Music: refresher of spirits

The title page of the first edition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations describes the work as music “for the refreshment of their spirits”. During this time of pandemic, people have turned to music not just to refresh but also to provide distraction, comfort and a sense of connection.

Largely confined to our homes and immediate vicinity during lockdown, we have missed the social support of family and friends, and the freedom to enjoy our everyday lives as normal. People turn to music in times of difficulty, often choosing music which is familiar and nostalgic which creates a sense of stability in uncertain times. Listening to music we know well reminds us of the life experiences that have shaped us.

In a time of enforced solitude and increased anxiety, familiar music also offers comfort and reassurance, reminding us of who we are as people. It might be a favourite pop song from our teenage years or a memorable orchestral work we enjoyed at a concert; music creates an emotional narrative at a time when we may find it difficult to articulate the current narrative. It can help us build resilience, enables us to preserve an important sense of our identity, and acts as an aide memoire of previous events – a concert perhaps – enjoyed in less stressful, pre-pandemic times. It also allows us to participate in something larger than ourselves, even while we live apart, and as such can feel positive and life-affirming. This is nothing new of course: throughout history, people have turned to music to provide comfort and a place of retreat or escapism.

Classical music in particular has long been regarded as “relaxing”: Haydn wanted his music to “give rest to the careworn” and the internet is full of playlists designed to help us “chill out”. Calm, soothing and (usually) slow music has been proven to alleviate stress, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and ease depression. Tense music is not a good companion during tense times, and it is was a deliberate piece of programming on the part of BBC Radio Three to re-broadcast Max Richter’s intentionally soporific ‘Sleep’ – an 8-hour post-minimalist lullaby – a few weeks into the UK’s lockdown.

In addition to listening, people are also making music, and despite the concert and opera venues being closed, there has been a remarkable amount of music available online – from high-quality livestreams to ad hoc concerts in musicians’ homes, and much more besides. Music connects people – from audiences at a concert engaged in the collective act of listening to musicians playing together in ensemble – and the loss of these important connections due to lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings has meant that people are finding creative ways to continue to interact through music. From singing on balconies or giving impromptu performances from their gardens for neighbours to more sophisticated multi-performer concerts via Zoom, people will always find ways to make and engage with music as a means to refresh, inspire, comfort and support.

Postcript: During lockdown, I felt the loss of live classical music very keenly and as a consequence found it painful to engage with the artform as a listener. Instead, I found myself enjoying my son’s music choices, playlists he created to accompany all the cooking we did together (he’s a professional chef) when he lived with us during lockdown. Formerly a fan of hip hop, I found his music choices had shifted in the two years since he moved into his own home: when The Stranglers’ Golden Brown came up on one of his playlists, I felt a great rush of memory of being a teenager again, and I recalled how mesmerized I had been (and still am) by the harpsichord accompaniment to this song. Now that my son is back in London and has resumed his career, his playlists on Spotify remind me of the time we spent together during lockdown – cooking, foraging, discussing politics, and teaching him to drive.