Day one of lockdown 2, and I’m listening to a playlist called Sunny Days. Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds comes on and suddenly I’m no longer in my cramped bedroom cum office cum yoga studio cum gym, but back on a beach in the Philippines, where I lived above a reggae bar after graduating. In the month it took me to complete my Divemaster qualification there, my love for the ocean and its creatures deepened so much that I would dedicate my life to protecting them. I can see the tiny green islands dotted along the horizon in front of me, and the scuba-diving heaven below them; I imagine the manta rays, sharks and multi-coloured tropical fish that we spent every day with, and replay the conversations I had with my good friend there about how we would look after these phenomenal creatures.
Six years later and I was on my paddleboard, propelling myself through Scottish waters. I’d been paddling almost every day for nearly two months on my journey from Land’s End to John O’groats. It was 11am, and I’d been on the water since 4am. The fog was so thick I couldn’t navigate by sight. I couldn’t see any land, and was relying on my GPS unit to direct me to shore. Instead of the crystal-clear, glassy flat waters of the Philippines I was cutting through choppy, grey waves, the occasional gull my only company. I was exhausted, fed up and a little bit scared. But I’d got my headphones on, pressed play on my motivational playlist and Bob Marley appeared, telling me that Every Little Thing is Gonna Be Alright.
Some days on my paddleboard I don’t want the distraction of music. The ocean creates her own music: the high-pitched call of the oystercatcher, the sound of the waves lapping at the nose of my board, the wind howling past my ears, the silence on a perfectly calm day, the surface punctuated by the fin of a dolphin. Experiencing the sea mindfully is one of my greatest pleasures. But on days that are lonely and seemingly never-ending, music is my companion and my motivator.
During those 59 days I spent paddling the length of the UK, in 2018, I utilised music’s motivational capacity to lift my spirit when the going got tough. My favourite for this is a song from the Disney film Moana, How Far I’ll Go; I love the whole album and it would instantly remind me of my purpose. Other songs I had on repeat were David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel, Kings of Leon’s Bucket, Queen’s I Want to Break Free, Alanis Morrisette’s Ironic and Muse’s Madness. These would take me out of my head, helping me replace my grumpiness with grins.
Music also has the ability to break through the tedium of lockdown and transport me to a place I’d rather be, often back to my voyage on the open seas. A lot of music is inspired by nature, evoking images of the natural world and allowing us to immerse ourselves in it from our armchair. In winter I like to head somewhere warm by the sea, but this winter I know that songs like Xavier Rudd’s Follow the Sun, Noah Kahan’s Young Blood, Otis Redding’s Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay, The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun and The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations will temporarily take me there instead.
It was recently discovered that music played on the bassoon has a timbre very similar to the song of whales, and that whales will respond to the the instrument. It’s incredible to think that the music we create doesn’t just reflect nature, but can be a part of it. Classical music offers a wonderful escape to the wild. I like to envisage favourite places while listening to orchestral music and imagine what each part played might relate to in the scene I’m picturing.
Perhaps during this second lockdown we can rely in part on music to help keep us connected to nature, and keep our fires stoked for protecting it. Dolly Parton’s version of After the Gold Rush, Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, Michael Jackson’s Earth Song and Jack Johnson’s Fragments, which is about marine plastic pollution, all have this effect for me.
Just like time on the ocean, music can soothe frayed nerves too. Buffalo Springfield’s For What it’s Worth, Foo Fighters’ acoustic version of Times Like These, Jack Johnson’s Banana Pancakes and Beyonce’s Listen help me to feel calm and composed, and bring me back to what really matters. Much like sitting by the water’s edge listening to the waves, plunging my paddle into the water or pushing off from a beach at sunrise might do.
• Read more about Cal Major; she will be appearing at the Kendal Mountain festival on 28 November