preference, but rather reflected a desire for stability and for memories of better days filled with positive emotions and connectedness. Indeed, a recent study conducted by Yu-Cheong Yeung investigating the association between nostalgic music and the COVID-19 pandemic, suggests that the increase in streaming older music demonstrates a common mechanism that individuals used to cope with all the negative emotions that arose over the lockdown period. Although music more generally has been shown to help foster social connectedness and improve mood during lockdown, nostalgic music seems to be associated with evoking a sense of comfort. The memories of significant people and experiences in our lives brought about by nostalgic music soothe us and evoke feelings of safety. Nostalgic music has also been associated to restoring meaning and purpose in our lives, as reminiscing about significant memories facilitates our sense of identity, by helping us see continuity between our past and present selves, providing stability to our sense of self. These feelings of comfort, safety and stability evoked by nostalgic music have been associated to increases in positive emotions felt during the lockdown period, better coping with the negative emotions that arose during this period and improved wellbeing throughout the period of the pandemic.
However, nostalgic music is not always guaranteed to evoke positive emotions. A study conducted in the United Kingdom to explore personal accounts of nostalgic music listening during lockdown, found that despite most individuals reporting positive emotional experiences in response to nostalgic music, there were also many that experienced negative or mixed emotions. These feelings were said to have been evoked by memories of past times that reminded them of people they were separated from, or moments they could not relive due to the restrictions. While I was reading this, I thought to myself, if nostalgic music did evoke these negative feelings in many individuals, why was there such a big increase in the streaming of nostalgic music and why is this still continuing? I thought of this as counterproductive — we were driven towards listening to songs that made us feel sadder and more alone, during an already difficult time. The researchers in this study reached a different conclusion, however. They suggested that there are differences between people reporting negative emotions when listening to nostalgic music. On one hand, some individuals tend to have more negative thinking patterns when trying to process their emotions. Thus, the feelings and memories evoked by nostalgic music can often be negatively interpreted, leading to the experience of negative emotions like sadness and loneliness. On the other hand, there are individuals which process these negative emotions in positive ways, arguing that they facilitate feelings of optimism and a sense of purpose. Reflecting on positive memories helps them regardless of the negative emotions evoked, as it gives them something to look forward to and remain positive about. This shows that nostalgic music can be beneficial to our wellbeing when processed positively, though these benefits may not extend to individuals with negative thinking styles, such as those with depression. Although all the studies focused on the lockdown period, I personally believe that this desire for nostalgic music has not yet ended. Even now, when I scroll through the comment sections of all the songs that make me nostalgic, I see a lot of recent comments from people describing the memories that each song reminds them of, reminiscing about their youth, and longing for moments that have been missed due to the pandemic. Nostalgic music during the lockdown period has helped us cope, in one way or another, with many of the negative emotions we’ve experienced. Much like the argument of the researchers I described earlier, the feelings expressed with each memory may seem sad on the surface, but they all end with a message of optimism, a message of hope that we are not alone in this and that the good old days will return. The lockdown restrictions and the pandemic may have brought about physical isolation and distancing, but I believe that music, particularly nostalgic music, has connected us all during these times, bringing us together to share our most important memories in search of comfort and positivity, improving our wellbeing and keeping us optimistic for the future.
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