In a time when many are confronting both increased solitude and increased anxiety, familiar music provides reassurance because it reminds us who we are as people. Whether it is a hit we danced to with our teenage friends, or a haunting orchestral piece our grandmother played, music lights up memories of our past selves.
Music allows us to create an emotional narrative between the past and present when we struggle to articulate such a narrative in words. Its familiarity comforts us when the future seems unclear.
Music helps to reconnect us to our identities. It also helps us, as all the arts do, to pursue an otherwise inexpressible search for meaning. In so doing, it helps bolster our resilience in the face of difficulty.
People have used music to such philosophical and psychological ends even in times and places where one would think music would be the last thing on peoples’ minds.
In one of the most extreme among many examples, survivors of Nazi concentration camps report having sung familiar songs to reinforce their sense of self and their religious identity, when both were gravely threatened.
Civil war survival
My current research considers music’s use for such purposes during the 1980s by refugees from the civil war in El Salvador. Subsistence farmers (campesinos/campesinas), who fled government oppression for refugee camps in Honduras, have told me they considered music essential to their psychological survival.
Salvadoran musicians performing at Colomoncagua refugee camp, Honduras, 1985, during a humanitarian visit by Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn.(Photo courtesy of Meyer Brownstone/Oxfam Canada.)
In a sometimes-dangerous new land, away from their war-stricken home, campesinos and campesinas performed, listened and danced to old and new folk songs to help sustain a connection to their pre-war identities in the nation they had left behind. Traditional folk songs were sometimes given new words to document the refugees’ persecution.
Songs thus provided both a means to maintain identity and an emotional narrative for traumatic events that were hard to describe in words. This helped the refugees manage the challenges of the present and face an uncertain future.
In 2019, I helped conduct research for a short documentary about one leading refugee singer-songwriter in El Salvador, Norberto Amaya. Amaya’s story shows how Salvadoran musicians harnessed music to help their refugee compatriots manage the psychological challenges of their situation. The film was a collaboration between Western University and Juan Bello of Triana Media, with support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research.
The songs of El Salvador’s civil war refugees make clear that music, whether old or new, serves a vital function for humans facing hardship, both on personal and cultural levels.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit some communities much harder than others, and demonstrated how existing inequalities are thrown into even greater relief in times of crisis. Yet in all affected communities, the pandemic has the capacity to trigger anxious feelings about earlier traumas and current separations.
Listening to music we know well reminds us of the friends and family that have made us who we are. In our current situation, different as it is from that faced by Salvadoran civil war refugees, familiar music is similarly permitting reconnection both to personal identity and to a much larger community of family, friends and strangers who also love these familiar songs. This helps us better manage our isolation and anxiety.
This apparent human instinct to seek out mechanisms that enable cultural reconnection is a smart one. Trauma scholars believe that, for some people, familiar cultural practices may actually be more effective than psychiatric treatment in helping people deal with potentially traumatic events.