The Sound of 2020: How Listening Has Given Us Hope In A Year Of Upheaval

Ed Gillett

Guest Writer

2020 might be the strangest year in recent memory, but we’ve seen first-hand how powerful music can be in helping us get through adversity. As New Year’s Eve approaches, new research by our teams across Europe shows that even if our party plans might have changed this year, there’s still plenty to celebrate.

Whoever you are and wherever you live, 2020 has undoubtedly been a year defined by upheaval and uncertainty. But it hasn’t all been doom and gloom. As this year ends, it’s vital to celebrate the collective resilience, creativity, and optimism which has flourished despite the challenges we’ve faced.

When the clock counts down on New Year’s Eve and we consign 2020 to the past, how will we feel when those complicated emotions rush to the surface? The answers offered by scientific experts and new Europe-wide research suggest a brighter and more optimistic picture than you might expect, underpinned by the collective energy and connection that music can generate.

Research commissioned by Sonos teams across Europe shows that half of all European adults are planning some form of celebration to see in the New Year, ranging from 69% of people in party-mad Denmark to a somewhat less enthusiastic 33% in the UK. 47% of people say that it’s more important than ever to celebrate the New Year after surviving this torturous year, rising to 57% of 18 to 24 year olds across the continent.

In a year where our social relationships have been especially constricted, it’s unsurprising to see that we’re desperate for interpersonal connection. While three-quarters of people tell us that they’ll be seeing in 2021 at home, interesting guests and a good party atmosphere remain central to their NYE plans.

Of course, what we listen to while we celebrate is just as important, and 68% of people say that music will be an integral part of their celebrations, with more than half believing that the right playlist can make or break a house party.

Pop music reigns supreme on 62% of playlists, with particularly devoted fans in Austria and Denmark. Dance music is the go-to soundtrack in Poland, while Italians opt for hip hop. If you’re ringing in the New Year in France or Spain, odds are you’ll be listening to R&B or indie respectively. More rarefied listeners in Austria display a taste for classical, while the Dutch are least likely to listen to music at all this New Year.

And what about the songs we’re planning to play when the clock strikes midnight? It seems that the old classics win out here, with 41% of people going for “I Want To Break Free” by Queen—its lyrics perhaps a reflection of the pressures we’ve all faced this year. The similarly optimistic “Happy New Year” by Abba and “Freedom” by George Michael round out our Top 3, followed by uplifting classics from U2, Ray Charles, and Journey. The newest entry on our NYE chart is Ariana Grande with “Thank U, Next” - another song about accepting the past and focusing on the positive.

Intriguingly, just under 50% of people across Europe think that a good playlist can make someone more attractive, and over a quarter admit to hooking up with someone at a party based on shared musical taste, crucial information if you’re hoping to end up under the mistletoe with that special someone this year. Although you might be better off trying in Poland or Spain, where two-thirds of people say kissing someone at midnight is important, compared to Italy where barely a third agree. (So much for that romantic reputation…)

How sound brings us together: “Being connected is everything.”

But music’s importance isn’t just about partying or snogging. Professor Hauke Egermann, who researches the psychological effects of music at the University of York, says that music has been a crucial social tool for withstanding the mess 2020 has thrown at us.

“Music creates experiences that are appropriate to the current situation but that are linked back to our past experiences, our experience of other times which we might miss at the moment. We've done a bit of research during the first British lockdown in the spring into how listening to nostalgic music is associated with increased well-being: using music as a tool helps people to feel well and cope with their situation.”

Our research mirrors these findings, with four out of five people agreeing that listening to music lifts their spirits. The specific detail varies across countries though: 49% of Poles plan to listen to more positive tunes in 2021, while for 36% of Spaniards singing along with friends is the key factor in their enjoyment.

For Harry Gay and his housemates, the pressures of lockdown helped inspire new digital forms of musical connection. Streamed live from their New Cross flat every Friday night, Queer House Party aims to bring solidarity and release to the LGBTQ+ community.

“The thing about music is that it brings us this really basic human feeling of just… being,” he says. “Just dancing and not caring, listening to the same song and having the same experience. If you play a song that you know everyone loves, you'll have 50 little squares on your laptop with everyone absolutely going for it. The people can see that, and it’s like they're dancing together. It just makes people feel more connected.”

“Especially for the LGBTQ+ community, being connected is everything,” Harry continues. “It's so important to be able to see yourself in others and be surrounded by like-minded people. I think the parties and music are definitely a way to rebuild that sense of community.”

2020: The year of rupture

That need for collective experience isn’t surprising in a year like 2020. Athina Karatzogianni, whose research focuses on the social impact of technological transformations, defines the last 12 months with a single word: rupture. “This year has been a rupture in the way we live, relate, how we exist in the world. How we socialise, how we entertain ourselves, how we work, or form relationships with our family and friends”.

Athina locates that general sense of rupture, and the impact of COVID, alongside the waves of political protest that have continued to ripple across the globe this year, from anti-mask protesters to Extinction Rebellion’s environmental activism, and Black Lives Matter challenging systemic racism. “With all this civil disobedience, direct action and so on taking place, there’s been a real question around how citizenship works, bringing discussions about what it means to be a good citizen into the mainstream”.

Again, music plays a huge role in resolving these questions and offering us a way forward, through its vital role at the heart of our rituals and celebrations.

“It’s human nature to produce memories which signify an important moment. If every day is the same, people lose their impetus to want to live for the next occasion. Part of human experience is about rewarding yourself, celebrating achievements.” says Athina. “I think this New Year will be about surviving the year more than anything else. You won't have these bigger parties, concerts and things that we used to have, but music will become an even more important element than it was before”.

The destabilising forces Athina’s research focuses on don’t only operate at the macro level, with global political movements and changes of governments, but at the micro level in our personal relationships and interactions.

Bella DePaulo is a social psychologist based at the University of California, and the author of How We Live Now. Her research suggests that 2020’s wider disruptions can have even a deeper emotional impact when our personal lives are so disjointed.

“This year has created issues around how to communicate. Relationships that were just starting don't get off the ground, relationships get fraught over things that weren’t an issue before, like getting left out of support bubbles.”

But DePaulo also suggests reasons for optimism. “There's all the good stuff too, some of which is surprising. There are people who talk about becoming closer to their family members, for example. They might have set up a recurring meeting on Zoom or some other way of being in touch, even if it’s just a discussion of what's going on in their lives.”

Home listening: Why sound (and sound quality) has become more personal this year

The concept of home recurs repeatedly in DePaulo and other experts’ work. In a year where many of us have been working from home for months on end, it’s increasingly important that our domestic spaces are comforting, enjoyable, and reinvigorating. Finding the right soundtrack is a key part of that, she says

“If you're spending more time working on your own, you can do things that you couldn't do in a shared office space, like play the music that you love. You can really create a comforting space in all the senses of the word, not just visually, but also the sounds.”

Professor Hauke Egermann agrees that sound is an increasingly fundamental part of how we understand our homes, and by extension ourselves, and that how we listen has shifted this year. “The overall functionality of music changed in 2020,” he says. “If you think about typical music listening scenarios, some of them don’t really apply anymore: the commute to work, social listening in larger contexts at parties. So, it will be a different kind of listening that's more personal.”

This is borne out by our research across Europe: 89% of people say they’d rather listen to music at home than in a club, while more than three quarters are planning to do precisely that for New Year’s Eve, staying at home to celebrate rather than going out. 45% of 18 to 24 year olds have said that they don’t care if they annoy their neighbours while stuck at home, which suggests that the early hours of 2021 might be soundtracked not only by the latest club beats, but also by a few noise complaints.

If how we listen has become more important, then so has what we’re listening on, with 52% of people saying that they value sound quality. “Music is just so much more a part of your everyday life now,” says DePaulo. “So if you can do it, it's worth investing in a higher quality experience. Because it's not just something that you try to fit in in between running to the office and back, it's there all the time. It's your home.”

Those themes continue into 2021. While our research shows that a third of Europeans are planning to spend less money than in the past, they’re still optimistic about being healthier and happier in the coming year. Just over half are planning to listen to more relaxing music, and a similar number list entertaining at home, with music of course, as a priority for the year ahead.

Reassuringly, one infamous aspect of every good house party remains stubbornly unaffected by the upheavals of 2020: 46% of people say that the next time they’re celebrating, they still expect to end up chatting in the kitchen. Even in a year defined by instability and uncertainty, it seems some things never change.

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