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Music and the MindEssays in honour of John Sloboda$

Irène Deliège and Jane Davidson

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199581566

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199581566.001.0001

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Emotions in motion: transforming conflict and music

Emotions in motion: transforming conflict and music

(p.363) Chapter 18 Emotions in motion: transforming conflict and music
Music and the Mind

Arild Bergh

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In recent violent conflicts around the world, music has often been used to channel emotions and make combatants’ fluid identities more explicit and oppositional in order to create or sustain the conflict. In addition, in industrialized countries music is used by groups from different geographical origins to maintain group borders and thus emphasize their differences with other groups. At the same time there is an increased interest in the use of aesthetic materials such as music to attempt to transform these conflicts and tensions, with highly variable results. From an academic standpoint, although there is a lot of high-flown rhetoric about music and its abilities to ‘soothe the beast’, little empirical work exists on music and its use for reducing conflicts. Rather more is written from speculative and opinionated viewpoints, often by those involved in the projects in the first place. In this article I first discuss the problems involved in writing and researching this highly charged area, even for academics, before drawing on Sloboda’s academic work related to music and emotion and music education when discussing empirical data from conflict transformation projects in Norway and Sudan. I end by summarizing some potential real world uses for this new area of conflict transformation, thereby covering both areas that Sloboda has been involved in, first music psychology and now conflict resolution as the Director of Oxford Research Group.

Keywords:   music, conflict transformation, John Sloboda, music psychology, conflict resolution, emotion, music education

In 2001 a small conference was arranged by the Oxford University United Nations Association, which focused on the conflict in Kashmir (divided between India and Pakistan), and actors from the different sides in the conflict were present. It was a so-called ‘Track II’ initiative, an unofficial, small-scale event, or ‘citizen peacemaking’ which attempted to provide impetus to more large-scale diplomatic activities through dialogue (p.364) between participants from different sides of a conflict. At this event former foreign secretaries from India and Pakistan were present, and during lunch the former Pakistani Foreign Secretary mentioned to me, unprompted, that when they had held official negotiations in the past, they would gather both delegations afterhours and share food and listen to old Hindustani classical music. This, he felt, helped remind them of their shared past before the partition in 1948 and provided relaxation after the tense negotiations.

This short vignette illustrates what is now starting to emerge as a topic for academic investigation: the role of music in conflict transformation1 and peace building, often analysed through ‘folk beliefs’ as above.

Soon after the encounter described in the vignette, I started my PhD on music and conflict transformation. As a part of my initial work I contacted the Oxford Research Group, ‘one of the UK’s leading advocates for the non-military resolution of global conflict’2 and found it quite a coincidence that their director, John Sloboda, had the same name as the co-author of numerous books and articles I had read on music psychology. So far apart was music and conflict transformation then, that not for a second did I suspect that it was the same person, and in fact, that is how John Sloboda has kept his two interests, music and peace activism, separate. The current volume celebrates both John Sloboda’s work as a music psychologist and a peace activist and I hope my contribution will serve to link these two passions in a constructive way.

I will do this by briefly discussing the problems of researching this area before filling in the background on music and conflict/conflict transformation. I will then discuss my empirical work in this area and how it links to John Sloboda’s research, before suggesting some ways in which music may ‘work’ in conflict transformation and how we may fruitfully integrate it in the type of dialogue work that John Sloboda is now engaged in as part of his work with the Oxford Research Group. This reflects the increased interest in music and conflict transformation since our initial meeting in 2002, and points the way forward.

Problems of discussing this topic

One problem I quickly encountered in my research was the amount of hyperbole surrounding music in general, and music and conflict transformation more specifically. These two quotes, with some 120 years between them are illustrative of this problem:

Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything. (Lubbock 1889, frequently attributed to Plato)

Everything a musician plays is an expression of Divine inspiration, and transformative for that very reason. (Youssou N’Dour)3

(p.365) This taking-for-granted of the ‘magic’ of music, a reluctance to look critically at the issues surrounding this field, the fact that a lot of the writing and/or research is done by either musicians themselves or academics who are music ‘fans’ often prejudices research: writings on music listening often have a penchant for the fascinating and romantic subject of the musical catharsis, or peak experience, self-reported and often sought out by listeners’ (Bergh & DeNora, 2009, p. 95). As Sloboda says ‘I believe that science has much to offer musicians. One thing that it does is attempt to make theoretical assumptions explicit, and thus open to discussion and test. … Whatever else scientists may or may not do, they can offer people new ways of looking at old issues.’ (2005, p.175). One example of this would be to look at the idea in the opening vignette of music bringing back memories of a shared past and allowing relaxation. Of course we academics have to be self-reflexive and acknowledge that for many of us researching music, ‘the mystery [of music] is part of the love’ (2005, p.175). This, and the fact that modern day peace building and conflict transformation ‘are professions afflicted with a proclivity toward the promise of great change. … If constructive social change rolled forward as easily as our words and promises pour out, world justice and peace would have surely been attained by now’. (Lederach, 2005, p. 22). This means that there is a great need, not for critique for the sake of it, or to be ‘clever’, but to ensure that any tools used, be it music or dialogue workshops, are scrutinized and improved. Because conflict transformation is often a matter of (literally) life and death, we owe it to those involved to hold any attempts to the highest standards of inquiry. I believe the following comment from Sloboda on research into peak musical experiences sums it up well, and points the way forward when he says: ‘[O]ur attempts to deconstruct need to be constantly held up against the richness of everyday (and peak) musical experience to ensure that it is the full experience we are attempting to explain, and not some conveniently simplified portion of it’ (2005, p. 392).

Music and conflict

Any attempt to explain ‘the full experience’ of music use in conflict transformation must acknowledge the more successful use of music in conflicts. Two overlapping issues are important here, identity and emotion. Many of the wars after 1990 focused on identities, real or perceived, such as Serbs versus Croats versus Muslims in former Yugoslavia. And in any violent conflict, emotions must be controlled (subdued or escalated) for people to be able to kill each other (Kemp & Fry, 2004). Identities and emotions are also important in music: ‘When people feel most passionately about music together it is because of its power to mark boundaries…’ (Frith & Street, 1992, p. 80). Music is therefore a way not only to affect emotions, but also identities, as Becker has suggested when she says that identities affiliated with music can let listeners experience different emotions as they fit into temporary music-related roles (2001, p. 142). This represents a major problem when music is used to resolve conflicts, and is shown in how music has been used before, during and after conflicts to instigate, continue, or reignite conflict.

Music before conflict

Music played an important role in marshalling the different ethnic groups in former Yugoslavia before the wars there in the 1990s. Pettan (1998) has discussed how (p.366) independently produced tapes of ultra-nationalistic Croatian music were on sale in stalls long before there was open war and Turbo-Folk4 was used by Serbians to bolster the myth of the Serbian uniqueness (Hudson, 2003). In Sudan, the hakamat, female singers of Darfur who used to praise men who had done some practical feat (Carlisle, 1973), have in recent years used their skills to encourage Jihad.5 In these circumstances we can see how music has been deployed primarily as a tool, i.e. the aesthetic ‘enjoyment’ as it were, is of no concern, what matters is how well it works in a given situation—although links to people’s identities are important both for those the music is meant to encourage and those it hopes to intimidate.

Music during conflict

Here music has often been used to boost morale among civilians as seen for instance in Britain in the Second Word War (Weingartner, 2006) or in parts of Bosnia in the 1990s (Hadzihusejnovic-Valasek, 1998). In a broad historical view McNeill (1995) suggests that activities that have required humans to keep the same rhythm (such as marching) have been beneficial in building communities and foster strong euphoric feelings among soldiers and others. This has been demonstrated vividly in a documentary from the 2003 invasion of Iraq where US soldiers used loud music, predominantly rap, hardcore and various metal music, while engaging in patrols and attacks inside armoured vehicles (Gittoes, 2005). Music has also been used for torture—prisoners of war in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few years have been subjected to loud music ranging from Metallica to Barney the Dinosaur (Cusick, 2006).

Music after conflict

Music that commemorates a conflict can appear after the conflict and becomes part of the ‘canon’ for the conflicting groups. Over time this might cement enemy images of ‘the other’, and become part of future conflicts. This happened in Northern Ireland during the conflict after the 1960s (McCann, 1995). However, most of the time post-war music may be nostalgic, this can be seen both with refugees who have arrived in countries far away, which may require innovation and changes in their music (McMahon, 2005; Reyes Schramm, 1989) or internally displaced people who are able to continue performing their original repertoire (Bergh, 2008).

Emotions, whether they are basic emotions such as disgust or more cognitive ones such as patriotism (Sloboda, 2005), are in these three periods (before, during, after conflict) enhanced or modified by music with the aim of fomenting conflict. This use of music tends to augment existing feelings, rather than create them from scratch, as suggested by Sloboda (2005).

Music and conflict transformation

Music use in conflict transformation is not a new innovation. For example the Buwaya Kalingga People in the Philippines established peace pacts between different groups (p.367) and cemented them through feasts which included peace pact-specific songs more than a century ago (Prudente, 1984).

In more recent times music has been used by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for conflict transformation purposes in contexts such as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict or the various conflicts in former Yugoslavia. In general it has been in small-scale peace building or Track II initiatives that music has been used, and this has taken place within a context of increased attention to the psycho-social issues during and after violent conflicts. This has led to the relatively new human security paradigm as defined by the United Nations: ‘Human security is “people-centred”, focusing the attention of institutions on human beings and communities everywhere’ (Commission on Human Security, 2003). This people-centred approach has become central to the work of NGOs such as the Oxford Research Group, and the desire for such an approach was voiced by one of my informants in Sudan who felt that the West often talked about welfare but ignored family and music, which to him were very important aspects of African welfare.

A complete literature review of this field is not possible here, instead I will mention a few representative examples. Zelizer (2004) has discussed the use of music/arts processes in Bosnia after the war there, including a project that involved a multi-ethnic/multi-faith choir. The focus was on the singing activities, which was what attracted people to the choir, and the conflict transformation was primarily between choir members, whereas for their audiences it was used mainly to show that people from different groups could (again) work together. This is similar work to the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Arab-Israeli orchestra that was set up by the classical conductor Daniel Barenboim and the academic Edward Said to bring young musicians from different parts of the Middle East conflict(s) together (Beckles Willson, 2007).

Another area where music is used is music therapy. This may be as a method in dialogue workshops, as discussed by Jordanger (2008), in connection with a conflict resolution workshop focusing on the North Caucasus conflict that used music following a music therapy technique called ‘Guided Imagery’ (Bonny, 1997; Summer, 1997). Here a selection of recorded music is played and people are asked to focus on images occurring when listening to the music. The collective experience during this session is described as a musical peak experience which Jordanger felt changed the atmosphere of the entire workshop. Music therapy may also be used to deal with individual traumas arising from war. When describing her prolonged period of work with a Kurdish refugee and torture victim in Berlin, Zharinova-Sanderson (2004) found that music was a valid therapy resource across cultures.

A final example of attempts at using music for conflict transformation is festivals and recordings that feature musicians from different sides of a conflict. For instance in 1995 Palestinian, Israeli, and Norwegian musicians collaborated on a CD under the name Music Channel following the Oslo Agreement,6 and in different parts of the former Yugoslavia there have been many festivals with ethnically mixed bands or Serb, Croat, and Muslim folklore music.

(p.368) Some of the problems with research in this area are listed below:

  • A focus on strong (peak) experiences that may be too neat and dramatic, real life conflict transformation is far messier and long-winded.

  • An overly romantic view of music’s capabilities, with an abundance of phrases such as ‘Music … has the potential to cut across cognitive, emotional, social, spiritual, and physical dimensions of the human experience’ (Weaver, 2001, p. 118) or ‘The arts by nature hold significant power to transform individuals and societies’ (Zelizer, 2004, p. 59).

  • The idea that non-rational interventions (i.e. art, music) are capable of resolving conflicts where rational (i.e. negotiated) approaches have failed.

  • Power issues are rarely discussed—it is assumed that musicians and NGOs involved have no internal agendas and/or self-interest.

In essence there tends to be a leap of faith from anecdotal/empirical data to general claims about music’s power with little grounded discussion. These ‘black boxes’ are not questioned or inspected very closely and thus present ‘some conveniently simplified portion’ of reality as I quoted from Sloboda earlier. Although many people have genuine and strong personal experiences where music has affected them to such an extent that it is difficult to find the words to describe it, as has been discussed by several researchers from different academic disciplines (Crafts, Cavicchi, & Keil, 1993; DeNora, 2000; Gabrielsson, 2001), a problem occurs for practical use of music in conflict transformation through extrapolation in two directions: first, the belief that everyone has strong experiences through music; and second, that such experiences can be relied on to occur ‘at will’.

Music and conflict transformation, perspectives grounded in data

During my own fieldwork in Norway and Sudan the problems discussed in the previous section and several other themes emerged from the empirical data collected. This has been discussed in more depth elsewhere ("Bergh, 2007, 2008; Bergh, Hashim, & Sutherland, 2008). Here I want to provide a brief overview of these themes and link this to Sloboda’s work in music psychology and his more recent work in peace building.

The data from Norway come from interviews with former pupils, musicians, teachers, and organizers from a project that took place between 1989 and 1992 in six schools in and around Oslo where the year 4 cohort (11 years old in 1989) attended monthly concerts that presented traditional and classical music and dance from Asia, Africa, and South America. My research took place in 2005–2006, some 13–14 years after the original project finished, which meant the pupils who participated in the project were now adults who felt more at ease in discussing their experiences than was the case when they were children. The data from Sudan focus on the music use in Wau Nour, a settlement of approximately 5000 people, the majority displaced by war, where I interviewed local inhabitants, musicians, and NGO workers. Wau Nour is situated 2–3 miles outside the centre of Kassala and was established in 1988. Music was played by different ethnic groups (there are at least 29 different tribes in the settlement) on most Fridays in a field outside the settlement from the early 1990s until 2003.

(p.369) The main themes, five in all, that came into view when analysing my data were as follows.

Active musicking

A key point I found (somewhat to my surprise, as I am not a musician myself) was how important active musicking was for the music to have an impact. In Norway the concerts consisted of a mixture of plain performances (especially Asian and South American music) and active dancing/singing/playing by the children (usually for African music). When I interviewed a number of participants, they remembered with a good level of detail the events where they had taken an active part and were positive about them, but were negative or had forgotten about most of the pure listening events. This also showed the importance of casual musicking in a society, as Sloboda (1999) has suggested, it provides a meeting place outside work and school. It also resonates with many of the ideas behind community music therapy (Pavlicevic & Ansdell, 2004). One of the teachers especially praised the African musicians, not as musicians but as educators, which indicates that despite the geographical distance they had a better understanding of the pupils than their own teachers. In fact Sloboda (2001) has pointed out that the changing ideologies in music education may mean that many school music educators have little empathy or understanding for their pupils’ musical interests.

Group contact

Changing attitudes to, and perceptions of, out groups is central if conflicts are to be transformed or avoided. If there is no change, then negative views of former enemies are fertile ground for future conflict mongers. The contact theory developed by Allport (1954) suggests that such contact requires equal group status within the situation, common goals, intergroup cooperation and authority support. The contact also has to be of a certain quality or intimacy; superficial contact will leave it worse than before. This was echoed in my findings: in Norway some informants, despite liking African music, had found traditional costumes ‘strange’ and had discussed participants in terms of coming from ‘the jungle’. In Sudan on the other hand, where the contact between the groups was long term and (due to shared displacement) meaningful, the musical encounters resulted in closer relationships and strong reduction in intergroup conflicts. In some ways this ties in with Sloboda’s (2005) suggestion that the emotions tied to music can either intensify existing emotions (negative attitudes to African culture) or offer a space for people to see an alternative view of a situation (new views of fellow displaced people).

Thus there is no guarantee that musical experiences move the participants in a certain way—it can be negative or positive, although lengthy/repetitive musical encounters may tend towards the positive. This also underlines the difficulty of using music as representation, that is, to assume that certain types of music are representative of a group of people, and that exposure to the music will improve relations to the out group (Bergh, 2007).

Not for everyone

Although music is (for practical purposes) universally available, not everybody is equally interested in music: a Norwegian-Pakistani informant had no interest in the (p.370) music presented at school, and in Wau Nour some people tried to avoid music for religious reasons. It is therefore important not to assume that there is anything ‘universal’ about music, neither in its appeal to people, nor in the way it is received and understood (Einarsen, 1998).

Sustainability and community

A key issue when using music for conflict transformation purposes is the sustainability of the immediate outcome. Sustainability is important for any solution that attempts to resolve a root cause of a conflict, rather than just control the conflict (Abbott et al., 2006). In Norway it was clear that interest in the classroom did not translate into any wider change or increased interest. In Sudan on the other hand, changes took hold in the community and positive attitudes generated during musical encounters has resulted in a new, shared, identity of being Wau Nour inhabitants, and not just a disparate collection of tribes. There are a number of issues here. First, the strong emotions that can be evoked by music are temporal, as Sloboda puts it: ‘Emotions by their nature are immediate and evanescent: they do not survive long after the triggering event’ (2005, p. 218). Second, the impetus for the music use was very different. The Norwegian project was very top-down, run by adults from the governmental agency ‘Concerts Norway’, who took all decisions without involving the target group, which meant that there was no link between the children’s everyday life and the music presented. In Sudan in contrast, music was a naturally occurring and joint activity, thus more of a bottom-up endeavour. And finally, in Norway music was seen as functional, an attitude shared by other music and conflict transformation projects there (Einarsen, 2002), whereas in Sudan it was a process that was allowed to play out over time, something that Zelizer (2004) discussed with regards to music and arts in Bosnia. This meant that music became an important part of the community in Wau Nour. One of my informants who had lost all her family apart from a brother told me that it was her role in the Azande band that was her main link to Wau Nour now. In short, a focus on strong experiences and top-down approaches means that sustainability fails as either the emotional highs cannot be repeated forever, or there are not enough resources available to maintain the professionals who manage the projects.

Music as a space for work

The final theme is that music can provide a space for ‘work’ (DeNora, 1986), in this case the emotional work involved in adjusting your views of the out group(s) and attempting to understand their views. When interviewing a member from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra I was told that music was good for conflict transformation because ‘First of all you don’t have to talk’. In Sudan this was very clear in the way that the Friday concerts allowed different groups to come together and experience (repeatedly) a different side of each other, and my informants were very clear about how they enjoyed these events. One woman said ‘even if you do not like someone you can like the music that comes from their radio’. Based on autobiographical work with regards to strong positive music experiences, Sloboda has suggested that such experiences may be difficult when you are in a negative state, ‘you can’t enjoy the music when you are not enjoying the circumstances in which it takes place’ (Sloboda, 2005, p. 183). (p.371) This clearly presents a problem in a post-conflict situation with lingering animosity if one assumes that music needs to provide a peak experience for conflict transformation to take place. However, as I will discuss below, this is not really what is required for music to play a role in conflict transformation; clearly many of the displaced people in Wau Nour were in a very negative situation, yet found great enjoyment in music. Sloboda’s idea may therefore need to be further tweaked to look at what sort of musicking (active/passive) the listener is engaged in, and what role music plays in the musical experience. Finally, as it is the participants, not the music, that ‘work’ in these situations, we must be aware that there is no way of predicting what the outcome will be, at least not in short-term projects. In Norway, African musical events, as discussed above, often led to further stereotyping, and did not improve the perception of the out group.

In summary, conflict transformation is about doing very difficult emotional work related to out groups against which there exists strong antipathy, and the role of music has traditionally been seen as a quick working ‘magic bullet’, but more grounded works indicate that this is a false picture, that the long-term effects are uncertain, and overall the field requires more investigation as well as an understanding of what music really provides. It is for this reason I now want to make some tentative suggestions as to what music can provide in such emotional work.

What role has music in conflict transformation?

In very basic terms we can say that engaging with music can affect you physically or mentally, and that these two realms are often linked. Emotions arising from music listening may affect our bodies or bodily actions in response to music may change our emotions (Gerra et al., 1998). In the mental domain, which I want to focus on here, music may bring out a range of emotions such as sadness or happiness. Emotions that come out of being reminded of specific or general memories, which Sloboda (2005) refers to as episodic and iconic associations, are relatively easy to explain and understand. An episodic association may be a happy feeling that comes when listening to a song that was frequently played on radio when something very positive took place, for instance when we got our first job, whereas an iconic association could occur through music that reminds us of summers and holidays in general.

More difficult to explain are emotions not obviously linked to memories (for a number of cross-disciplinary discussions see Juslin & Sloboda, 2001). DeNora (1986, p.92) and Sloboda (2000, p.221) have both suggested that the ‘power’ of music may not reside in music as such, but that music acts as a Rorschach ink blot. In other words, music is open to interpretation on the emotional level, and we see in it what satisfies us the most. This does not mean that music is disconnected from everyday life: our personal and social biographies as well as cues linked to the music (DeNora, 1999; Sloboda, 2005) play a big role in how we react to music. Emotions and attitudes are not generated automatically or unidirectionally by music, but by people engaging in a back-and-forth manner with music and within the spaces afforded by music and a network the includes other people, objects, and situations as DeNora (2001) and Gomart and Hennion (1999) have suggested.

By describing music as a Rorschach ink blot we allow for considerable agency on behalf of the listener when it comes to emotions. This freedom to project, interpret, (p.372) and engage in emotional work obviously has important implications for projects that ‘use’ music to bring people together. But what happens if we take this idea one step further, and see music as a source of diversion, or more precisely, a beneficial interruption? Music then ceases to be a focal point demanding attention, instead it offers a break from tense cognitive processing and/or intense emotions, in this case the emotions that may arise when one focuses on and discusses conflicts. This idea will be anathema to many, especially musicians and academics who specialize in music studies. It therefore requires some careful explanation, in particular as this is an idea where little directly relevant research exists to date.

First of all, I am not suggesting that there are certain music styles so simple or banal that they can only be a diversion (in the negative sense of the word), whereas other music styles are more complex and worthy of a listener’s careful attention. Nor am I suggesting that this idea applies to any engagement with all styles of music, all of the time. Rather I am suggesting that at times any music can provide a form of diversion for those who are involved, and that this function is what makes it powerful in conflict transformation (and similar) contexts. The idea of diversions in conflict transformation work is not new, for instance ‘break-time’ is a valid, although infrequently used, strategy to deal with problems in mediation and negotiation sessions (Callister & Wall Jr, 2004; Wall Jr & Callister, 1999; Wall & Druckman, 2003).

However, there are two key differences between a break from conflict transformation activities without music and the use of music to provide diversions. First, most societies view music as a worthwhile and positive activity, so engaging with music, even when it acts as a diversion, receives a ‘stamp of approval’. On the other hand, simply taking a break to do nothing, or to do other relaxing activities, is seen as non-productive or negative. For example, sitting in front of the television half asleep is ‘bad’, but doing the same while listening to a recording of classical music is ‘good’ (Bourdieu, (1986) has discussed such attitudes in terms of social and cultural capital). Second, most listening to or casual performing of music lets us switch our mental focus (voluntary or involuntary) between the music itself and non-musical emotional or cognitive thoughts. So we may focus closely on music for some time, before drifting into thoughts and emotions that may be linked to the music, or may emerge from conflict transformation discussions/interactions. This pattern is very similar to some meditation techniques where a person’s focus may oscillate between conscious thoughts and the meditation sound (‘mantra’) (Holen, 2007).

The aforementioned two points can be illustrated with an example: In a discussion on music therapy and conflict transformation Lopez Vinader discusses a class she is running for expectant mothers where they listen to music. She mentions that ‘One woman reported that during the music therapy session it was the first time that she had connected with her baby because otherwise she was under too much stress’ (Lopez, 2008, p. 155). Without belittling music therapy we can see that if stress was an issue, requesting time alone to sit and enjoy the pregnancy may be considered self-indulgent, whereas attending a music therapy session is acceptable not only to the woman herself but also to others as it is considered a valued activity (sitting still without music would have been considered inactivity). This I hope explains my first point. The second point (p.373) is that within this music-based activity, if one is processing negative feelings (in this case guilt for being too stressed to value the baby), one can deal with such feelings, and yet have the opportunity to switch attention back to the music when such feelings are too strong, thus keeping the session overall pleasant.

The first point, music being a valued activity even when providing a diversion, is relatively easy to grasp. The second point, how such a diversion can be beneficial to conflict transformation, requires further exploration. From this point of view the role of music is to make possible and to provide the potential for interruptions on two levels: the external, social level and the personal, interior level.

Thus music first makes possible interruptions of what may be considered routine, non-reflexive (even embodied) activities that occur in social interactions. In conflict transformation contexts, this may be the presentation of self (Becker, 2001), which make us behave in a certain way in front of others, or instinctively disliking members of the out group. The musical interruption puts a temporary stop to this by providing a liminal space, a space which is temporary and transient, where new and different ways of interacting with the out group can be tried out relatively safely, precisely because of its indeterminate nature. Then music also offers internal micro-interruptions (should we need them) when things become (in)tense emotionally, a frequent occurrence in conflict transformation work. Thus, if a session in a conflict transformation workshop has brought up uncomfortable memories and music is present, the individuals’ attention can be switched to the music. This temporary interruption means that the painful process of digesting memories, thinking of or accepting new ideas, thoughts, and emotions can be done in smaller ‘chunks’, again this echoes ideas present in certain psychology-based meditation techniques (Holen, 2007).

By extension, in this view, different styles of music can provide different spaces that afford different types of work (DeNora, 2000), rather than different emotions being embedded in the music. Any interruption may give positive results as reported by Lesiuk with regards to air traffic controllers: ‘Results showed that whether the group sat in silence or listened to music, their stress levels reduced significantly’ (Lesiuk, 1992, quoted in Lesiuk, 2005, p. 176). However what music offers in addition is the idea that it is an acceptable activity that does not make participants feel self-conscious.

If we look at what happened in Sudan, we see that the regular, casual, Friday music making in the settlement interrupted the daily interaction between tribes, which initially were very conflict-filled. Within this musical event people could switch between dancing and singing to the music and the emotional and/or cognitive work of viewing their fellow Wau Nour inhabitants in a different light, i.e. the interruptions allowed for new associations to (slowly) emerge. In this way positive changes did not require a single huge and painful readjustment, but could be done in small doses over time.

Viewing the role of music in conflict transformation in these pragmatic terms challenges the idea that ‘the power of music’ is responsible for major changes in people’s attitudes. This understanding is not a rejection of music’s possibly unique role, but it implies that a continuous process of interruptions, emotional work and consolidations take place, each in small doses, and that this process requires time and repetition to have an effect. This means that participants in conflict transformation work are not (p.374) hostages to fortune, waiting for the muse of music to open them up, and conversely that those in charge cannot expect to apply music to transform people and attitudes in an instant.

If the key role of music is to interrupt we may ask why not use any diversion, such as playing games or watching films, instead of music? I suggest that music is useful not because it contains some magic force, but because the real power of music may lie in a range of pragmatic and occasionally unique properties, some of which are as follows:

  • Music has a very low threshold for participation, a voice to sing or hands to clap a rhythm is all that is required.

  • Music is an easily accessible, worldwide resource in the sense that the basic concept of music is generally understood in most places, although (as mentioned earlier) not everyone enjoys it, and the actual experience of music will differ, depending on a range of local variables such as customs, circumstances, and tastes.

  • Music can augment actions, rather than control them, i.e. I can run or talk while enjoying music, whereas most other activities require me to be stationary and/or tend to exclude social interaction beyond the actions required by the activity.

  • Music provides a socially acceptable space for admitting to being emotionally affected. Although music may sometimes be banned for religious or political reasons, even the most hardened warrior can admit to being ‘moved’ by a piece of music. One example of this was seen in the BBC documentary Killers Don’t Cry, a project with serial killers in South African jails where music was used as part of a workshop.7

  • The forward temporal movement of music means it invites occasional attention which stops us from being stuck in a single thought, a point highlighted by Lesiuk (2005) with regards to computer programmers who improved their problem-solving technique when listening to music.

An anecdotal example that illustrates the above points was related by Einar Gerhardsen, Labour Prime Minister of Norway for 16 years after 1945, to the music therapist Even Ruud. Gerhardsen described how, occasionally when there was a high level of disagreement at Labour conferences, someone would stand up and suggest a song and the delegates would start singing (E. Ruud, personal communication, 2005). This interrupted the flow of negative feelings due to arguments, required no preparation, created a temporal new space for cooperation, and allowed for both emotions to be expressed and cognitive activities to take place on the side. The Friday music events in Wau Nour also provided similar opportunities for socially sanctioned interruptions. And this is the key point—the musical space has been given a seal of approval by society, it is not seen as strange or suspicious to listen to music, in fact quite the opposite, it gives people social capital and affords changing of mind that seemingly comes about through ‘high’ aesthetic experiences.

(p.375) Conclusion

Music is slowly becoming a new tool in small scale conflict transformation projects. As the stakes in such projects can be very high for participants who may face intimidation in their home communities for being involved, it is important that this field is scrutinized and that the discourse around the ‘power of music’ is replaced by rigorous research even if, as Sloboda has pointed out, stakeholders may feel that it removes some of the magic they connect with music. And this research must pay the same attention to everyday constraints and possibilities in musicking as Sloboda has done in his research.

As I have suggested above, music is no ‘magic bullet’, and the outcome of music use cannot be predicted, so research may be most fruitful when working on empirical data from different case studies that can give practitioners a range of understandings to build on in this area. In particular it would be interesting to compare music use with other activities to learn more about what is unique to music, and further investigate the notion of music as a sanctioned form of interruption.

Despite the suggestion that music is about interruptions and space, this does not mean that any music can be used under any circumstances. Music may often be counterproductive, especially when it ‘confirms’ stereotypes of out groups, and this is something practitioners need to acknowledge. This links back to Sloboda’s suggestion that music often enhances existing emotions, and the idea presented above that music often augments actions. Organizers of conflict transformation projects must be aware of extra-musical issues, for example, certain types of music may be linked to one of the sides in a conflict. They should involve participants in the music selection to avoid a heavy handed, top-down approach; weaker parties in conflict transformation may agree to use certain music genres they deem ‘appropriate’ (Hara, 2008), which can affect the outcome. Such power issues need to be addressed both in practice and in research.


I thank the editors and anonymous reviewers for useful feedback on this chapter. I also thank Mariko Hara and Tia DeNora for discussing this chapter and helping to clarify some of the points.


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(1) ‘Conflict transformation’ is used in preference to the phrase ‘conflict resolution’ as the latter implies a complete solution to a conflict, whereas transformation indicates a move away from violence, while the underlying conflict may not be completely resolved, the current state of Northern Ireland would be an example of this.

(3) SGI Quarterly, 2004. Transformative Power: Interview with Youssou N’Dour. (Available at: http://www.sgiquarterly.org/feature2004Jly-3.html) Accessed 10 January, 2010.

(4) A mixture of Eurovision Song Contest style pop with traditional Serbian folk music/themes.

(5) Available at: www.globalaging.org/armedconflict/countryreports/africa/singers.htm (accessed 12 June 2010) and internal report from Practical Action.

(6) Available at: www.discogs.com/Music-Channel-Mantra-For-Peace/release/740387 (accessed 12 June 2010).