New study suggests people turned to music to cope with psychological and emotional challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic

A study published in Psychology of Music suggests that people adjusted their music listening habits as a way of coping with the COVID-19 crisis. Israeli survey respondents reported that they increased their music listening during the initial lockdown and that they used music to help them cope with emotional challenges during the pandemic.

Psychology researchers have long documented the power of music to influence emotion. Anecdotes from people claiming that music has helped them navigate personal challenges and cope in times of distress are also evidence of music’s profound capacity to influence mood.

Scholars Naomi Ziv and Revital Hollander-Shabtai recognized the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to explore music listening habits in the context of a global crisis that led to widespread emotional distress. The study specifically focused on people’s impressions of how their music listening changed (or did not change) during the lockdown period when compared to regular times.

“The advent of the pandemic and first lockdown took everyone by surprise, it was an unprecedented situation in which people all over the world had to cope with fear and anxiety from the disease, as well as social isolation,” explained Ziv, a senior lecturer at the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon LeZion.

“We know from research conducted in music psychology that people intuitively use music in different ways to regulate their emotional states, to cope with stress, and to feel connected to other people. My co-author and I thought it would be interesting to see whether individuals felt a change in their use of music in real-time, during and in response to the crisis.”

The initial lockdown in Israel began in March 2020 and culminated in strict stay-at-home orders. In May 2020, following the gradual lift of Israel’s first lockdown, the researchers distributed a questionnaire among 200 Israeli adults. Respondents were questioned about changes in their music listening during the lockdown, including whether their music listening had increased and whether their emotional response to music had changed. They were also questioned about their reasons for listening to music during the confinement.

Just under half (48%) of respondents said they had increased their music listening during lockdown. When asked how their uses for listening to music had changed during the lockdown, more than half of respondents (51%) said their use of music to improve their mood had increased. Another 49% said their use of music to increase their energy had increased, 46% said their use of music to help them relax had increased, and 48% said their use of music as background noise for other activities had increased.

The findings of our study tend to show that indeed, for many people there was an increase in the amount of music listening and in the intensity of emotional reaction to music. And these, unsurprisingly, were related to the intensity of negative emotions experienced during the lockdown,” Ziv told PsyPost.

An open-ended question offered further evidence that music was being used for different reasons during lockdown. When participants were asked to reflect on whether music had helped them cope during the pandemic, one of the most common responses had to do with emotional regulation. For example, 75 people gave responses suggesting that music helped them on an emotional level — such as using music to lift their mood, summon hope, or relieve stress and anxiety.

Around one-third of respondents reported that they experienced stronger emotional reactions to music during the lockdown. Moreover, changes in negative emotions (e.g., sadness, loneliness, fear) were found to correlate with changes in reasons for listening to music — suggesting that respondents were using music to regulate their emotions. Changes in communal emotions (e.g., shared destiny, brotherhood) were correlated with changes in reasons for listening to music and changes in emotional reactions to music — pointing to the role of music in fostering group belonging and connectedness to others.

“The most interesting finding, in my opinion, is that the increases in uses of music were more strongly associated with emotions related to connectedness with others,” Ziv said. This seems to suggest that, at least under such extraordinary circumstances such as the lockdown, music may play a significant social role in creating a sense of group belonging, and possibly helped in coping with the situation.”

A limitation to the study is that it relied on retrospective reports from respondents and did not measure actual changes in music listening habits. In addition, “the small sample size made it impossible for us to examine more closely some potentially interesting relationships between variables such as whether the lockdown was spent alone or with other people, musical background, age, and specific aspects of changes in music uses,” Ziv said.

“For example, we could not test whether the amount and quality of changes in music use and in emotional reaction to music were different for people who spent the lockdown by themselves compared to people who spent it with family members. We also did not look at possible relationships between individual differences in personality and music use. For example, did extraverts use music more for social connectedness than introverts?”

Still, the findings reveal that people believe their music listening intensified during the lockdown, suggesting that music is sometimes used as a coping mechanism during times of crisis.

“In our study, we took a very general look at what we called ‘Corona clips’ – musical clips specifically created in reaction to the pandemic,” Ziv added. “I believe a closer look at these different types of clips (humorous, collaborative, live concerts) could provide a deeper insight into the specific ways in which music may aid different people in dealing with the difficulties experienced due to social isolation and stress.”

The study, “Music and COVID-19: Changes in uses and emotional reaction to music under stay-at-home restrictions”, was authored by Naomi Ziv and Revital Hollander-Shabtai.