October 2022


How lockdowns rekindled our need to sing together

By Cate Kennedy
From impromptu balcony choruses to online choirs, we found our voices during the pandemic

Two news stories loomed large for me over the months of the COVID lockdowns, connected by the invisible sticky threads of metaphor.

The first was the reportage about the Australian regent honeyeater, a native bird whose population is teetering on extinction. There are only about 350 regent honeyeaters left in the wild, and, according to scientists, as they dwindle in numbers and lose habitat, they are forgetting the special songs that would help them attract mates. So birds bred in captivity are played recordings of the right mating calls and are then released, in the hope they will attract females in the terrifyingly small wild population that remains and keep the species alive.

This ongoing story of birds needing concerted human intervention to relearn their songs led me to my second fascination. Stuck at home, seized, I watched clips from around the world proliferate, as the months passed, of people singing and dancing. The idea seemed to spread like its own contagion via social media: from people singing on balconies in Italy, keeping up the spirits of their neighbours in the early months in 2020, to health workers in PPE singing and doing lighthearted dance routines in hospital emergency rooms everywhere.

While it was easy to find weird connections between things during the fog of lockdowns, the news of so many people determined to keep singing, even virtually if they couldn’t take it to their balconies, windows and rooftops, resonated to me with a similar, practically biological urgency as the story of the dwindling, captive songless honeyeaters.

It came as little surprise to learn that researchers had been looking into this phenomenon. I took a deep dive into what they were observing – because, let’s face it, what else am I going to do after months of lockdown? I was gratified to find that even Charles Darwin had drawn a similar parallel. Unable to find any obvious adaptive advantage for our fascination with music, he speculated that human courtship songs may work to signal attractive and evolutionary adaptive traits to potential partners.

Most of all, it was the choirs that grabbed my attention. Once it was established that people in close physical proximity raising their voices to sing together created a perfect storm of “superspreader” COVID transmission, I watched the trajectory of dismayed choirs worldwide over lockdown “pivoting” to online singing sessions, hungry to experience the something that was better than the nothing.

There were mega-choirs of strangers brought together by this very activity – more than 1000 health workers in the United Kingdom joined the NHS Chorus-19 online choir, for example, to boost their flagging spirits and connect with others, and in Australia the Pub Choir phenomenon, begun in 2017 and attracting huge numbers of those who like learning a song at the pub with a beer in their hand, became the Couch Choir, with coordinator Astrid Jorgensen and a talented band of producers bringing together 6000 strangers from 45 countries to learn a song and harmonise sweetly together. You can watch them on YouTube singing David Bowie’s “Heroes” and feel your own rush of wonder, particularly at the heroism of the video editor who laboriously put together the thousands of individual files. The Couch Choir rendition of “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers is posted with the exuberant message: “We’ve discovered the antidote to loneliness!” for those languishing indoors, alone.

It’s hard to re-watch these clips now and not be instantly transported back to feeling viscerally the true unalloyed effects of “social isolation” over rolling lockdowns, searching for that very antidote. Over time, in Zoom meetings, I felt my energy ebbing, draining like battery power or a tank of fuel, but watching massed “couch choir” performances – full of people holding their kids or dogs, or dancing round their living rooms and bedrooms, singing for their lives – was like a blast of restorative joy filling from beneath, like a well.

Also, to my surprise, tears. Similar to the ones I cried watching my teenage daughter alone in the loungeroom, carefully and studiously replicating dance moves as she watched her dancing teacher via the laptop.

What works to help us regulate feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety during the stresses of a pandemic, according to researchers and neuroscientists finding themselves with a massive, real-world dataset to work with during COVID?

“We found that listening to music, singing and dancing were the top three most effective activities at making people feel better,” reported Dr Frederic Kiernan, from the University of Melbourne’s Creativity and Wellbeing Hallmark Research Initiative.

Other researchers, analysing what the human brain does to connect and adapt when forced into isolation, reported on the inventive ways we seek the oxytocin release we crave. Online video conferencing, you won’t be surprised to learn, doesn’t cut it – singing with someone is different to having a conversation with them.

I read on. As virtual choirs spiked in the early days of lockdown, they were studied for evidence of quantifiable amounts of social cohesion and reduced stress they created in participants, couched in language such as “social capital measures”, “neurohormonal mechanisms” and “self–other merging”. Scientists measured endorphin levels and increased pain thresholds when people sing, dance and play drums, as opposed to just listening to music. They analysed and compared the psychological needs satisfied by both face-to-face and virtual modes, participation numbers, and the role of physical “presence” in the feeling of connectedness.

But while “quasi-synchronous group interactions” work to fill the gap, the remembered loss of the real thing seems to end up being felt more keenly than ever, particularly by people who had experienced face-to-face choral singing before the pandemic. Maybe it’s worse when you can’t quite articulate just what it is you’re missing to others who don’t get what you’re talking about because they’ve never had it, but for many, taking part in the surrogate virtual experience ultimately came to feel like a rather dispiriting facsimile of what they were really craving. Or, as one of the researching scientists terms it so warmly, the experiences of a virtual choir may “fail to replicate or simulate any aspects of live performance as a spatially, temporally situated act undertaken by embodied beings engaging in an immediate and intimate mode of co-creation”.

We are embodied beings, alright, and when we can’t mingle, sing together and hear each other in real time, the pain, experienced as frustration and disappointment, means we tend to remember and feel its absence more starkly. Like the old song says, it’ll have to do until the real thing comes along. But it prods at us, this absence, like a sad remnant of something we fear might be almost extinct, existing only in protected pockets here and there, out on the margins, where a scrap of habitat might survive.

The mysterious thing called “sonic bonding”, brought about by the need to cooperate and reciprocate in order to sing together, generates something that even the lab scientists have resorted to calling communitas. I’m hanging on to this idea. And I’m wondering, here in our dwindling communal habitats, whether you are feeling it too: the irrepressible urge to gather and remember the words and the tune; to acknowledge the tiny, suppressed, embarrassed longing that remains, in spite of everything; to raise our collective voices, both in counterpoint and in harmony; to see our oldest living cultural practice as a means of survival.

Let’s face it: we are the primate that dances and sings together. We just can’t help it. It’s our evolutionary adaptive trait. We rock. Joy and relief from duress comes pumping from our chests. Our hearts beat faster, we take deeper breaths, our synaptic pathways light up like mirror balls. We’ve always done this, in our long fraught evolution – raising our voices in unison, singing our joy at a birth or our shared grief at a death, singing when the sun comes up, singing to find a mate. Crooning old songs in the car on a long drive home, remembering the lyrics from somewhere, the feel of the music pouring through us. Picking up the guitar every now and then, rather than the remote.

And yes, it’s hard not to be swamped with solastalgia and panicked hopelessness at the plight of the regent honeyeaters, yet there are signs these birds seem to be somehow determinedly holding on. There have been sightings of them in north-east Victoria, thanks to the long-term revegetation work of community volunteers from the Regent Honeyeater Habitat Restoration Project in the Lurg Hills, near Benalla. Following the captive breeding and song-learning project in New South Wales, adult breeding pairs have been spotted with new nestlings.

And likewise, the irrepressible Astrid Jorgensen is back running sold-out live Pub Choir events around the country on a new tour called, appropriately enough, Unclench, once again joyously conducting thousands of people in harmonised songs. “Music is medicine,” Jorgensen wrote on a recent Facebook post, and while I’ve never been able to score a ticket to sing along at a Pub Choir event (tickets have been known to sell out in one minute flat), I find that even just watching footage of the faces of these strangers singing together – smiling, moved, absorbed, joyful, making fond and gleeful eye contact with each other, united for a few extraordinary minutes in pure communitas – is medicine enough.

In March, not long after social-distancing requirements were relaxed, I found myself at Theatre Royal in Castlemaine, a building christened the “first place of public amusement” for the residents of the town, north of Melbourne, during the gold rush of the 1850s, attending the first live performance I’d been to for a long, long while. Folk musician and storyteller Jan Wositzky was performing a show encompassing 50 years of Australian music, finally “on” after being cancelled and rescheduled five times over the course of the pandemic.

“I just rolled with the punches,” says Wositzky from the stage, happy to at last be performing in public again with other musicians.

As an audience, we aren’t so much like freed captive-bred honeyeaters as battery hens, unsure if we are really, truly, allowed out of the cage. Out we step cautiously, to sit ourselves in chairs that aren’t spaced a metre and a half apart, greeting each other with rusty social civility.

It’s not like the huge, euphoric crowd at the WOMAD festival just the week before, which I’d watched enviously from afar, sweating, dancing and delirious as Baker Boy commanded the stage. There are only 60 of us, accustomed to wearing masks and keeping ourselves on mute. We’re a bit subdued, truth be told, a bit out of practice. But when Wositzky pauses before the final chorus of Dougie MacLean’s “Singing Land”, and extends a casual hand to say, as if the thought has just occurred to him, “Join us”, like he’s inviting the audience to pull up a chair, we don’t need asking twice. We raise the roof.


A version of this piece was presented at the Better Off Said spoken-word event in Melbourne.

Cate Kennedy

Cate Kennedy writes fiction, poetry and nonfiction, and lives in Central Victoria. Her short-story collections are studied on the VCE English and Literature syllabus.

From the front page

Members of the Kanakanvu tribe perform at a Saraya harvest festival, Donghua Village, Taiwan.

Who is Taiwanese?

Taiwan’s minority indigenous peoples are being used to refute mainland China’s claims on the island – but what does that mean for their recognition, land rights and identity?

Image representing a film still of abstract colours

Tacita Dean and the poetics of film editing

The MCA’s survey of the British-born artist’s work reveals both the luminosity of analogue film and its precariousness

Image of David McBride

David McBride’s guilty plea and the need for whistleblower reform

The former army lawyer had no choice but to plead guilty, which goes to show how desperately we need better whistleblower protections

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Mars attracts

Reviving the Viking mission’s experiments may yet find life as we know it on Mars, but the best outcome would be something truly alien

In This Issue

Arts Minister Tony Burke

The road ahead for cultural policy

Public consultation is under way, but what hope is there for true ambition in cultural leadership?

Laura Paredes in ‘Trenque Lauquen’

Last tango in Venice: ‘Trenque Lauquen’

Why Laura Citarella’s Borgesian thriller shouldn’t get lost among the Venice Film Festival’s PR distractions

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Unfettered culture

Whose input should be sought on the future of Australia’s arts and culture?

Cover of ‘Liberation Day’

George Saunders’ ‘Liberation Day’

The Booker Prize–winning author’s return to literary, comedic short fiction further essays our basic selfishness

Online latest

Image representing a film still of abstract colours

Tacita Dean and the poetics of film editing

The MCA’s survey of the British-born artist’s work reveals both the luminosity of analogue film and its precariousness

Image of David McBride

David McBride’s guilty plea and the need for whistleblower reform

The former army lawyer had no choice but to plead guilty, which goes to show how desperately we need better whistleblower protections

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

Image of Margret RoadKnight playing guitar and singing.

The unsung career of Margret RoadKnight

Little-known outside the Melbourne folk scene for decades, singer Margret RoadKnight’s 60 years of music-making is celebrated in a new compilation