Archive for the ‘power of music’ Tag

Music in a conflicted world

One of the things that made the post-conflict environment of Bosnia-Herzegovina such an intense and compelling place to be for me in 1998 was the way that music apparently held a position of such tremendous importance in people’s everyday lives. This was a place where music mattered, enormously, and as a newly-arrived musician and music leader, I felt welcomed, valued, and stimulated by the intense creative environment.


There were many challenges in people’s daily lives. People were surviving on very little, living in makeshift or temporary homes, with few opportunities to earn money. Some younger people hoped to continue their education, but the young adults – people my age, or a bit younger – often felt a strong sense of responsibility to care for the other members of their families, and so to be finding ways to earn an income, however meagre. Some were recently returned to Mostar after living as temporary refugees in other parts of Europe.

Looking back, I can imagine now that because I was based at the Pavarotti Music Centre I was meeting and interacting with people for whom music mattered. Presumably there were others, whose paths I never crossed, for whom music held a place of less significance. But among the people I worked with and hung out with, music was everywhere and everything.

David Wilson, British journalist and humanitarian, was the director of the Pavarotti Music Centre at the time. He has written about his experiences in war-time Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Sarajevo and in Mostar. In these articles he describes sitting in underground bars near the frontlines in Sarajevo during the height of the siege there, where music-making was an act of defiance – especially by young people – against those determined to shoot and shell them to smithereens. The louder the gunfire, the louder the music.

He describes places where there was frequently no power, but where people would sing and play in order to have music. If a generator could be found, playing loud music was a high priority. In a city where people had little food and faced death every day, acts of music and other creative endeavours dotted the city. These creative acts allowed people to maintain their humanity in an inhumane situation, to reclaim dignity and an element of control over their environment, and to integrate something about their current experiences with their whole selves.

Recently I have been considering, “Why music, in this context? What might music offer people existing in one of the most extreme of human experiences – war and conflict – that playing sport (for example) does not offer?” The epistemology of music interventions in conflict-affected areas is not well-established in scholarly literature, but there is definitely a consistency in the reports of people like Wilson that correlates with empirical knowledge from other areas of music research.

For example, music therapists know that when we make music, we are connecting with the part of ourselves that remains whole, undamaged by illness or injury, even while our bodies and minds may be battling all kinds of debilitating challenges. Music invites, and accepts.

Music also creates beneficial social outcomes. When people play music together, they connect their ideas and ideals in some way. They engage with others, and connect in ways that are not dependent on words or conversation. You can take part in musicking without uttering a word. You can be fully present in the music, and yet still protecting those parts of yourself that require protection. Musicking also takes place in a kind of liminal space – it allows participants to experiment and explore alternatives responses, alternative patterns, or to experience alternative versions of others, without fully committing to that alternative.

Nigel Osborne, an inspiring and charismatic musician, composer, and music leader that I had the privilege of working alongside in Bosnia in 1998, describes some of the physical benefits that participation in music-making can offer people suffering from the traumatic effects of war and conflict. Physical coordination, respiratory systems, and neuroendocrine systems all move towards optimal functioning when people engage in music-making over repeated occasions or extended periods of time (Osborne 2009).

Christopher Small, in ‘Musicking’ (1998) suggests that when people “music”, they are engaging in a kind of ritual, and human rituals are a way for us to experience our world as we wish it to be. It is an idealised representation that is deeply satisfying. Rituals are created in particular for those aspects of our lived experience over which we have less control (such as the weather necessary for crops and food security), or life points that are transitions from one stage of life to another (such as the rituals marking birth, death, marriage, child-birth, or the transition from childhood to adulthood). Shared rituals for these significant life events create a sense of unity, self-efficacy, and courage. It is much easier to face life’s challenges if you feel you have the strength of a community behind you; furthermore, the social bonds that are created through the shared ritual experience make people more effective and functional in what they do after.

Stige (2012) sees musicking as a form of interaction ritual and that its benefits are similar to those experienced in shared human rituals the world over. Interaction rituals (as termed by Collins, 2004) have characteristics of mutual focus of attention and emotional entrainment, rather than formal procedure and stereotyped actions. Entrainment of emotions, along with the entrainment of pulse and rhythm achieved through shared music-making, encourages greater social cooperation and a deep sense of connectedness with others.

Ellen Dissanayake examines why humans make art. Why is it that art-making – “making special”, she calls it, or “artifying” – is a cultural universal, observed in human cultures around the world, throughout the ages? She too, sees the link between art-making and human ritual to be of great importance. Rituals involve the formalisation and embellishment of everyday gestures, and are traditionally arts-rich, multi-modal, participatory endeavours that generate a shared sense of well-being and burden.

Because music is a social activity, action, emotion and cognition intertwine. Researchers such as Wallin et al (2000), Cross (2003), Cross and Morley (2009), have established the psychobiological foundation for musical participation. This foundation is supported by the social-musical motivation system described by Dissanayake (2000), Trevarthen (2000), and Trevarthen and Malloch (2009), suggesting that human evolution has provided us with a basic protomusicality, “a psychobiological capacity for relating to sounds, rhythms, and movements” (Stige, 2012, p. 189). Malloch and Trevarthen call this communicative musicality.

It is communicative musicality that enables, even compels the infant to seek out, engage in, and prolong interactions with other humans. These interactions are pleasurable for both parties, making helpless infants infinitely attractive to their mothers, which ensured the high level of care that ancestral human babies needed to thrive, survive and perpetuate the species. Today, human’s communicative musicality is an innate capacity that begins the journey of cultural learning and meaning-making. This supports Dissanayake’s hypothesis that participation in music is a human need related to the experience of meaning. Through the early shared experiences of sounds and gestures, musicking and musicianship develop.

Dad and baby engage with music (Nests 2013)

Then there are the neurotransmitters and hormones that start firing up when we engage in communal music-making. Brain imaging research has shown that music listening and participation is linked to the section of the brain associated with reward, motivation and emotion. The neurotransmitter dopamine is released, triggering production of  oxytocin (apparently known as the ‘cuddle chemical’) which in turn reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Oxytocin is associated with social bonding, mother-infant bonding, and orgasm. In other words, it’s a powerful natural drug that makes people like each other and feel good physically and emotionally. And we get it every time we sing or play with others!

I find these ideas fascinating, but ultimately, no amount of science or evolutionary hypothesis can substitute for the reports of those who have lived through war and conflict and made the choice to turn to music when the rest of their lived experience was marked by deprivation, fear, and violence. In a few months time I will be embarking on my first period of fieldwork, returning to Bosnia-Herzegovina and the city of Mostar for the first time since 2007, and meeting up with some of the people who took part in music projects at the Pavarotti Music Centre from its opening in 1997. By collaboratively exploring the question of why they were drawn towards music-making at that time in their lives, I hope to be able to add their voices and understanding to David Wilson’s observations, and my own experience, of that intense human hunger that music seemed in some way to nourish.

Works cited in this post:
Dissanayake, Ellen. What is Art For (1988), Home Aestheticus (1992), Art and Intimacy (2001)
Osborne, Nigel. (2009). Music for children in zones of conflict and post-conflict: A psychobiological approach. In S. Malloch & C. Trevarthen (Eds.), Communicative Musicality: Exploring the basis of human companionship (pp. 331-356). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Small, Christopher. (1998). Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Stige, Brynjulf. (2012). Health musicking: A perspective on music and health as action and performance. In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 183-195). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wilson, David. (2000). Music and war: Some comments on the Pavarotti Music Centre and Its work. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 15(1), 147-152.

Pondering and questioning music’s (assumed) powers

A few weeks back I wrote a post on the power of music (read it here).

I confess, for a few days after writing that post, I felt kind of on-edge and grumpy. I’d written the post as one of my first efforts to unpack some of the ideas that were rolling around in my brain in response to my PhD reading, resisting being organised into orderly prose. I realised that I wasn’t quite clear on my own position on the perceived power of music. That position is still evolving and it intrigues me.

I know that music can change things. Just the other day I was feeling tired, a bit head-achey, and sick of sitting at the computer. I got up and went out to the living room, picked up the guitar and start to play. I can’t really play guitar, but sitting for 10 minutes with the instrument, strumming naively to myself and seeing what I can concoct, left me with a fresher, sweeter energy than I’d had at the computer. But is this change in energy just down to the music? It might also be the change of environment, the change in pace of thought, the leaving-go of one set of complex ideas and swapping them for something altogether less demanding. Maybe I was also entraining my heart rate or my breathing to the tempo of my guitar playing (which was very slow). Maybe I was sitting straighter, so my breathing became deeper. By changing rooms I was also leaving the darkness of my study space for a light, bright open room with sunshine flooding in, and an open door leading out to the balcony. Suddenly there was a lot more space in front of me than there had been before.

But, could I have got many of these same impacts by going and making a cup of tea, or practising some flamenco footwork on the balcony for a few minutes? I don’t think so. I think that the music I chose to play (a lullaby from Benin), had a part to play in my energy change.

Sometimes the power of music discourse can get swept away in its own enthusiasm:

During war, Music brings serenity, happiness and hope. After war it brings dynamism and energy for reconstruction, galvanize juvenile minds for action and make happiness an object of desire. During peace, it brings comfort of mind, awareness on love and motivation for the future. In front of different cultures or ideologies it brings cooperativeness, understanding and create unperceived ties among people. Even in front of different languages, songs become understandable for everyone and appreciated when your mind is touch… Because Music could be use forever as an essential remedy to cure souls and minds, to create harmony and put foundations for reconciliation, or simply to do things better in a time of tremendous challenges for the world and for humanity. (Antonio Pedro Monteiro Lima, Introductory Statement to the Music as a Natural Resource Compendium, published in 2010 by UN-HABITAT and ICCC)

When I read this, it can give me tingles of excitement, or a slight, zephyr of thrill. A bit like the kind of emotional, warm-fuzzy nostalgia I sometimes get when I hear the song ‘Down Under’ being played on the radio or – even better – sung by children. Yep. That can make me gulp and gets my eyes all hot.

Such sentiments about music (I’m referring to the quote above, not ‘Down Under’s lyrics) can be incredibly attractive to us. Peace and harmony become so achievable, and through such beautiful means! It’s an example of a Design Fallacy, where because an idea is beautiful and attractive, it becomes true for us. We embrace it, and resist efforts to de-bunk it. Purse-strings may open and funding may roll in response to idealised, romantic claims like this, but if the ultimate goal in a conflicted community is one of genuine conflict resolution and cooperation among divided peoples, then it is people who need to be active agents in such processes, rather passive recipients of a mysterious power generated by music (and, by inference, musicians as the diviners and conduits of that power).

My colleague in the Music and Culture subject that I co-teach at NMIT on Mondays asked us today to apply ‘Socratic questioning’ to the cultural constructions that abound around the notions of Talent, and Inspiration. The ‘talent discourse’ is similar to the ‘power of music’ discourse, in that it distances ‘ordinary mortals’ from our own potential to be extraordinary (through hard work, persistence, and grit). So here are some Socratic-style questions that I am asking myself as I read through all the literature I can find on the different music initiatives that have started up in post-conflict countries in the last 20 years:

Is this notion [that music has a mysterious, inherent power] a myth, or is there evidence for it?

Why is this notion so tantalising? Why do these ideas/myths persist? What are the motivations for maintaining them?

If we agree to this notion, what else are we agreeing to? What is the ‘fine print’?

Does the image of the power of music to bring people together devalue the actual process of making music together, and all the minute, nuanced interactions that are part of that?

Is the fact that we are focusing on the final product keeping us from understanding the complexity of the process?

Does the idea of music’s power give certain “special people” (eg. musicians) ‘permission’ to generate music outcomes for others, potentially rendering the participants/non-musicians passive or dependent?

Perhaps one of the reasons the discourse of ‘the power of music’ is so enduring (and compelling) is due to limitations of language – it may that the process of music-making is such a complex one that our expressive language is insufficient to explain and understand it, and to recreate it in words for others. We resort to metaphor and ideals in order to make sense of an experience, but then these become embedded within the vernacular and cease to be challenged or critiqued. They become accepted as truths.

Still with me? It can be an intense ride, working my way through these ideas. Ultimately, as I read through the literature, I can see evidence of the many beliefs and assumptions that people have about music. These will be culturally-based, but if we are talking about international aid contexts (where most of the projects that I am interested in are situated), it is the culture of the donors – and therefore their assumptions and beliefs about music – that are foregrounded. So what are the implications of this? That, my friends, will be for the next instalment.

What is the power of music?

ANIM girls

A tension that arises for me in my research topic is about the perceived (and/or assumed) ‘power of music’. There is a considerable amount of writing from respected academics that proposes a power inherent within music that makes it particularly effective in conflicted and post-conflict settings. There is far less writing that examines this notion critically, or offers up grounded evidence to support these claims. It is stated or assumed, rather than being tested.

This puts the critical thinker in me on alert. Some statements come across as very woolly, romantic notions of music’s mysterious powers that separate it from its context and all the other variables that may be at play. Eg. Music creates peace and harmony, music works miracles and stops violence, the singing of Silent Night in WWI trenches brought about a ceasefire, playing music together turns enemies into friends, and so on. When these stories are recounted, I find myself thinking, “But what about the influence of..? What about all the events that had gone on before the [music event]?…”. Music doesn’t exist in isolation.

Some of the writing in music therapy research I’ve read also tends towards this – one statement I read recently declares that music “bypasses the head and goes straight to the heart”. I know that this isn’t true for me (my head is very involved in all of my musical experiences)… but anyway, what does it mean? That it circumvents our thinking and logic and goes straight to emotion? Is that desirable? (think of propaganda…) Is it what really happens? Always? If not always, when?

Does being a musician make one less well-placed to examine the question of music’s power (or lack thereof)? Does the intensity and longevity of our engagement with the musical arts blind us to the other variables so that we cannot examine all the variables and influences of an event in a dispassionate way? (Reading some of the intense debates on Geoff Barker’s Sistema blog pages – be sure to scroll to ‘comments’ at the end of any of his posts – suggests that sometimes, musicians can be such true believers that any perceived criticism or critique that questions the accepted wisdom of the tribe is received as ill-informed and shocking injury. Either that, or Geoff is really overstepping the mark with his questions, observations and critique).

But it could also work the other way – maybe my many years of schooling and study in music and music-making give me a different (or limited) perspective on how my brain (intellect) and my heart (emotions) receive and engage with music. I know that I am far more intrigued by music’s role in our social lives – the way it can connect people in all sorts of ways – than by any inherent “power”. Perhaps I am a social scientist at heart, as well as a musician!  I know I am drawn again and again to music experiences, not because it is the way I make my living, but because it calls me. And has done ever since I joined my first music ensemble at the age of 6. But is it something inherent and unknowable about music itself that draws me to it? Or is it about what happens when I play/participate/listen/engage that is the call and ongoing motivation?

Also, I know that there can be many ways of knowing. Indigenous knowledge, for example, is just as valid as the Western version of knowledge with its roots in the Enlightenment project. Would my critical thinking be so much on alert if this statement about “the power of music” came from an indigenous culture? It’s a moot point, because it hasn’t, and because what I know of indigenous cultures’ relationships to music suggests that they see music as an essential element in all sorts of social interactions, frequently taking place within ritual and daily patterns. The idea of music as something to be focused on and listened to, purely as a passive, disembodied engagement, is a very Western one.

My response to these ideas also reveals my own beliefs about music and how I understand it:

  • That while music may be a cultural universal (in that every culture, in every age throughout time, and into the future, engages in and with music as part of being human), the meaning that people ascribe to it and derive from it is not universal. It is often perceived as such, and thus considered to be a powerful way to bring people together, but the meanings of music are culturally-based. This doesn’t negate the fact that it can be a powerful way to bring people together, but the universality of musical meaning is not the reason for its effectiveness.
  • Because of this, considerations of music activities and their meaning should not be separated from their contexts, because music-making (or ‘musicking’ as Christopher Small calls it) is a social undertaking, with social meaning and with social relationships at its core. What takes place before, during and after the music event is an essential part of the story. Separating the music event from these considerations (ie. seeing music as an independent event or experience with its own inherent properties) denies the huge significance of the context.
  • I also think that isolating the music event from its context weakens arguments about music’s effectiveness. For example, in conflict transformation, removal of context implicitly takes power and agency away from the individuals engaged in the transformation of conflict and assigns responsibility and the power of transformation to music. In such a context, effectiveness is all about the people making active choices and adjusting mindsets, rather than being passive recipients of a mysterious ‘power’. Music has a role to play but it will be the context that determines any possible transformation.

(I’ve been reading Arild Bergh’s PhD dissertation on Music and Conflict Transformation – another inspiring piece of scholarly work – and he raises many of these same issues. That thesis has been a very influential piece of writing for me, a very fortunate recommendation so early on in my project).

There are some of my musings for today. Everything changes… the very act of setting some of these ideas down in this blog means they will continue to evolve and expand for me, making more nodes and branches on the tree-like structure of my topic!

References relating to this post:

Bergh, A. (2010). I’d like to teach the world to sing: Music and conflict transformation. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Exeter.
Small, C. (1998). Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.