OPINION: The power of positive music in these tough times

Sir Elton John in concert at Holkham Hall.
COPY:Ian Clarke/Chris Hill

Feelgood artists like Sir Elton John are still big sellers in the UK vinyl charts - Credit: IAN BURT

Stuart Hobday celebrates the role music has played in keeping us going.

I’ve been helping with a mental health project called Music On My Mind, which post-Covid, aims to set up record clubs: meetings of music enthusiasts where they can discuss their favourite records from the past.

As part of the project build up this week I interviewed music psychologist Victoria Williamson for a podcast and we discussed how music nostalgia had become a big part of lockdown coping over the last year.

Victoria explained how music is connected with the pleasure pathways in our brains and recognising music releases dopamine, a hormone that generates positive emotion in the brain.

That at times of heightened emotion we reach for music that reminds us of evocative past times.

This is often from our teenage years because the emotional intensity of being a teenager creates evocative memories which we carry with us. Similarly music can transport us back to family events or relationships from different eras of our life.

Music is a major part and stimulant of strong, shared, memories. It’s no accident that music is so important at christenings, weddings and funerals, it reflects the emotion generated in our brains.

Under Covid, sales of the classic pop music of the last 50 years have been surging with Queen, Elton John and Fleetwood Mac appearing in the top 10 list of best-selling albums for 2020.

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Online musical get togethers such as Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Kitchen Disco and Tim Burgess’ Listening Party have developed huge followings.

Sales of vinyl albums continue to rise as people value the physical object that an album with a great cover represents. The basis of record clubs is that a reassuring social get together of musical like minds can have powerful positive psychological effects.

However Victoria’s research also shows how music is unique for each and every one of us partly because the memories we have are unique to us and our interpretation of past events will be our own.

We might have shared experiences which are great to discuss but there will also be our own take on the music of the past. This might sound obvious but it runs counter to the idea that there is good music or bad music – it really is in the ear of the beholder.

It’s also counter to the idea that some music is ‘cool’ and some is not.

This is a powerful notion in pop and rock music and I’ve always hated it. Probably because I was never in the ‘cool’ crowd!

Because of this I’m not really a nostalgic person for music. I love listening to music but I don’t yearn for the good old days of Top of the Pops or the intense movements of music which dominated the 70s, 80s and 90s.

I remember it being incredibly tribal with punks, rockers, mods, 2 Tone, new romantics then later grunge, rave Britpop, always a pressure to join a cool gang.

Today we have all the great music from the past at our fingertips without the social pressure.

The In Crowd is not so powerful, we can easily curate our own listening. There’s also less power to the taste makers be they record companies, radio DJs, music journalists, critics, pop stars.

The modern joy is exploring new music and finding original sounds from all over the world through the internet. A music service such as Bandcamp has been thriving as it aims to connect musicians and listeners in all types of music.

In terms of wellbeing there is evidence that finding the time to really listen to music that soothes your particular brain can have benefits, so try to build time into your busy schedule for yourself.

There is also a growing body of evidence that making music of any sort has a range of health benefits at all ages.

Anybody that sings in a choir will tell you that it’s good for their physical and mental health as is getting together with any group to generate some collective sounds. Another lockdown phenomenon has been people learning instruments and going forward, this could be a boom time for community music groups of all types as people take the chance to show their new skills.

Imagine what the last 18 months would have been like without music.

And yet the authorities view music as a just a fun add on to our lives and ‘enrichment’ in the education of young people. In 2011 the Henley Review into music education recommended that all young people participate in some form of music making but governments have gradually backtracked from this commitment so that music teaching is once again under threat in schools with participation falling and music getting squeezed out of the curriculum, poorer students unable to afford instruments, music seen as a luxury.

A lesson of the difficult Covid era is that music is sustaining, central to our lives, helps with positive memories, and there are many and various ways in which it can have positive mental health benefits.

The Music On My Mind Podcast can be heard at www.reelconnections.co.uk

Stuart Hobday was the founder of Norwich Science Festival, is a PHD student in philosophy of science at UEA and author of Encounters with Harriet Martineau.