Did the Pandemic Change How We Listen to Music?

We asked a neurologist and an epidemiologist how our social lives and mental health are tied to our listening habits. Turns out, they’re deeply connected.
JT
Chicago, US
June 28, 2021, 5:25pm
Music listening in a pandemic
Getty Images

For most of us, the pandemic has been a deeply life-altering event, one that’s affected everything from how we commute, how we do small talk, to how we take care of ourselves. And according to anecdotal reports, it's even changed our relationship to music. When VICE informally polled readers about their evolving listening habits last fall, they revealed all sorts of unexpected new musical habits, from exclusively listening to jazz or ambient, to finally getting into the Grateful Dead, to only checking out new hardcore bands. In some cases, previously avid music fans said they'd suddenly stopped listening to much music at all.

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I was one of the people who fell into the latter camp. Though I've been obsessed with music ever since I was a kid, I found that as the pandemic dragged on I started to prefer listening to podcasts, just putting on a movie or complete silence. In my free time, even my favorite bands couldn’t do the trick. (Before anyone yells at me: Yes, I listened to a lot of music for work because it’s my job, but besides that, 2020 was the year of podcasts and televised sports games in empty stadiums for me). 

Flash forward to the summer of 2021, though, and it's the exact opposite experience. Since getting fully vaccinated, venturing back out into the world to see friends, and reintroducing distanced, mostly outdoor shows back into my life, my love for discovering music has fully come back. I haven’t been able to stop checking out new things or revisiting lifelong favorites: I did a deep dive on one of my all-time favorites, the Band, and on Fridays listen to at least five new LPs that came out that day. Whereas last year a friend would ask whether I’d heard Lorde’s new single, chances are I would have no idea what they were talking about. Now, I definitely have and I even have a somewhat coherent opinion on it. 

To make sense of these mysterious shifts in my relationship to music over the past year, I interviewed neurologist Dr. Mark Jude Tramo, the director of the Institute for Music & Brain Science, co-director of the University of California Multi-Campus Music Research Initiative, professor of neurology at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and a professor in ethnomusicology at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. In addition to his winding resume, Dr. Tramo is also a musician and fan—someone who can discuss the science of musical cognition with the same nuance as his favorite records by the Beatles and Stevie Wonder. “The pandemic was really a traumatic experience, a cataclysmic event that hasn’t been experienced at least since the invention of the car," he said. "We've never had to deal with anything like this at a group level at an individual level, so your experience is totally understandable.'' 

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Dr. Kim Innes, a biopsychologist, epidemiologist, and professor at West Virginia University School of Public Health, agreed that my musical reaction to the pandemic was normal. “In general, during times of crisis, individuals are more likely to focus their energy on survival and maintenance, rather than growth and exploration, which require additional resources that may not be available when one is coping with difficult and challenging events,” she said. 

Now that America is opening up and life is much more social, our psychological needs are changing, too, and music can be a way to get those needs met. “Music can provide a range of benefits, from helping to increase community connections, enhance social cohesion, and foster a sense of belonging, to improving individual mental and physical health,” said Dr. Innes. She pointed to a growing body of evidence suggesting that musical interventions and music listening are associated with a number of positive health outcomes, including reducing stress, anxiety, and depression; improving sleep and emotional regulation; and lowering blood pressure and heart rate. The trouble is, you can't experience these benefits if you're not listening to music in the first place; as I started feeling better about the world and venturing outside my house again, though, maybe my appetite for music increased in kind, and the music I was listening to compounded that feeling of wellbeing.

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Dr. Tramo stressed the ties between music and social activity—something that for many of us was practically non-existent during quarantine. “Much of the evolutionary argument for why music is universal and how it evolved, has to do with group dynamics and social cohesion,” he said. He added that in addition to our identities as individuals, we tend to also think of ourselves in terms of different collective identities—say, being a writer for VICE's culture desk, or being a UCLA professor who also is a big fan of the Beatles.  

“I'm guessing since you’re a music journalist, you do go to a lot of concerts," he said. "Once that became impossible, a lot of your natural behavior suddenly changed, and you weren't really listening to music as much.” He added that he personally had the opposite experience: He spent much of the pandemic discovering and rediscovering music from the comfort of his home, something that was just as much a departure from his ordinary routine as not going to concerts was for me

As Dr. Tramo sees it, our relationship to music is inherently social: I listen to a lot of bands who live in the same city as I do, I see them play in local venues, and I usually run into a friend when I'm out at shows. But because that aspect of my life was totally absent in a socially isolated pandemic, I didn’t have as powerful of a relationship with music.

“Music is such a group experience,” said Dr. Tramo. “You saw early on in the pandemic, people in my ancestral homeland of Italy would every day sing, play guitar and accordion on their balconies during the worst of the lockdown. It was, ‘We’re all isolated but let's have this group activity with music.” Of course, the people of Italy weren't the only folks who rallied around music as a source of social cohesion and resilience. Here in the States, in independent music circles, fans and practitioners banded together via countless livestreams for charity, monthly Bandcamp Fridays, the industry banding around the National Independent Venue Association, and musicians organizing as the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers to fight for streaming pay. “We were hurt by the inability to be around music but at the same time, we've come to realize how important music is,” said Dr. Tramo.

Through their research, both Dr. Tramo and Dr. Innes have been trying to understand how music can be utilized to alleviate suffering. “What's lacking and what there is an impetus for is that we need to do more randomized controlled clinical trials incorporating music and other forms of entertainment to demonstrate more objectively, that actually, we need to integrate those music techniques into taking care of people who are suffering from pain or anxiety or depression,” said Dr. Tramo. “When people say there's no disease that you can treat with music, every time you get sick there's any combo of anxiety, pain, and sadness. If we can apply music, it would cover all the ramifications of any disease.”

Whether we fell into an obsessive, musical rabbit hole or stopped listening to music completely, our pandemic listening habits show us how closely music is linked to our need for social connection, and how important social connection and music are for our own mental health. “We're very dependent as humans on each other,” said Dr. Tramo. “We all felt that, whether music was bringing us together at a time when we couldn't be together or where we felt more isolated because we couldn't participate in group music activities. The mental health of the individual depends on the mental health of the group.”