Is Pandemic Brain Changing Your Taste in Music? You're Not Alone

Too much Grateful Dead? The music you loved in high school? We asked a Music Therapist why our listening habits have been so weird.
Chicago, US
illustrated by Hunter French
Listening Habits 2020
Hunter French

When the March stay-at-home orders were issued in my home state of Illinois, I hoped to use the extra time in my apartment to discover new music, fill in blind spots, and do deep dives on iconic artists. I thought maybe I'd finally take the time to understand why so many of my friends like Phish or tune into more NTS Radio DJ sets. While my inability to tackle the former probably has nothing to do with the pandemic, none of those goals panned out. Aside from checking out new releases for work, I've spent my free time either watching movies or staring off into space. Since March, what I listen to has been wildly inconsistent—last week I was just stuck on listening to Bill Evans' jazz catalog and the new Fleet Foxes LP but today I haven't had the desire to anything at all—and as it turns out, I'm not alone. 


After I informally polled my Twitter timeline asking if their listening habits have changed since March, I got hundreds of responses. Some had discovered metal and hardcore; others dove into the comforting sounds of ambient, jazz, and classical; a few said they're only listening to songs they loved as a teenager, and some claim they're barely listening to any new music at all. Take TJ Kliebhan, who said, "I used to be a rock/metal dude and now I only listen to jazz and ambient" or Jessica Collins, who said, "Now, I have to play music nonstop. I think I’m using it as a way to drown out my thoughts or to prevent my brain from wandering down a dark rabbit hole." Over a dozen people declared they've finally become obsessed with the Grateful Dead. Former Noisey metal editor Kim Kelly said she's stopped listening to metal entirely and is only listening to bluegrass and Bruce Springsteen. Though respondents' answers varied wildly from genre, moods, and frequency, everyone said they'd experienced some sort of upheaval in their relationship to music this year. 

This isn't an abnormal experience, at least according to Jessica Pouranfar, music therapist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital and Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital. "The way we listen to music is extremely psychological and physiological," said Pouranfar. "Music activates so many areas of the brain at the same time, in both hemispheres that involve emotion, memory, language, and motor. It activates the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps you feel pleasure. Music can decrease your cortisol levels, the hormone in charge of stress." While it can be cathartic, Pouranfar notes that music has the potential to cause harm if what they're listening to triggers a bad or traumatic memory. 


These physiological responses are the center of Pouranfar's work in hospitals as a music therapist treating patients with a variety of symptoms from stress, anxiety, physical pain, sleep deprivation, to Alzheimer's and other ailments through live music interventions and guided relaxation. "Music therapy is an evidence-based practice and I'm not there to provide entertainment," said Pouranfar. "You shouldn't mix up the term music therapy with using music therapeutically, which is a completely different thing. I hear a lot of people say 'Music is my therapy,' which is great, but that's not music therapy with a board-certified therapist." 

Still, Pouranfar said that the way people listen to music and the emotional and physical response they experience when listening to music is important. "I do know that the speed and the volume of music and certain genres create various physiological responses in humans where our heart rate and respiration rate can change," said Pouranfar. 

Writer and musician Keegan Bradford wrote to me that, "Lockdown has me running again because I’m going crazy sitting in my apartment, and that has me listening to way more hardcore, just big mushy loud nonsense that I never listen to around the house." If you're having experiences like Bradford's, there's a reason. "Music goes hand in hand with exercise, and we know that exercise releases endorphins and so does music," said Pouranfar. 


While listeners gravitating to loud, aggressive, and fast-paced music during the pandemic was a common response to my inquiry, answers from people who instead went to ambient, jazz, and soothing instrumental music were just as popular. "It's important to listen to music that matches our state of being in tempo, in rhythm, in frequency, in volume, and in lyrics," said Pouranfar. "Sometimes people who are anxious listen to intentionally calming music but it just makes them more anxious. It's because the music doesn't match where they are emotionally right now." Pouranfar said the sweet spot is finding music that directly mirrors your mood and body and then gradually changing what you listen to in order to improve your emotional and physical state. 

The way we listen to music is personal as well as mood-and-activity-based. Recent data from Spotify shows that work-from-home themed playlists grew 1,400 percent since March and baking-themed playlists have risen 120 percent. Music provides entertainment at work and on commutes. "Since the pandemic started, my bookstore job has turned into basically a fulfillment center job, said Twitter user Sam Faulkner. "I can wear headphones because I'm mainly processing orders and taping up packages all day. For the first time in my life, I have learned to enjoy and appreciate metal (especially thrash) for keeping momentum on especially tedious days."


We soundtrack our lives and moods and what we're doing but I still had no idea why I have been listening to so much less music. Meredith Johnston, an Oakland-based musician who performs as Warm Human, felt the same way. "I stopped listening to music altogether and only listen to podcasts," she said. "I think because music makes me too emotional while i’m trying to shove all my feelings down every minute and podcasts make me feel like people are around me talking about inane stuff." 

Pouranfar reminded me that while music can trigger bad memories or memories that are good but painful to remember right now. "If you're sad you can't go to concerts and festivals right now because of COVID, you might not listen to your favorite bands because it only makes you feel bad," said Pouranfar. "There's a little bit of a block for some people and it's important to recognize it but what are you going to do about it? Will it be helpful for you to take a break from music or will it be beneficial to dive back in?" 

While my own listening habits have been inconsistent for months, I'm slightly jealous of people who are able to use this time to discover new genres, new artists, and new sounds and those who are able to just go back to their nostalgic favorites from childhood. For the latter, Pouranfar said, these memories beloved songs conjure are positive and cathartic experiences. "Music activates the temporal lobe, which is in charge of memory, language, and hearing," she said. "In Alzheimer's patients, you can activate that part of their brain by using music that they used to listen to where they're present, smiling, and singing along. Nostalgia is so powerful." 

The way we listen in 2020 is in some respects a reflection of how we're coping with such a turbulent year. Are reaching for comfort food we know we already like? Are we using this time to expand our horizons? Be calmed by soothing instrumentals or releasing pent up anxiety with aggressive music? Whatever it is it's a totally valid response to a difficult time. "We're wanting to feel good because we deserve to feel good," said Pouranfar. "Even though all these terrible things are happening in the world with COVID-19, social injustices, and the election, we still have that innate feeling of wanting to be happy and how we're approaching music reflects that."