Is Pandemic Brain Changing Your Taste in Music?

collage by hunter French

BY Josh Terry

When I asked my Twitter timeline if their listening habits had changed since March, I got hundreds of responses. Though it 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 ... dopamine, which helps you feel pleasure. Music can decrease your cortisol levels, the hormone in charge of stress.”

-Jessica Pouranfar, music therapist

These physiological responses are the center of Pouranfar's work 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.

“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.”

-Jessica Pouranfar, music therapist

"It's important to listen to music that matches our state of being in tempo, in rhythm, in frequency, in volume, and in lyrics," Pouranfar said. The sweet spot is finding music that directly mirrors your mood and body and gradually changing it to improve your overall 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 March, what I listen to has been wildly inconsistent. We soundtrack our lives but I still had no idea why I have been listening to so much less music. Pouranfar reminded me that music can trigger 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.”

-Jessica Pouranfar, music therapist

I'm slightly jealous of people who are able to use this time to discover new sounds and those who are able to just go back to their nostalgic favorites from childhood. For the latter, Pouranfar said, these memories conjure positive and cathartic experiences.

“Music activates the temporal lobe, which is in charge of memory, language, and hearing. 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.”

-Jessica Pouranfar, music therapist

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? 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. 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.”

-Jessica Pouranfar, music therapist

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