Can music help foster a more peaceful world?

Dom Aversano

Like many, in recent weeks I have looked on in horror at the war in the Middle East and wondered how such hatred and division is possible. Not simply from people directly involved in the war, but also from the entrenched and polarised discourse on social media from across the world. Don’t worry, I’m not about to give you another underinformed political opinion, but rather, I would like to explore the idea of whether music can help foster peace in the world, and help break down the polarisation and division fracturing our societies.

In 2017, when it was clear that polarisation and authoritarianism were on the rise, I bought myself a copy of the Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Written as a listicle it is full of practical advice on living through strange political times and how to attempt to influence them for the better, with chapter titles such as ‘Defend institutions’, ‘Be kind to our language’, and ‘Make eye contact and small talk’.

What I found missing in the book was a robust call to defend the arts, despite this being one of the first things any would-be authoritarian might attack. I questioned, what is it about the arts that makes authoritarians feel instinctively threatened?

What follows are five reflections on why I think music is powerful in the face of inhumanity, and how we can use it to foster peace.

Music ignites the imagination

Whether by creating or listening to it, music ignites and awakens the imagination. Art allows us to envision other worlds. The composer Franz Schubert expressed this idea when praising Mozart in a diary entry he made on June 13th, 1816.

O Mozart, immortal Mozart, what countless images of a brighter and better world thou hast stamped upon our souls!

Conversely, without artists our collective imagination shrinks, priming people for conformity and fixations on a lost romantic past or grand nationalist future. This is not to say that art completely disappears, but that it becomes an empty vessel for state propaganda. Whereas liberating music allows us to imagine new realities.

Music offers society multiple leaders.

It is a cliché to write about Taylor Swift, but there is no denying she is influential. People filling out arenas to listen to Taylor Swift deflect attention from mesmeric demagogues like Donald Trump. It is an influence that cannot summon an army or change tax laws, but is powerful nevertheless. The singer has said she will campaign against America’s aspiring dictator in the coming US election. Perhaps having a billionaire singer telling people how to vote will do more harm than good, but what is certain is that she will be influential at a pivotal moment in history.

One does not need such dazzling fame to be significant. I count myself lucky enough to have been friends with the late electronic composer Mira Calix, who was also a passionate campaigner against Brexit and nationalism. At the last concert of her classical music, she used this moment on the stage to give a short but heartfelt defence of free movement. It was powerful, even if it went unreported.

While this type of power might seem intangible or questionable, it is more obvious when observed through the lens of history. In the 1960s-70s musicians’ protests against the Vietnam War and Cold War can plausibly said to have helped hasten the dismantlement of these conflicts, as they drew attention to the destructiveness and absurdity of the conflicts, while offering alternative visions for the future. In the immortal lyrics from Sun Ra’s Nuclear War, ‘If they push that button, your ass gotta go’. It’s hard to argue with that.

Music is uniting

There are exceptions to this, but music more generally unites than divides. Audiences are comprised of people who might otherwise be divided by politics, class, or religious/non-religious affiliations. Music can bypass belief and connect us to something deeper, that is common to all of us.

Unity applies to musicians too. Artists like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Frank Zappa were not necessarily the best instrumentalists of their generation, but they formed the world’s best groups by picking the finest talent of their age. Without sophisticated collaboration, they would not have been capable of achieving everything they did. Their styles of bandleading may have ranged from the conventional to the eccentric, and they were by no means saints or role models, but they held groups together that demonstrated the creative power of collaboration.

Finally, unity can stretch across borders. Music allows one to appreciate the skill and expressivity of someone from a completely different culture and background, while gaining some insight into the way they experience the world. Having someone stir our emotion who is seemingly quite different to us acts as a reminder of their humanity, especially in cases where they have dehumanised or degraded. Under Narendra Modi’s rule of India, a strong anti-Muslim sentiment has spread, yet India’s finest tabla player is Zakir Hussain, a Muslim. Every time he plays he reminds people that beauty and dignity exist within all people.

Music makes you less rigid

Music rejects rigid ideologies. Simplistic and reductive models of music create sound worlds that are dull and predictable. To listen to or create music effectively one needs to be relaxed, flexible, and open to allowing in new forms of music, whether it is from a different region, style, or period of history. By doing so one’s internal world is enriched.

Purists are in contrast to this. Whether in classical music, jazz, or minimal techno, it represents a strict and exclusive mentality. To all but themselves — or a certain in-group — their position seem absurd, representing not a love of music but a love of one type of music, and if that music did not exist, what remains?

Music connects us with our emotions

While there may be many complex reasons why we listen to and create music, a simple one is to awaken and express our feelings. Healthy emotions like compassion, hope, or love, need to be felt to be genuine. If our emotional world shuts down, no level of societal status, wealth, or physical health will make us content.

A healthy music culture helps prevent cultural atmospheres dominated by fear and anger, where it becomes easier to divide people and whip up mobs. A lot is made of the importance of intellectual freedom, but it is equally important to be emotionally free. The hate, anger, and recriminations that have spread from the war in the Middle East could be tempered if people took some time to listen to or create music, by connects us to deeper emotions and creates a calm and peace that helps prevent us from fanning the flames of war.

For these reasons, I believe music can help foster a more peaceful world.