Amongst the plethora of confusingly contradictory scientific comment on the COVID-19 pandemic (it used to be called Novel Coronavirus until the novelty wore off and we realised the common cold was also a coronavirus), one nugget has earned my serious interest, and it concerns music.
Most of the so-called scientific information doing the rounds has been relayed and, possibly, adjusted according to the relayer’s bias, prejudice or wishful thinking, and in the process has lost its legitimacy. And when I relay something a friend of mine told me, anybody would be right to imagine I am merely following the trend and reporting ersatz-science which appeals to me regardless of its scientific basis. But my friend was, until his retirement, a highly distinguished epidemiologist who had produced some valuable research at the time of SARS. I knew him from a choir I conducted in Cardiff during the 1970s, in which he sang bass, flanked by a pathologist (who was rarely sober) and a dentist (who rarely turned up, spending most of his time in Monaco where he had a yacht and a string of mistresses – which surprised us all since his wife, who worked as his assistant, was jaw-droppingly beautiful and probably accounted for the huge success of his dental practice). The pathologist died in a motor accident (in which alcohol played a part) and the dentist ended up in prison, but the epidemiologist went on to achieve great success as an academic, and we have kept intermittently in touch ever since. When the latest virus first began to emerge in Asia, he was in Singapore on his way back from a World Health Organisation crisis meeting, and over dinner at his hotel, he told me that the most successful way in which such viruses are transmitted is through singing.
Since then, I have heard more than one eminent (and not so eminent) authority on the subject of viruses and infectious diseases say the same thing. While a cough has a spread of several meters (hence the largely universal acceptance that we should keep two meters apart), singing projects the voice, and any germs in the lungs, throat and mouth, over far greater distances. On top of that, while, if you find yourself in the vicinity of a cough, you instinctively cover your nose and mouth, the only orifices you are likely to cover if you hear someone singing in close proximity, are your ears. There seems no more perfect spreader for a virus which attacks the respiratory system, than a fully-trained singer. By their very nature, singers don’t wear face masks, and in these heightened times of wishing everyone goodwill, we even look on those who sing in the streets of an evening as some kind of local hero to be admired rather than avoided. Yet the science is there; if you want to stop the most effective means of spreading the virus, ban singing!
And not just singing in public, it seems. In the UK at the moment everyone is going gooey-eyed over split-screen choirs where each voice is singing its part in isolation, then brought together by the wonders of Russian and Chinese-tapped communal computer programs. In that each singer is singing from his or her own spaces, these are seen to be properly socially acceptable at a time when we must keep apart, but, I ask, who else is in the room, or the house, with the singer? Is he or she not infecting everyone around him, even if we do not see those others in the miniature fragment of screen allotted to that singer? In watching these communal attempts at isolationist choral singing, might we not also be witnessing Secret Virus Spreaders at work? And in the UK, where Thursday nights were previously given over to everyone going out into the streets, clapping, banging on saucepans, and singing in support of health workers, has not the transmission rate (which we are told seems loathe to drop) been kept up by these well-intentioned but ultimately malign singers?
The irony of all this is that, during lockdown, circuit-breaker, or whatever label the politicians like to attach to it, singing has come to be seen as something to be encouraged for the social good. Lots of people (centenarian Sir Captain Thomas Moore included) have been celebrated for their singing prowess at this time, and I have heard the usual mawkish comments from musical illiterates about how singing “is good for us”. But beware! It is not. It is a killer!
With music in all its guises utterly ubiquitous in society, people have come to look on it not so much as harmless, as unremittingly beneficial. It is beautiful and makes us all feel better (apparently). Yet let’s not forget that music is a dangerous, potentially fatal weapon which, not necessarily in the wrong hands, has the power to do great harm. We may laugh at the sorry tale of Lully, who stabbed himself in his foot and subsequently perished as a consequence of a musical performance. But when an extreme Ulster Protestant threatened to kill me because I had (inadvertently) played a tune which bore (as I later learnt) an uncanny resemblance to the Irish National Anthem, and a policeman hurriedly urged me to turn off my car radio when, listening to the wedding of Charles and Diana while driving through Derry’s Bogside, fearing that, if an extreme Republican heard me, I would be unlikely to escape with my life, it did not seem so funny. Deaths and murders have been prompted by music, singing revolutionary songs (some of which have now become national anthems) has led to killings, and operas (think La Muette de la Portici) have sparked riots.
Music is a dangerous thing, and we abuse it at our risk. Singing during the COVID-19 pandemic is only another example of how music can have fatal consequences.