A Musical Cure for Covid-Related Stress and Sadness

New research shows that playing or listening to music is the most effective way to cope with the lockdown blues.



By Susan Pinker


Nov. 25, 2020 3:26 pm ET

What’s the most popular fix for the Covid-19 blues? The Italians and Spaniards who ventured out onto their balconies last March to sing and play instruments have at least part of the answer. Emerging evidence shows that the more the world gets us down, the better music feels.

So says a new study involving 1,000 participants from the U.S., Europe and Latin America. Carried out by Pablo Ripollés and Michael McPhee of New York University in collaboration with Robert Zatorre, a professor of neuroscience at McGill University, the study looked at what people considered their most effective coping mechanisms during the shelter-in-place orders at the beginning of the pandemic last spring.

The researchers began by assessing how profoundly the pandemic affected each participant. Did that person get very sick? Did they lose a spouse, a parent, a friend or a job? How anxious did they feel? The researchers then looked at which activities worked best to lift people’s moods. Sex and drugs were among the 43 options participants could choose from, along with exercise, cooking, social media, video calls and various types of entertainment.

The participants, who were fairly representative of their countries in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and social status, also completed standardized personality tests, as well a questionnaire designed to assess their sensitivity to rewards. “The sensitivity to reward questionnaire assesses how much enjoyment you get out of certain activities. It could be eating, sex, staying in the shower or smelling the flowers,” said Prof. Zatorre. In addition, the participants completed a survey assessing their emotional expressivity, or how readily they reveal their feelings.

The study found that music, exercise and entertainment were the most potent stress relievers for the greatest number of people. But of those three activities, music—singing, dancing, playing an instrument, or just listening to a favorite playlist—was the only one that led to a reduction of depression symptoms. A fifth of all the participants reported it as the most effective way to reduce their pandemic-induced blues. Music’s palliative effects were particularly potent for people who were highly sensitive to rewards.

“That’s super interesting,” said Prof. Zatorre, “because as a neuroscientist, I’ve known for quite some time that music provokes pleasure. When we scan your brain [while you listen to music], we can see dopamine molecules released in the striatum and the ventral striatum. Fifty years ago, when you gave a hungry rat food, you saw that response in the striatum,” Prof. Zatorre explained, inferring that humans are similarly wired to get visceral pleasure from music. “Now we find that the more pleasure you get from music, the more it reduces your depression symptoms.”

Cooking, baking and eating also helped tamp down the blues, especially for people who find it easy to express their emotions, the study showed. Though the study didn’t address why that is, one possibility is that cooking provides a creative outlet when emotions are running high and so many external venues have been closed. “Cooking might allow you to cope with the stress that you are feeling without burying it,” wrote Prof. Ripollés, one of the paper’s authors.

This study is so new it hasn’t been published yet, so it hasn’t been peer-reviewed. Plus, it hinges on participants’ self-assessment; there’s no independent party measuring whether people’s depression symptoms did, in fact, abate. But for now, these preliminary data suggest that music and food might well cure what ails us, especially in these turbulent times.

Appeared in the November 28, 2020, print edition as ‘A Musical Cure For Pandemic Sadness.’