Giving peace a chance? Music can drive us apart as much as it unites
Appeared on the net the September 20, 2017 9.35pm BST
September 21 isInternational Day of Peace,
the UN’s annual call for a global ceasefire. This year, in the lead-up,
celebrities have curated aPeace Day Playlistavailable
through streaming services. James Morrison, Yoko Ono, Michael Caine, UB40 and
others have nominated songs such as Michael Jackson’s Heal the World, Joan
Baez’s We Shall Overcome and John Lennon’s Imagine, alongside One, a Peace Day
anthem featuring artists from across the African continent. The premise for the
playlist is that music “is a unique vehicle to amplify the message of the day,
bringing people together in the name of peace.”
For many people, such songs have become associated with
anti-war protests and notions of freedom, equality and social justice. But just
as music can unite us behind a cause, it can also drive us apart. Music must be
deployed carefully if we are to reallygive peace a chance.
Music is often called humankind’s “universal language”:
an all-embracing and inherently benevolent form of communication. Music can
indeed deepen feelings of affinity and social cohesion. But these same qualities
can alsostrengthen divisions.
Music played in the flute bands of Northern Ireland has
similarly strong and contentious associations. Some tunes were so potent that in
some parts of the country, whistling a short phrase
hasresulted in violence.
Other researchshows some American soldiers used
metal and rap music in Iraq to heighten aggressiveness and inspire warlike
behaviour. Despite the stereotype of violence and rap and metal music, this
isnot a result of these music genresper
se, but the bonding qualities of music. As we’ve seen, conflict can be just as
easily fanned by dance and folk music.
What makes music work?
We can explain how music brings people together through
the lens ofempathy.
Empathy involves being able to identify other people’s emotional states and
respond appropriately. It can also involve the capacity to reflect other
people’s emotions back at them. Empathy, therefore, is both knowing and
We can see these same qualities when groups come
together around music.Researchhas
shown how making music together can enhance children’s emotional skills such as
at musical components that promote empathy such as emotionality (music’s ability
to both induce and express emotions); imitation (the repeated patterns of the
music itself as well as in the act mimicking other performer’s movements); and
synchronisation (exemplified through the sense of a mutually felt
Some researchers have even suggested making music goes
beyond empathy, as performers share emotions, intentions and experiences to such
a degree that theboundary between them becomes blurred.
When singing or humming in unison with a large group of people, for example, it
can be difficult to distinguish one’s own voice in the total sound being
Healing old wounds
Importantly, though, feeling belonging with other people
does not automatically mean peace. The key to this is whether music is being
used to bond people whoalready consider themselves to be alike,
or whether it connects those who for whatever reason consider each other
Recent findingsdemonstrate that even brief exposure
to music from a particular culture can increase listeners’ positive attitudes
towards people from that culture. However, this
approachhas been criticisedfor
emphasising the differences between groups, reinforcing the boundaries the
projects aim to dismantle.
To avoid hardening the borderlines, some projects have
harnessed musical styles that are perceived to be politically or culturally
neutral. For example, in modern-day KosovoMusicians without Borderssteer
away from popular but divisive turbofolk, connecting youth in the ethnically
divided city of Mitrovica throughrock music.
Rock music provided asimilar respiteduring
The Troubles in 1980s Northern Ireland, offering Protestant and Catholic youths
somewhere to socialise and enjoy each other’s company, despite political
shows how sharing lullabies across language groups helps people recognise the
universal aspects of human nature.
In other places, music can help people confront
difference.Scholars have suggestedthat
music from South Africa’s history could provide insight into the experiences of
both black and white South Africans before 1994, when the country became an
inclusive democracy, ending the final vestiges of apartheid.
In South SudanMuonjieng (Dinka) songshave
long served as avenues for public truth-telling and disclosure of past violent
abuses. With civil war ongoing, these mechanisms for peacebuilding could be
significant in the establishment of formalised justice systems.
Through his music, John Lennon asks us to “imagine all
the people living life in peace.” It is not always as simple as that, but when
carefully deployed, music can give us spaces to work towards enacting this