"Music might be systemically relevant"

Musicians and music lovers are hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, music needs community, but social distancing measures prevent rehearsals and concerts, cutting musicians off from their audience. In many places, musicians are now coming up with creative ways to close this gap, especially via the Internet. Music thus creates new, virtual communities, which is an exciting phenomenon for musicology. To study this further, Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, has launched an survey together with colleagues from five other European countries. In this interview, she talks about the goals and the idea behind it.

Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann heads the Music Department at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt am Main.

Prof. Wald-Fuhrmann, what inspired you to launch the online survey "Music in the time of corona"?

I first became interested in the subject when I heard media reports about quarantined people in Italy singing together on their balconies in the evening. My husband then sent me a video of the Bach chorale "Befiehl du deine Wege", which Malaysian musicians had recorded under the motto "Through music we are connected" – which I thought was very moving. Also, I received countless “corona songs” through a mailing list for music ethnologists. Corona songs are mostly cover songs of popular songs whose lyrics have been changed in response to the COVID19 crisis, which currently circulate on social media with hashtags like #coronasongs. At that point at the latest, I thought we should definitely start a research project about this.

What are you and your team interested in finding out with the survey?

We generally know that music can have a very strong effect on people. For example, we use music to influence our own feelings, or to make situations more pleasant. Some people listen to fast, rhythmic music in the morning to wake up, and teenagers often enhance their current mood with the appropriate music. Since we are currently limited in our contacts, the question arises whether and how this influence through music is also taking place now. To put it succinctly: To what extent can listening to music or participating in making music help people to better cope with feelings such as anxiety, loneliness, stress, or dejection triggered by the pandemic and the lockdown?

What questions do you ask the study participants to find out exactly this?

For example, we want to find out, which music formats are used and to what extent corona-specific music formats are (re)discovered - for example, the living room concerts that are streamed live on social media. At the same time, we will investigate whether music is also used as a substitute for direct social contacts. We are also interested in the comparison between listening to music and making music: do both have the same effects? Are the motivations of people for listening to or making music the same or are there different reasons? In order to record these effects directly, the study will run for as long as the lockdown restrictions last in the six European countries where the survey is conducted.

A key question of your study is "Has your musical behaviour changed since the introduction of the COVID19 measures?" What is your personal answer to this question?

In some ways, yes. Above all, I have more time for a focused, immersed listening experience, simply because my daily routine is less stressful and I still have enough mental energy in the evenings. After all, as a musicologist, I don’t spend that much time listening to music just for relaxation. However, I am in the privileged situation of not being negatively affected by the crisis, neither professionally nor privately, so I don't need music as a tool - which is a supposition in our study.

If the study shows that music can help us to cope with feelings of fear and loneliness, how could these results be used?

For one thing, it could show that perhaps culture in general and music in particular, can also be systemically relevant. This systemic relevance could make it more important why so many freelance musicians are currently worrying about their livelihoods. On the other hand, the results could be used to develop suggestions for similar situations in the future.

For example?

Firstly, we need to have more accurate information on three things: which people are positively affected by which musical behaviour and under which circumstances? In a second step, relatively concrete recommendations could be made, such as “Listen to more music, specifically look for music that helps you against negative feelings such as loneliness”. Or: “Start singing, for example, with others in online choir”. Listening to music and singing is easy and virtually free, and yet both these activities could have significant stabilizing effects.

Interview Annika Essmann

Further links

The online channel detektor.fm has compiled living room concerts of various musicians.

Under "MPhil Dahoam", the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra offers a series of short online videos in which orchestra members report from their "home office".

The Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg merges it digital programme under the title "Elphi at Home" and provides new streams and live actions every day.

The choir platform "Singing in Munich"  provides information for those who love singing.

 Anyone who enjoys singing can participate in the Online Choir with voice recordings.   

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