It was fortunate in some ways that the early days of the pandemic coincided with the start of gardening season. When I had to cancel a trip to visit my parents in Ontario, I drew solace from researching pollinator-friendly plants and starting tomatoes from seed. Knowing that many others were doing the same made it feel like a hopeful thing to do. However, as the pandemic dragged on and news of other crises started to make headlines — wildfires, overdose deaths, low salmon returns — my optimism declined.
But I kept going outside, staking and re-staking my tomato plants, revelling in how green they smelled, how heavy the stems became as the fruit ripened, the yellow streaks they left on my arms.
Now that the tomatoes are long gone and case numbers are increasing again, I wonder how I will make it through the winter. The hard decision of my summer — to fly or not to fly — is behind me; now comes the grief and regret. Should I have visited my parents while the numbers were low?
I call my father. Normally when I visit, we take long walks together. The colours came early this year, he tells me; the leaves are already gone. When I ask him to talk with me about listening, it is partly because he is a musician and this is one of his favourite topics, but it is also because I have an idea.
“Dad,” I say, reaching toward something I’ve been feeling but can’t quite put into words, “Do you think listening to music could be another way to garden?”
Long before the pandemic began, experts were telling us that gardening is good for our health. In addition to the general benefits people experience while in nature (decreased blood pressure and anxiety, elevated mood), gardening provides a means of working through difficult emotions and supports healing. During the pandemic, it has calmed my racing mind, reduced tension in my body and given me a sense of self-sufficiency.
As my father often reminds me, the beneficial effects of music are also well-known. Today I ask, how do those effects work? Do I have to listen to a certain kind of music?
“Actually,” says my father, “there are many different kinds of music that can be helpful. And the more you like what you are listening to, the more open you are to experiencing its positive effects.”
However — and this part is crucial — how you feel about a given piece of music does not entirely determine its effects on you.
Music is, in the first place, a pattern of vibrations in the air, and these are registered by your body, regardless of what you think of it. Your body, my father reminds me, is also composed of vibrations: the heart, breath and brain all function as pulsing systems of energy that are responsive to one another.
These systems are constantly moving toward synchronization — with one another and with external stimuli. This process, called entrainment, is one of the mechanisms through which music can have calming effects, even when you are not paying attention to it.
“Think of the way windshield wipers move together to clean a window without bumping into one another,” says my father. When you listen to music, your heart rate, breathing and brain waves all adjust to the vibrations that music creates. Music with a slower tempo also slows you down, and this generates feelings of calm and well-being.
Then he says something that, to my gardener’s ears, is remarkable: “Music shapes space.”
I ask him what he means.
“Well,” he says, “a room that is filled with the vibrations of music is fundamentally different than a quiet one, as far as your body is concerned.”
In other words, it feels different. Because you are not separate from the music, you are surrounded by it.
This reminds me of how my patio changed once I’d filled it with plants. It looked different, but that was relatively unimportant compared to how it felt: the smell and texture of plants around me, the sounds of birds and rustling leaves, the warmth of the sun as I worked. These sensations made it easier to step back from anxious thought processes, immerse myself in simple tasks and become aware of my surroundings. I probably started breathing more deeply, too. Gardening became a kind of listening.
“Because I wasn’t just standing in front of my plants, looking at them,” I tell my father, “I was inside the garden, I was surrounded by it.”
The environmental character of both music and gardening is key to appreciating their restorative potential. When we bring music into a space, we are, like a gardener, helping to create our own environment. Even if it is an indoor environment, lacking the multisensorial qualities of a garden, this modestly creative act can restore a sense of well-being and agency.
Many of us have lost a sense of control over our lives during the pandemic. Given that feelings of helplessness are often associated with depression, finding ways to exert even a modest amount of control can be surprisingly helpful.
At the same time, the process of finding music that works for you is an opportunity to learn about yourself and discover new forms of resilience. Experts can give you a place to start, but there are many different ways to listen to music. The important part is to pay attention to how different sonic environments make you feel. It is not just the ears that listen, says my father, but also the heart.
After I hang up, I reflect on something that I have never understood before about the way my father thinks of music. On the one hand, he says, it supports you, helps you relax. On the other, it changes you. For me, these two things do not usually go together.
But then I remember another thing my father often says — that our emotional and intellectual responses to music are conditioned by a lifetime of experiences — and the pieces fall into place. To benefit fully from the effects of music on your body, you have to get beyond that conditioning and open yourself to feeling something different (which is much easier to do if you are relaxed).
My father grew up in the 1950s. Music was his passion, but he felt pressure to be responsible and get a real job, so he became a high school teacher. For most of my childhood, music was for evenings and weekends. I was a teenager when he finally shifted to part-time teaching so he could devote himself to music more seriously. I guess he knows a lot about conditioning, and the power of moving beyond it.
Of course change is often painful, especially if it is forced on us. But it can help us to see things about ourselves that are normally hidden. One thing this pandemic has made clear for me is the connection between my well-being and my environment — particularly when I define the latter broadly to include how I feel when I listen to the news or scroll on social media.
On a global scale, the connection between health and environment is more direct than it has ever been. The combination of factory farming and a decline in wildlife habitat means there is more contact between humans and stressed animal populations, which makes the transmission of novel viruses increasingly likely. It seems we may be entering an era of accelerating, widely-distributed risk.
In this context, the act of listening to music may seem pathetically out of step with the scale and scope of the crisis. And perhaps it is; perhaps an increase in humility is in part what the pandemic calls us to cultivate.
But it is also true that listening to music, the way it speaks to some of the more vulnerable parts of ourselves, is essential to our ability to respond to what is happening around us.
Another way of coping with chronic stress is to seek pleasurable opportunities for escape — through, for example, television, movies, social media. When we are tired and overwhelmed, we sometimes need to just shut the world out. But it is important not to make this our only strategy, because the more we do, the more we risk losing the ability to notice what is happening around us — at a moment when some things are changing quite rapidly for the worse.
Pandemic or no, climate change is still happening, inequality is rising and the oceans are filling with plastic. We will not have what we need to meet these challenges if our eyes and ears and hearts are not capable of opening, if we are not to some degree available for the moments in which there is, finally, something we can do to make things better.