Using Music to Support Mental Health through Covid-19 and Beyond

By Brede Davis

This article contains general ideas to support mental health. If you are currently in crisis or need immediate assistance, phone services like Lifeline (13 11 14) and Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800; for young people aged 5-25) operate 24/7, and websites like https://www.beyondblue.org.au/ and https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/mental-health-helplines contain additional supportive information.

This article was created as a personal resource for anyone who is feeling emotionally impacted by COVID-19, but the ideas here can be used, altered, or expanded upon in so many ways to support general wellbeing and mental health at any time. You don’t need to be in the middle of a global crisis to want more ideas in your self-care kit!

Brede Davis is a music therapy student with professional and personal experience primarily in fields of disability and mental health. She also plays and writes music as Brede Alanna Music on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. For information on music therapy, please see https://www.austmta.org.au/content/what-music-therapy

Covid-19 has been the catalyst for unprecedented changes worldwide. Right now, your life might look entirely different to what you’re used to. Or it might be relatively unchanged. This situation is prompting a range of reactions, thoughts, and feelings. You may feel like you’re thriving, barely surviving, or somewhere in the middle.

There are many valid ways to feel about all of this. With so much change and uncertainty, it can be difficult to know how to look after yourself right now. One way to address this is by considering “What am I feeling right now?” and “What do I need right now?”, then moving to “How can I address that need?”. When considering creative ways to support our wellbeing, music can be an invaluable resource. The following sections include some feelings and needs you may be experiencing, alongside ways you could use music to help address these. As you read, note what feels relevant or useful to you. Or use this as inspiration to develop your own ideas using your preferred ways of engaging with music (eg. listening, playing, composing, recording, producing).

Feeling: Anxious, Scared

Potential Needs: Safety, Comfort

Musical resources:

Create a playlist of favourite/familiar songs – consider adding songs which remind you of places or times where you’ve felt safe or comfortable.

Play music you know by heart – music you don’t even need to think about. If comfortable, try closing your eyes to reduce external distractions.

Learn “easy” pieces – music that feels comfortable and not challenging.

Try a guided relaxation or meditation – search through suggestions on YouTube or other platforms and look for something with a voice and background music you find soothing.

Sing anything – anxious breathing typically involves rapid breaths with longer inhalation and shorter exhalation, leading to increased heart rate and adrenaline. Calm breathing involves slower breaths, where exhalation lasts longer than inhalation. This naturally occurs when singing as you typically breathe in quickly, then release air slowly over the length of a phrase. You can use any song you feel comfortable singing. To further encourage calm in your body, gradually slow your singing until your tempo approximately matches your resting heart rate.

Feeling: Uncomfortable or Distressing Emotions

Potential Needs: Emotional expression, Increased understanding of thoughts and feelings, A more comfortable emotional state

Musical Resources:

Songwriting – Songwriting is such a versatile activity: the purpose of your songwriting, the way you write the song, and what you do with the completed song all influence which needs are addressed through songwriting. In this case, turning intangible thoughts and feelings into specific written lyrics can help you understand and process what you are thinking and feeling. Use whatever structure suits the kind of processing you need to do: a single chorus line over and over to emphasise a particular thought? 36 verses because you’ve got a lot to say? There are no hard and fast rules here! If you would like to use a more structured approach, try:

Chorus: emphasise your central theme/feeling/message.

2-3 Verses: expand upon your theme. For example: how do you feel about it? What thoughts are you having about it? How do you want to be feeling instead? What does this theme mean to you?

Bridge: reflect on what you’ve covered in the song and/or consider “where to next?”

You can further personalise your song by using the accompanying music to process or express your thoughts non-verbally. If you’re not sure where to start, try a standard chord progression like I-IV-vi-V, or find a backing track online.

Create a mood-shifting playlist – this playlist starts with songs that reflect your current feelings, and gradually shifts towards songs which reflect your desired feelings. Consider how different your current and desired mood states are, and what states you may need to pass through to get from A to B. For example, moving from “really sad” to “happier” might look like really sad > sad > a little sad > content > a little happier > happier, so your playlist could include a few songs that you associate with each of those mood states. This can be a more tolerable way of changing mood states than trying to force an immediate shift. It might be hard to think of more “positive” songs while you’re feeling difficult emotions, so this could be something you make in advance so that it’s ready to go when you need it.

Musical improvisation – play however you’re feeling. For example, if you feel stressed you might play fast, loud, dissonant sounds to expend some of that stressed energy, feel the physical feedback of the instrument, and hear a representation of how you’re feeling. This may help you transition to a less intense emotional state.

Use someone else’s words – if you’re having difficulty articulating your situation, look for songs with lyrics that resonate with you or reflect what you’re experiencing. You can piece together lyrics from different songs and use these to construct a clearer understanding or expression of your own feelings.

Feeling: Lack of control, Helplessness

Potential Needs: Control, Autonomy

Musical Resources:

Add your influence to existing music – cover a song in your style, remix some songs, re-orchestrate a piece, transpose something to better suit you. Change whatever you want to change: pitch, tonality, instrumentation, harmonic structure, lyrics, genre, etc!

Organise your music library in a way that suits you – for example: clean up weird file names on iTunes, organise your Spotify library, sort that pile of sheet music, rearrange your physical music collection.

Brede and Stella sharing songs through Zoom

Assert autonomy and experience control through making opportunities for choice – choose what music you want to listen to. Or choose not to listen to music. Choose to play or not play certain pieces. Choose how you engage with music at any moment.

Feeling: Stagnant, Purposeless

Potential Needs: Mastery, Achievement, “Evidence” of progress

Musical Resources:

Play music you know well – remind yourself of skills you have.

Set yourself goals that are achievable over a short timeframe – Learn something that’s just beyond your current ability level/comfort zone. Perhaps it’s a piece that contains mostly familiar chords, but one or two that you’re unfamiliar with; or a passage that’s just a little faster than what you can do easily. This creates opportunities for you to experience the sense of achievement that follows noticeable progress.

Break your songwriting into smaller parts like choosing a genre/style, choosing instrumentation, writing chorus lyrics, choosing verse chords, creating a bassline, etc.  For each part of the process, acknowledge your progress and achievement, and recognise that you have created something. You don’t need to save those feelings of accomplishment for when you’ve fully completed the song!

Brede and Stella sharing songs through Zoom

Feeling: Under-stimulated, Bored

Potential Needs: Challenge, Engagement, Novelty

Musical Resources:

Start learning a piece that really challenges you – challenge yourself to increase what you’re musically capable of. This is meant to be a generally enjoyable experience, so if you’re feeling frustrated by the difficulty level, take a break or switch to a different piece!

Learn the basics of a new instrument.

Explore extended techniques on your main instrument.

Learn a song in an unfamiliar language, or a piece from a genre or time-period you don’t specialise in.

Listen to music you haven’t heard before – expose yourself to different sounds.

Explore free music apps like Bandlab (ios and android) or Garageband (ios).

Create music from unconventional sources – for example, sampling and altering every-day sounds for an electronic composition.

Feeling: Isolated, Alone

Potential Needs: Social connection, Shared experience, Community

Note: In line with the current climate, the following suggestions are all distanced ways of sharing music and using music to connect with loved ones.

Musical Resources:

Make someone a playlist – It could be music that you think they’d enjoy, or music which reminds you of them!

Make a collaborative playlist where everyone in the group adds a few songs.

Share an artist you’ve recently discovered or ask for recommendations.

Choose an album to all listen to and then come together as a group online to discuss your favourite songs from it

Play for friends via video apps, or send someone a recording of something you’ve been working on

Join/form an online songwriting group where you share your individual songs, or write together as a group

Follow musicians you like on social media to feel more connected to them and their communities

Talk about music with friends – use music as an excuse to connect and see what you can learn about each other through music-related conversations. What music do they like/dislike and why? How is the music they listen to today different (or similar) to the music they listened to at different life stages? Why are certain songs meaningful to them? What is the last song they listened to?

Join a virtual choir

Watch a livestream – so many artists and event organisers have been running livestreams as a way of engaging in real-time with their communities. To add another dimension of shared experience here, see if any friends want to watch as well. You could have a call running while you watch, or message about the highlights.

Fever Pitch Magazine enquiries can be sent to Stella Joseph-Jarecki through stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com

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