Virtual group music-making during lockdowns

By Maruša Levstek

people playing the guitar together during a Zoom call

When the pandemic hit in late 2019 and the whole world had to practically retract to their homes, everyone was talking about furlough, lockdown, and home-schooling. However, there was barely any thought about the extra-curricular activities that used to be an incredibly big part of many young people’s lives and a great source of wellbeing for many. This blog is about the many music groups that didn’t give up and decided to replicate group music-making experiences virtually, which I have studied alongside.

I wrote about the psychological and social benefits of group music-making in my previous blog post. In summary, engagement with activities in which young people have the freedom to express themselves, be validated and supported by others have been especially important for their emotional and social development. In fact, this has been especially vital for those who do not get to access such experiences elsewhere, such as those less likely to participate in mainstream music education, which is often closely tied with marginalisation.

Marginalised communities have also been disproportionally affected by the pandemic, which means that in addition to the challenges all young people experienced in this time that already hindered their wellbeing and social life (e.g. loss of independence, and increase in loneliness; see this report that I have contributed to for further details), young people also lost the safe spaces that nurtured this. Many projects that I have worked with before the pandemic have attempted to replicate such activities virtually. In this context, I have studied the extent to which those experiences replicated the opportunities for growth observed for group music projects when delivered in-person.

I imagine not many know what virtual group music-making actually looks like, which I didn’t either before 2020. Although there is software designed specifically for remote group music-making, most music groups I have worked with met on Zoom, as it also allows for video interactions, despite a load of audio difficulties I believe all are familiar with by now. I find this preference particularly interesting as it is clear that music groups prioritised replication of social contact rather than a profound musical experience.

There are various ways in which music groups attempted to replicate group music-making, with the most common two being what I named ‘together on mute’, which involves everyone playing with no sound on Zoom alongside a pre-recorded video or designated individual playing, and ‘turn-taking solo’, which involves individuals taking turns in playing with sound, often interactive in nature. Another less common kind of virtual group music-making observed by other researchers was listening to a multi-track of pre-recorded individual contributions mixed together.

To better understand how virtual group music sessions allowed young people to experience self-development and social support observed in in-person sessions, I have worked with three music education hubs delivering in total 13 different virtual music activities during the first and second national lockdown in the UK. I observed 16 separate sessions and analysed the hubs’ staff, young people, and parent surveys. The results revealed that everyone was extremely grateful for those virtual opportunities that enabled them to stay connected, continue making music in challenging times, and preserve their musical identities and the sense of being good at something. However, it was also clear that everyone was extremely keen to meet in person and create music together as soon as possible. This exposes how it is not only the aspect of spending time together, but also the experience of creating something together and bonding through making music that is vital to those part of an orchestra.

In fact, this lack of physical group music-making enabled me to study its meaning further, as the research and theories attempting to better understand the connection between the two never had to consider the physical context, or rather the lack of psychical context. Based on the data I obtained through observing virtual sessions, during which I recorded staff behaviours and the sense of connectedness of the group, there was no direct connection between virtual group music-making and the sense of connectedness. However, there was an indirect connection, demonstrating that virtual group music-making leads to more supporting behaviours displayed by the staff members, which, in turn, nurtured the sense of belonging amongst the group. I am excited to study this further once in-person group music-making is possible again, as I suspect that this model has a lot of potential for further development of theories of bonding through making music together. 

To conclude, I like to compare music groups’ experiences with my experiences of connecting with friends during the pandemic. I was extremely grateful to stay in touch via FaceTime and enjoyed our quiz and Skribbl nights, but realised that nothing can replace the sleepovers, nights out, and spontaneous weekend trips. It appears that virtual music-making can replicate the psychological benefits of group music-making to a great extent, more than expected by many music leaders, actually. However, the experience of making music together is an integral part to the orchestra experience that everyone missed dearly.

Please feel free to email me or contact me on Twitter @LevstekMarusa if you would like to reference the results of this project, read the academic paper, or just chat about my research. I truly hope these results will enable the continuation of such amazing projects and motivate for more in the future.

This research project was enabled by Future Creators and the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex. I would particularly like to thank my students Rubie and Katie for their help with the observations, without them this would have not been possible.

Would you like to know more about Maruša’s research?

Maruša Levstek is a PhD student under the supervision of Professor Robin Banerjee. Her doctoral research explores young people’s experiences of inclusive music-making and the psychology behind it.

Find out more about our research on Developmental and Clinical Psychology

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