Music and Clapping as Comfort During Social Crisis

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Batya Greenman

As I glance back at the past few months — while wearing my protective mask and keeping my social distance and being paranoid every time I (or somebody else) coughed, and letting my natural hair color grow out – white!… —  if I can think of one thing that pleasured me, comforted me, distracted and excited me, it was music. Music always did that for me, but during this time there was an added benefit – perhaps it is that when we sing with other voices, or just listening to and watching others in some configuration of musical creativity, even when not in the same physical place, we do not feel alone.

In our present crisis, ways of being together, even when far apart, have increased through the various channels offered by modern technology. This has also played a role in the coordination of some of the most powerful moments, which are experienced without modern technology, like clapping or singing simultaneously from balconies during the coronavirus crises.

Like fields of wildflowers in the spring, the Internet has blossomed with an abundance of videos of people creating music in their homes, on balconies, in underground metro stations, coordinated with other musicians or in the framework of their family. Here is an example of a balcony saxophone performance of the famous song, “Bella Ciao,” in Italy. It is astounding to observe how many have viewed it: 10,321,081 (as of July 16, 2020)!

I found “A Boléro”, played by the NY Philharmonic musicians as a tribute to healthcare workers, to be particularly good.  It is also interesting to peruse the comments of people who have listened to this piece and similar ones, on YouTube. Here are a few examples: “This has to be the most beautiful and uplifting thing to have come out of this horrible disease that is wreaking havoc on our world. I was in tears…” and “thank you so much! I cried tears of pain and relief at the same time. You made me realize that music will help us through this. I will break the state of paralysis I was in for weeks now, pick up my viola who lay dormant in her case for years and play some Bach. Love from Germany!” 

Music’s Powerful Role in Crisis

I looked at countless YouTube videos, by picking some of those musical wildflowers in the fields. I began realizing the impact that music had on me personally as I embarked on the journey of isolation once coronavirus had us housebound. The response of the audiences to each video is evidence to the significant and powerful role music plays during this period of coronavirus isolation. People have been entertained, distracted and amused. Creativity in both adults and children alike has flourished. Those creating, participating, and listening have all derived benefits, whether they participated from a balcony, outside a retirement home, or whether it was listening to some artist – known or otherwise – singing an old familiar song or a song adapted to the present situation. In fact, a new genre, the Broadway show tune parody, has been born. One example is: “I Dreamed a Dream (Les Misérables parody). Another example is this interesting version of “Do-Re-Me from The Sound of Music.

I participated in an international online event arranged by the Israeli social music initiative, Koolulam. I excitedly learned my part of a three-part song and recorded myself together with all of the approximately 5,000 participants from 66 different countries, each from their own homes. It resulted in a heart-warming and powerful video, which has been viewed by thousands. I still get excited each time I watch it: “Fix You.

Koolulam

Photo credit: Koolulam

Having participated in this choir-type event, it became even more enjoyable to see other virtual choirs. Take a few minutes to listen to these – you may feel uplifted:

I get teary-eyed or goose bumps while watching some of my favourite musicians from the 60’s and 70’s performing popular songs of yesteryear. Sometimes their lyrics contain a few words of comfort and well-wishing, or praise for health care workers and others risking their lives to make our lives better:

Music, individuals making it, and particularly more than one individual making the music, might have a more significant social benefit for our well-being during times of stress than we could have imagined. Catherine Loveday’s article, “Coronavirus: Why clapping for carers feels so strangely uplifting,” and “Staying alive! How music has fought pandemics for 2,700 years” by Ed Prideaux, both address this point. 

Health Benefits

Humans are social animals, so contrary to our instincts to gather together and work in groups, isolation for many, proved to be a challenge. In the past few months, we have gone against these instincts, keeping apart to remain healthy. Events of “being together,” even if each person is on his own balcony, give us the benefit of togetherness and feeling part of something bigger than ourselves.  The same goes for group clapping, or noise making with any object which makes a sound. In Loveday’s article there is a video in which we see people singing together, each from his or her own balcony in Italy. A second video in the article records people from around London, each in isolation, clapping simultaneously in support of health care workers. 

In Loveday’s opinion, music is beneficial to health. Group musical performances, for example choirs, bring about social, mental, and physical well-being. Isn’t it interesting that we were able to figure out how to carry on performing and listening to live music in groups even when we were all stuck at home? In some cases, pots and pans, hand clapping, and sounds was the mode of music and no one had to be a musician to participate.

Prideaux’s article has a more historical perspective on music during times of stress. He refers to different pandemic events in history where music played an important role in fighting fear. During the plague of 1576, there were tens of thousands of deaths in the north of Italy. In Milan, they could not attend religious events. Instead, there was a community event in which participants attended by opening their windows and standing on their balconies, from where they all joined in harmonious singing. Dr. Niccolò Massa wrote in his 1540 plague treatise: “It is especially advantageous to listen to songs and lovely instrumental music, and to play now and then, and to sing with a quiet voice….”  He envisions Milan appearing as the heavenly Jerusalem. Prideaux mentions that music was used as a tool for healing and bonding also in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Babylon. Much is written on the subject in the book, The Healing Forces of Music: History, Theory and Practice, by Dr. Randall McClellan.

It seems that liturgical music had a much stronger influence in medieval times than now when religion was strong social glue. In today’s music, religious affiliation is less relevant. Music has the ability to transcend and touches many souls. “Music is the universal language of mankind”, wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Whatever music we use to restore balance and reduce our stress, it seems that its role has repeated itself in history. Even in the Bible, 1 Samuel 16: 23, David’s music had a calming effect on Saul when he was tormented.  “Whenever God’s spirit came to Saul, David took the lyre and strummed a tune. Saul got relief from his terror and felt better, and the evil spirit left him.”

 In Prideaux’s conclusions, he states that in Renaissance times as well as in the present, music has proven to be a true antidote to fear and can significantly reduce anxiety. It was a necessity then, and now – music is a gift that is more valuable than ever.

Being Thankful, Together

Loveday’s article analyzes the reason why a simple communal act, such as clapping together, for people to thank others for their significant contribution, has such a significant impact on so many people – from children to the aged. Prideaux, a freelance journalist who has written numerous articles on different aspects of music and musicians, states that music was, and still is used to bring communities together on a truly impressive scale. There has been a huge positive response to videos of people singing from their balconies and outside retirement homes. Loveday claims that collective events, whether sport or music, enhances our sense of shared social identity, and this encourages people to support and care for each other.

Both Loveday and Prideaux point out how uplifting it is to give praise to those who are willing to put themselves in danger while taking care of others. When Loveday discusses the health benefits of collective musical performances, such as choir singing and rhythmic music making, she mentions that neuroscientists have found a correlation between performing together and synchronized brain activity.  It is not clear if this would be the case if the persons were not in the same room. This might be an interesting phenomenon to research, as well as whether this creates a feeling of well-being. She sums up her thesis by referring to the physical sound of people cheering as “the auditory equivalent of a group hug.”

In all of the YouTube videos listed earlier (and there are countless more of this nature), we see aspects mentioned in Loveday’s and Prideaux’s articles regarding the contribution of music:  comfort, easing anxiety, creating a feeling of togetherness, and giving praise to those who most deserve it during this time. Participants and audience alike derive the benefits.

I conclude with a ukulele and vocal version of one of my favorite songs, from the Broadway show, Mama Mia, using the same words but shedding a different meaning on the song for this period of isolation, and it also expresses my own appreciation for music:

Thank You for the MusicUkulele Lockdown. 

References

Chiu, Remi, “Music under Quarantine: Two Views from Milan, 1576 and 2020,” Underscore, April 6, 2020. https://www.areditions.com/news/music-under-quarantine/

Loveday, Catherine. “Coronavirus: why clapping for carers feels so strangely uplifting,” The Conversation, April 1, 2020. https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-why-clapping-for-carers-feels-so-strangely-uplifting-135092

McClellan, Randall. The Healing Forces of Music: History, Theory and Practice. iUniverse. 2000.https://books.google.co.il/books/about/The_Healing_Forces_of_Music.html?id=-nfV4QaL9VIC&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false 

Prideaux, Ed. “Stayin’ alive! How music has fought pandemics for 2,700 years,” The Guardian, April 6, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/apr/06/stayin-alive-how-music-fought-pandemics-2700-years-coronavirus

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