As my music history teacher always says, “Music serves as a mirror for society.” Historical events have a profound impact on the style, content, and function of music in society; additionally, the rate of stylistic change in music increases as the rate of change in society increases. In this way, music serves as a reflection, or mirror, for the evolution of our society.
Multiple examples of this phenomenon can be found in the history of classical music alone. During the Scientific Revolution, people strayed away from the principles of Christianity that had guided society for so long; instead, their beliefs became largely based on logic, reason, mathematics, and observations of the natural world. This shift in ideology can be seen through the complex compositional structures, contrapuntal textures, and calculated harmonies of Baroque music.
There was another shift in musical styles during the transition from the Baroque period to the Classical period due to the Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, royal monarchies were replaced with democratic governments, and wealth was redistributed to the growing middle class. With fewer worries about money and survival, citizens of the middle class could spend more time listening to and studying music. Music was no longer a luxury that only the elite could afford, but rather a universal language that everyone could enjoy. Catering to this shift in society, composers wrote music that amateur musicians could easily learn. As a result, music from the Classical period is simple, catchy, and has a clear melody compared to the serious and intricate music from the Baroque period (listen to this piece by Bach and compare it to Mozart!).
Along with ideological movements, pandemics have also left a lasting mark on music. In this article, we will examine three of the most prominent pandemics in world history (including the current pandemic) and explore how music has played a role in each.
#1: The Black Death (1346-1352)
The Black Death was a deadly outbreak of the highly contagious Bubonic plague across Europe that killed an estimated 25 million people. With wildly grotesque symptoms and lack of a cure, fear, hysteria, and panic spread among the public almost as quickly as the disease. Amidst this crisis, people turned to music as a distraction and healing mechanism.
Composers wrote music that contained no mention of the plague, because instead of being further reminded of the terror they were facing, people wanted to surround themselves with a comforting distraction.
As 14th-century poet-composer Guillaume de Machaut wrote, “Music is a science which asks that one laugh, and sing, and dance. It does not care for melancholy, nor for the man who is melancholy.”
Another reason that composers wrote happy and unaffected music at this time was because people believed sadness caused deteriorating health, which could ultimately lead to illnesses like the plague.
By balancing out their inner feelings of sorrow and fear with lighthearted, joyful music, people thought they could better protect and preserve their health. In this way, music also served as a form of preventative medicine.
#2: The Spanish Flu (1918)
Caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus, the Spanish Flu spread rapidly and infected nearly one-third of the world’s population. At the time, there were no medications or vaccines available to treat this virus, so public health agencies resorted to control and prevention efforts.
Quarantines were ordered and areas for public gatherings were shut down, including concert halls, which was a major disappointment to those who sought to use music as a source of comfort amidst the isolation and chaos.
However, with the development of new technologies such as the phonograph and radio, musicians now had the ability to record and distribute their performances from home. Especially during the outbreak, when live performances were no longer feasible, many performers turned to recording to share their music and launch their careers.
This was especially advantageous to musicians who may not have been brilliant live performers, but were precise in their technique and produced solid recordings. Many new successful musicians (one of the first being opera singer Enrico Caruso) emerged as a result of recordings; however, this era also marked the steady decline in popularity of live performances as people found ways to conveniently stream music from the comfort of their own homes.
#3: The COVID-19 Pandemic (2020 – Present)
Since the onset of the current pandemic, music has already experienced several changes. To start, although people are physically distanced, video conferencing apps such as Zoom and FaceTime have made it easier than ever for musicians to connect and collaborate.
Many musicians have become accustomed to hosting rehearsals, private lessons, and even concerts virtually. A new genre of music, dubbed “Pandemic Pop,” has also emerged. During the pandemic, many artists have used their platform to share humorous, insightful, or informative songs about COVID-19.
For example, Cardi B and iMarkkeyz’s song “Coronavirus” is a catchy rap about the seriousness of coronavirus, while Psychs’s track “Spreadin’ (Coronavirus)” encourages people to follow public health guidelines.
Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber’s song “Stuck With U” is about the ups and downs of being stuck in quarantine with a loved one, while Chris Mann’s “Thank U Frontline” applauds frontline workers for their courage and selflessness during this difficult time.
All in all, music is a vital part of our lives that grows and learns alongside us. The influence of historical events on music are evident and provide us with a glimpse of what life was like at the time.
During each of these three pandemics, the style, content, and role of music in society changed drastically — however, through each crisis, music has consistently served as the guiding force of hope, comfort, and expression for all of humanity and will continue to do so in the future.