Music unites people in the face of disaster and death, which is exactly what has been happening as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.
In India, where the number of confirmed cases is growing at an alarming rate, we have been told to work from home, practice social distancing, and quarantine ourselves as a precaution.
While this will slow the spread of the virus, it also means isolation and loneliness in a time of extreme stress, uncertainty and fear.
In countries like Italy, the coronavirus disease COVID-19 has infected and killed thousands of people. The country has been confined indoors in order to battle the spread of the virus. But when the streets are deserted, when schools and workplaces are closed, when people cannot go out to restaurants and movie theatres, what do they do?
As the Italians have shown us: they make music from wherever they are.
Over the past few weeks, social media has been flooded with videos of quarantined Italians singing their hearts away, serenading neighbours from balconies and windows, and holding impromptu collaborative concerts featuring an impressive array of instruments. Reports tell us that Italy’s medical infrastructure is crumbling, that the death toll is in the thousands, and the whole country is now under lockdown with no end in sight – but you wouldn’t know this watching videos of Italians singing their hearts out.
It seems like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took inspiration from these videos as well. In his first address to the country regarding the pandemic, he suggested that people take to their balconies at 5 pm on March 22 and clap their hands, ring bells, and use plates and utensils to make noise to salute and encourage doctors and service workers.
Thus, in response to the prime minister’s appeal to the nation, Indian followed suit on Sunday – albeit at a louder decibel level.
Unfortunately, many across the country ignored other instructions issued by the prime minister – such as social distancing – when they took to the streets and rubbed shoulders with one another to clap and cheer.
‘जनता कर्फ्यू’ की सफलता का जश्न मनाने सड़कों पर उतरे सैकड़ों लोग 👏👏
— K (@Kumar_Ke5hav) March 22, 2020
But what is it about the worst of times that makes us turn to art, especially music? The answer lies in part in the ability of music to envelop us in joy and comfort. There is a beautiful quote attributed to St. Augustine on the power of singing:
“He who sings, prays twice.”
When we sing, the world pauses, and our worries seem to melt away. And when we watch people in desperate situations sing songs despite their struggles, it gives us hope. The kind of community singing and collective music being created by self-quarantined people over the past few days does not require great talent or skill, just willingness and participation. It is a collective push against the despair of prolonged isolation. It embodies the distinctly human impulse to turn pain into something beautiful, and share that beauty with others.
The extraordinary calming and comforting effect that music has on the human mind is well documented. Now, with technology to help us, we can make and share music with virtually anyone, and bring communities together in celebration and joy.
Entertainment venues were among the first of public spaces to be closed in order to slow the spread of the virus. But the music hasn’t died, only shifted venue. In a heart-warming trend which is gaining popularity in the music industry, artists and musicians have turned their living rooms into concert halls and auditoriums. Singers like Chris Martin of Coldplay, John Legend, Miley Cyrus, Kieth Urban and Charlie Puth have been performing stripped-down versions of their own hits and classic songs in their homes and live-streaming their performances on social media for their fans around the world.
This #TogetherAtHome series marks a new trend in the times of coronavirus.
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Social distancing is important, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. I did a little at-home performance to help lift your spirits. @Miguel, @CharliePuth – you want next? Learn more about how you can take action to help slow the spread of coronavirus with our partners at @WHO and @GlblCtzn globalcitizen.org/coronavirus #TogetherAtHome
So many artists have shared or scheduled such home concerts now that fans and music sites have had to compile lists to keep track of their performances. Instagram has truly become the world’s new stage.
These performances have done more than just entertain fans – they are helping normalise staying at home, working from home and self-quarantining. Celebrities who we are only used to seeing in their glamorous stage-ready avatars and carefully styled and airbrushed photographs are seen lounging in pyjamas and robes, and talking candidly about their worries about the pandemic.
Many have given home tours and included family members and pets in the videos, and in the process, shone a light on the importance of domestic spaces and family.
Also read: Coronavirus: How to Avoid Cabin Fever
When actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson tested positive last week, Rita asked the internet for song suggestions for a coronavirus quarantine-themed playlist she was putting together. Her Spotify playlist entitled ‘Quarantunes‘ features songs about loneliness, survival, and love – songs which helped her get through the harrowing experience. Her playlist has its own fan following and has inspired many others to make and share their own coronavirus-themed playlists. These range from the witty and sardonic to the cheery and upbeat, and are an amusing distraction amid the gloom and doom of the pandemic.
The sobering truth about the coronavirus pandemic is that countries, rich and poor alike, are ill-equipped to handle the crisis. Medical science has no ready vaccine or cure to offer, and public infrastructure and institutions have failed to contain the spread of the virus. The onus has fallen on individuals. And perhaps it is only natural that we are turning to something as ancient, soothing, and beautiful as music to give us joy and hope.
Writer Maya Angelou, who was also a singer, once described her relationship with music:
“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”
As the worst public health crisis in years cripples countries and brings normal life to a standstill, music is proving to be the world’s refuge once again.
Tanvi Khemani is a writer and researcher from Kolkata. Follow her on Instagram @teekay_thesedays
Featured image credit: Instagram