Music and mental health: Our Virtual Tribe

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Almost a year into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s more important than ever to make sure we’re looking after our mental health.

We can’t necessarily do what we used to, to safeguard our wellbeing. In response we’ve seen people around the world develop new ways to continue to do the things they love despite living with the restrictions of the pandemic.

Raymond MacDonald is a saxophonist, composer, psychologist and Professor of Music Psychology and Improvisation in The Reid School of Music at Edinburgh College of Art. He’s not the only one who has turned to music as a way to safeguard his mental health.

He explains why music has been so powerful at maintaining our mental wellbeing over the course of the pandemic: “Music has been used in numerous ways to combat the ravages of the pandemic. The physical distancing rules put in place around the world have necessitated enduring isolation in different forms and we have seen music used in many different ways to help ameliorate the negative effects of these measures.

“I don’t just mean online sessions – Italians sang operatic arias from their balconies and reached out to connect with their neighbours, Glaswegian DJs entertained their community with impromptu al fresco sets, and online mass community choirs brought people together to sing.”

Using music to reach out and stay connected to his friends, family and colleagues, led Raymond to undertake a fascinating research project, which has led to some uplifting results.

Raymond’s work looks at the psychology of music, specifically improvisation. He explains further: “My research focuses on issues relating to improvisation, musical communication, music health and wellbeing, music education and identity.

“Essentially I study the processes and outcomes of music participation and music listening and I have a particular interest in collaboration. My work is informed by a view of improvisation as a social, collaborative and uniquely creative process that provides opportunities to develop new ways of working musically.”

His recent study with Our Virtual Tribe has looked at the effect of music improvisation on things like isolation and building community which all contribute to mental health. But it didn’t start out as a research project. Raymond explains more: “At the start of lockdown it was clear that we would not be able to meet and play music together for sometime – didn’t realise quite how long that would be ­– and we, The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, decided to try and meet online and play music together.

“To begin with it was just a means of staying connected, meeting weekly and maintaining our community but very quickly we began to find new ways to be creative and collaborate using the specific features of the online environment.

“The meetings quickly became musically and conceptually ground-breaking as well as socially important. The creative process of improvising over Zoom became exhilarating in itself – not just a pale imitation of real-life improvising. As we explored our new stage, complete with virtual backgrounds, domesticity and dodgy wifi, new ways of working, listening, seeing, hearing and being together started to emerge.”

So how did online video conferencing enhance the experience of making music? Raymond goes into more detail: “The virtual nature of the meetings meant we could invite friends from around the world to join, and over the course of the pandemic, more than 80 musicians from 14 countries spanning all 5 continents, all experiencing their own type of lockdown, joined our sessions.

“The idiosyncrasies of Zoom, the latencies, the glitches, the thinning of concurrent sounds, the flattening of the curve of our music, did not hamper our interactions. Quite the opposite; since we were using improvisation as our means of communication, all these features became emergent aspects of the music. We were able to learn from them and to create new improvised audio-visual compositions.

“The screen became a two-dimensional stage, flattening the normal horseshoe curve of our regular setup. We were simultaneously audience and performers, watching ourselves play, each occupying the same sized rectangle on the screen, liberated in many ways from some of the normal expectancies of our in-person music making. We marked the passing of close friends, musical legends, with improvised requiems and attempted to engage with geopolitical upheavals while appreciating our privileged position, connecting over the internet.”

Unsurprisingly, there were more benefits to these sessions than Raymond originally suspected. Instead of being a poor imitation of the real thing, these sessions became important to all members of the group. Raymond elaborates on what he found: “Most importantly, the sessions were not only sustaining our community, they were enhancing it. Talking, laughing and creating together became an important artistic process, providing not just social sustenance but creative and conceptual breakthroughs about how to collaborate in these challenging times.

“Participants reported enhanced mood and mental health, reduced feelings of isolation, and strong feelings of being connected with their community. They also reported making significant artistic development in their practice.”

These findings mirrored what Raymond had found in his own experience of the pandemic restrictions: “I can’t begin to imagine what lockdown would have been like without my ‘virtual tribe’. I have seen my online musician friends twice a week for nearly a year – we have produced new compositions and new films together.

“In terms of my own mental health the effects have been substantial – the sessions are usually invigorating and even if I have had a long day of teaching and meetings and I’m feeling a bit tired before the sessions I am usually bouncing about my room singing, grabbing percussion instruments and playing the saxophone very quickly.

“Being able to have a regular forum to develop collaborative creative ideas is thrilling, life affirming and joyous and a privilege!”

A Music student carries her guitar.

Raymond shares a bit more how other aspects of music have helped and inspired him through lockdown: “It’s hard to really understate the importance of music in my life – although I don’t have any musical qualifications, since the age of 16 music has been a defining feature of life.

“Everyday involves playing, talking, writing and thinking about music in some shape or form. So whether that is practising my saxophone or giving a lecture on musical identities or writing a book chapter or being involved in discussion with a sceptical friend about the quality of ‘unlistenable squeak honk improvised music’ or singing Beatles songs with my daughter, music isn’t just the soundtrack to my life, it is my life. I’m really lucky to also be able to make a living doing what I love everyday.”

So why is it that listening and making music can have such a huge effect on our mental health? Raymond shares his thoughts: “Music’s unique and universal ability to engage and connect socially and emotionally in enjoyable ways lie at the heart of why music is implicated in health related interventions. It combines being a pleasurable art form with being a catalyst for profound beneficial effects.

“It is universally accessible, regardless of age, illness or social disadvantage. The meaning conveyed in every piece of music is ambiguous. This invites listeners and performers to engage with music via their own listening and social experiences, resultantly, constructing their own meanings.

“Music has a fundamental quality to help us connect with others, to satisfy and nourish our need for companionship.”

Raymond worked with Professor Tia De Nora at the University of Exeter, Robert Burke at Monash University in Melbourne, Ross Birrell at Glasgow School of Art and Maria Sappho, a PhD student at the University of Huddersfield. You can read the study on the Frontiers website.