The Processes of Music and Peacebuilding

Ellie Adelman

March 28, 2011

"This world is inhabited by all kinds of people. They are isolated by land and water, religion, customs, habits. The minds and hearts of these people are much alike. Under sudden or stressed emotions, they blossom forth or explode in riots, fights, dance, song, prayer. At such times, they become one mind, one heart, and the world vibrates with the intensity of their feelings, emotions, angers, laughters." [1] -- Gandhi

The peacebuilding field is defined by its interdisciplinary kaleidoscope of approaches for addressing peace and conflict. From peace education to high- level negotiation and mediation, from peacekeeping interventions to grassroots reconciliation and trauma healing processes, peacebuilding is at its core creative and diverse. Throughout the many stages of conflict, we look for ways to transform its violent and destructive manifestations into a more positive force of social change. In the great silencing inequality of structural violence and oppression, we look for ways to elevate the voices of those who have never had a chance to speak for themselves or their communities. Among groups who have been torn apart from one another by mistrust, anger, and fear, we look for ways to bridge deep chasms and repair wounded identities.

Music provides a unique approach to peacebuilding, which has the potential to help communities address the many stages of conflict in a more constructive and creative way. Of course, music does not in itself end wars, eliminate structural inequalities, or heal deep psychological wounds. What it does, though, is to engage us in a thought process. Former South African President and champion of social equality and nonviolence Nelson Mandela attests,“Artists reach areas far beyond the reach of politicians. Art, especially entertainment and music, is understood by everybody, and it lifts the spirits and the morale of those who hear it.”[2] Music is a spark that can ignite a cycle, at times of social change, at times of interconnection, at times of healing. Music allows us to access a deeper emotional context that we otherwise may never approach.

The Power of Music

In its endlessly diverse forms, its fluid adaptation over time and context, and its uncanny ability to get under our skin, music is a powerful global and local force. Music has power over us as we listen to the melody and lyrics, and at the same time gives us power in creating and performing it. June Boyce-Tillman specifies three ways of experiencing music: “listening, performing, and composing.” She continues, “Music is a multi-faceted art. It can unite us with ourselves, with others, with the natural world, and with spiritual powers.”[3]

Though I will focus primarily on the more positive potential of music in peace and conflict processes, the power of music does not belong exclusively to peace initiatives. There are certainly examples of music’s influence on perpetuating violence and group divisions. Olivier Urbain recounts an incident in which a UNHCR representative who was enjoying a performance by traditional Hutu musicians later “learned with horror that the lyrics were about the need to eliminate all Tutsis.” National anthems and other nationalist music have been used similarly to inspire not only group pride, but antagonism against other groups.[4] Lisa Schirch refers to this as “negative identity” formation, “where one only knows oneself by who one is not,” and can lead groups into a continued cycle of aggression and violence.[5] The ability of music to lend itself to this sort of destructive identity formation indicates the need for a greater attention to the effects of music on politics and public opinion. John O’Connell argues, “The place of music and warfare needs greater scrutiny, specifically instances” where music is “employed to mobilize support and to incite violence.”[6] In both its destructive and its transformative forms, music’s power is indeed a critical force that must be more closely examined by peacebuilders and state governments alike. Though it is sometimes used to divide rather than to connect people, music is in the end an expressive outlet which can be employed by all people. This is at once the danger and the beauty in the universal accessibility and appeal of music to people worldwide.

Music as an Agent of Social Change

“If you look at it historically, music has always been the accompaniment of social change.”[7] -- Mary Travers

The widespread accessibility of music to both listeners and musicians makes it an invaluable tool in the process of social change. For groups who have been oppressed or abused—and for musicians advocating for these groups—music provides a creative and nonviolent avenue for inspiring social consciousness and affecting change. It is increasingly recognized within the peacebuilding world that structural inequalities and violence often ignite destructive and long-lasting conflicts. Matthew Dixon eloquently explains, “The way that music-making reaches and draws out the essential humanity of the most unreachable people places it in direct opposition to political violence, which denies the humanity and individuality of its victims.”[8] Music can allow people who might otherwise respond to oppression with violence and aggression to have a voice, and to expose their issues to a greater audience. Arab hip hop artist Mana explains her own perspective on creating music. She says, “With hip hop you can break boundaries…As a female Iranian-American, I can also be a voice for women who might be put in prison if they said some of these things.”[9] Like this young woman, many people young and old have found music—hip hop and otherwise—to be a way of breaking boundaries, expressing identity, and pushing for social change.

Music education professor Baruch Whitehead gives the examples of music throughout slavery in the United States and the subsequent Civil Rights movement. He explains, “The slaves would go into the woods away from the slave masters to sing and shout. These sessions were very spirited and served as social and religious gatherings.”[10] In protest of the restrictions placed on their activities and decisions, enslaved people used music to maintain and reaffirm their identities. Adapting the lyrics and style of songs to suit their situation, slave communities employed music in their work, in their spirituality, and in their social gatherings. A century later, “this practice of altering text became widely used in the music of the civil-rights years,” among black and white activists alike.[11] Transforming the song “I Will Overcome” into “We Shall Overcome,” Guy Carawan created one of the great anthems of the Civil Rights Movement. This and many other songs, “based in the tradition of [Black Americans’] ancestors, carried the movement beyond what was humanly possible.”[12] Both black and white activists during the Civil Rights Movement used music to express their anger and frustration with oppression and segregation, and to advocate for equality, freedom, and respect.

Music as a Connector

“Are we not formed, as notes of music are,
For one another, though dissimilar?”[13] -- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Just as music has given many groups the courage and the means to expose injustices and advocate for their rights, it has also provided a bridge between dissenting groups. Though there are certainly instances in which music has been used in the formation of aggressive identities, “musical values…may also be manipulated to foster tolerance by emphasizing similarity in musical practice.”[14] Musicians and even listeners may be brought together through their experience of shared music. O’Connell explains, “Music rather than language may provide a better medium for interrogating the character of conflict and for evaluating the quality of conflict resolution.”[15] Lena Slachmuijlder finds this to be true among Hutu and Tutsi drummers in Burundi. Working with Studio Ijambo, a radio program aimed at reconciliation in Burundi, she affirms, “Sharing the rhythm of the drum, new relationships of trust and solidarity have been created and maintained, and self-esteem raised through drumming has led to personal transformation.”[16] Going beyond language, these drummers have found a way to connect with one another through a shared rhythm. Ghanaian drummer and teacher Nicholas Kotei Djanie similarly explains, “Drumming helps people start to move together, to breathe together, and that is where their connection begins…The drumming creates an embodied experience of how we are connected to each other.”[17] Not only hearing and performing, but also feeling music in this way creates a unique bond between participants.

This is not to say, of course, that any two people from disputing cultures would necessarily feel a connection by playing music together. Much of the emotional affinity people feel towards music stems from its link with cultural tradition. Cynthia Cohen points out, “In many instances, it is not music’s universal appeal that gives it much of its power as a peacebuilding resource, but rather recognition of the distinctive meanings that emerge from its place in historical events and cultural traditions.”[18] Groups who come from similar cultural, and particularly musical, backgrounds may find it easier to build relationships through music, especially in the short term. However, music, like conflict (resolution?), is itself a process. It adapts and integrates over time and space. In this way, music is not only a connector across groups but also across time. Though gradual and subtle, music changes with the people who create and experience it.

If we look at the origins of bluegrass music, for example, we can see the influence of diverse groups from multiple continents. “Bluegrass bands today reflect influences from a variety of sources including traditional and fusion jazz, contemporary country music, Celtic music, rock & roll…old--time music and Southern gospel music.”[19] Hip hop music seems to have had a similarly unifying effect. Worldwide, we see the influence of hip hop among youth especially. In their explanation of strategic peacebuilding, John Paul Lederach and Scott Appleby refer to the importance of “bringing together key relationships and influence that would not naturally converge.”[20] The convergence of diverse musical traditions seems to do just this. No one ever would have thought that Iranian youth would one day use hip hop music to express their identities and worldviews, or that African, American and Irish music would blend together into the beautifully solemn tradition of bluegrass. Music is an ever-adapting process that both follows and leads people through a journey of fear, love, sorrow, memory, and pride. By recognizing this power of music to connect us across time, space, ethnicity, and identity, we can better utilize its unifying effects deliberately and effectively.

Music as a Healer

“After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”[21] -- Aldous Huxley

Along with its role in social change and intergroup reconciliation, music is perhaps most known for its potential in trauma healing. Beyond the specific scope of peacebuilding, music therapy has a long history of helping people return from the depths of various forms of trauma. Music therapy started as early as classical Greece, and officially surfacede as a profession after WWII. Maria Elena Lopez Vinader defines music therapy as “the art and science of healing through the use of the power of music, sound and movement as a treatment modality within a therapeutic relationship, with the purpose of rehabilitation and enhancement of the human condition.”[22] The goals and effects of music therapy align closely with those of peacebuilding, focusing on relationship-building, rehabilitation, elevating voice, and improving the quality of life. Many of the people we work with as peacebuilders suffer trauma, often repeatedly and deeply. Julie Sutton suggests, “Perhaps the pre-symbolic—some would say pre-conscious level at which we experience music in the body as emotion has a special role in work with those traumatized.”[23] Along with its strong emotional implications, music can be empowering for traumatized individuals and groups. As mentioned in the section on social change, music gives people who have been silenced and oppressed a voice. Lederach and Appleby stress the importance within peacebuilding of “the restoration of voice and presence” and “support for those most excluded and affected by the violence.”[24] Where trauma robs people of their voice, and often identity, music is restorative. Whether in the case of collective or individual trauma, music can empower people to express pain and loss, and restore identity and self-worth.

Amela and Randall Puljek-Shank recount the powerful experiences of Bosnian interfaith choir Pontanima. “Songs from other faith traditions are sung in the cities and towns of Bosnia and the region where these songs are understood to be ‘enemies’ songs.’” In areas where people have been gravely affected by violent massacres, they explain, “The healing enters in the space that is most sacred, i.e. religious identity. These songs create space for listening to the other that otherwise would not happen.”[25] Through the transformation of this religious music, Bosnian communities were able to begin healing as a community and redefining other groups in a more positive light.

Though collective trauma and trauma healing are greatly implicated in large-scale conflict, music therapy is particularly effective at the individual level as well. Julie Sutton recounts her work with an 8 year old boy named Jerry whose father had been involved in and endangered by the Northern Ireland conflict. She explains, “Jerry was only too aware of the danger his father was in.”[26] While Jerry struggled at first with the music therapy sessions, he was eventually able to find his voice in the process. “As he was able to make choices and organize what happened in the room, so he began at first to whisper and then quietly to speak.”[27] By regaining control of his surroundings – something stolen from survivors of trauma – Jerry was able to find a voice and work through his fear and confusion.

Like Jerry and the Pontanima choir’s audiences, communities and individuals worldwide have seen the powerful effects of music as a healing force. Programs like Save the Children’s Healing And Education through Art (HEART) program[28] and World Vision’s Creative Activities for Trauma and Stress Diminishment[29] have begun to recognize this potential. By placing a greater emphasis on music and arts in trauma healing, peacebuilding organizations can empower communities to engage in a healing process and find their voices after decades of silent suffering.


“The greatest movements forward, when you look really closely, often germinated from something that collapsed, fell to the ground, and then sprouted something that moved beyond what was then known. Those seeds, like the artistic process itself, touched the moral imagination. To believe in healing is to believe in the creative act.” [30] -- John Paul Lederach

Whether in its capacity for connecting people across time and space, inspiring social consciousness and change, or healing deep emotional wounds, music is certainly a powerful force. Though it has culturally contextual elements, music moves us and moves with us in its many forms. Because of this great potential of music to affect peace and conflict, both in negative and positive manifestations, we share a responsibility as musicians and as peacebuilders to acknowledge and harness the power of music towards peace and justice.

In The Moral Imagination, John Paul Lederach explains the critical capacity of certain individuals to inspire connections between people across and within various levels of society. He uses the metaphor of a spider web, “a continuous act of strategic and imaginative spatial response.”[31] There are people in every society that have this ability to connect between and within elite and grassroots communities. Musicians may have just such a place in affecting change and working towards peace. They certainly have significant appeal and influence for diverse actors at multiple levels. Consistently in the public eye, celebrated musicians have a much greater influence on public opinion and political processes than many of them (and many peacebuilders) seem to realize. Everything from their lyrics to their personal lives to their political engagement is closely monitored by fans worldwide. Cynthia Cohen asks the critical question, “Can arts projects be linked with other peacebuilding efforts so that emotional, cognitive, and relational gains can be connected to political, economic, and ongoing cultural projects?”[32] I would answer that there absolutely can and should be a more strategic linkage between peacebuilding efforts and the music community. While such a relationship may not be the ultimate answer to establishing lasting peace, it has the potential to spark a process—a process of social change, of interconnection, and of healing. As we continue to search for more effective and meaningful processes for establishing and maintaining peace and justice, we can find in music a process that accompanies us, inspires us, and empowers us along the way.

[1] Mahatma Gandi, quoted by Debashis Chatterjee . “Wise Ways: Leadership as Relationship.” Journal of Human Values,  2006. 12(53) [2] Nelson Mandela, quoted by Don Heckman. “Hitting Replay on Mandela’s life, times.” LA Times, 30 July 2006. Reproduced at [3] Boyce-Tillman, June. “Getting our Acts Together: Conflict Resolution through Music,” in Marian Liebmann, ed. Arts Approaches to Conflict (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers), 1996. 234-235< [4] Olivier Urbain, Music and Conflict Transformation (New York: I.B. Tauris), 2008. 2 [5] Lisa Schirch. “Trauma, Identity and Security,” in Barry Hart, ed. Peacebuilding in Traumatized Societies (Lanham: University Press of America), 2008. 85-86. [6] John M. O’Connell. “An Ethnomusicological Approach to Music and Conflict,” in John Morgan O’Connell and Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, eds. Music and Conflict (Chicago: University of Illinois Press), 2010. 11.

[7] Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary as quoted by Baruch Whitehead. “We Shall Overcome,” in Oliver Urbain, ed. Music and Conflict Transformation. (New York: I.B. Tauris), 2008. 84

[8] Dixon, Matthew. “UK: Music and Human Rights,” in Julie Sutton, ed. Music, Music Therapy, and Trauma (Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers), 2002. 131 [9]Perrault, Mimi Wiggins. “Arab Hip Hop Artists Use Music to Collaborate on Peace,” USIP. November 2010 [10] Whitehead, Baruch. “We Shall Overcome,” in Oliver Urbain, ed. Music and Conflict Transformation (New York: I.B. Tauris), 2008. 81 [11] Ibid, p81 [12] Ibid, p84 [13] Percy Bysshe Shelley. Epipsychidion. (s.n., S.I.), 1923. [14] John M. O’Connell and Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, eds. Music and Conflict (Chicago: University of Illinois Press), 2010. 5 [15] Ibid, p2 [16] Lena Slachmuijlder. “The Rhythm of Reconciliation.” Working Paper, Brandeis University 2005. [17] Nicholas Kotei Djanie. “Drumming and Reconciliation.” Brandeis University 2003-2004 [18] Cynthia Cohen. “Music: A Universal Language?” in Oliver Urbain, ed. Music and Conflict Transformation. (New York: I.B. Tauris), 2008. 27 [19] Bluegrass Music: The Roots: IBMA [20] John Paul Lederach and R. Scott Appleby. “Strategic Peacebuilding: An Overview,”in Daniel Philpott and Gerard Power, eds.Strategiesof Peace (New York:Oxford University Press), 2010. 36. [21] Aldous Huxley as quoted by Arthur Harvey. “The Power of Music as Therapy,” Music for Health Services. [22] Maria Elena López Vinader. “Music Therapy: Healing, Growth, Creating a Culture of Peace,” in Oliver Urbain, ed. Music and Conflict Transformation (New York: I.B. Tauris), 2008. 148. [23] Julie P. Sutton, ed. Music, Music Therapy and Trauma. (Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers), 2002. 35. [24] John Paul Lederach and R. Scott Appleby. “Strategic Peacebuilding: An Overview,” in Daniel Philpott and Gerard Power, eds.Strategiesof Peace (New York: Oxford University Press), 2010. 33. [25] Amela Puljek-Shank and Randall Puljek Shank. “The Contribution of Trauma Healing to Peacebuilding in Southeast Europe,” in Barry Hart, ed. Peacebuilding in Traumatized Societies (Lanham: University Press of America), 2008. 174.

[26] Julie P. Sutton, ed.Music Therapy and Trauma (Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers), 2002. 29. [27] Ibid, p29 [28] Save The Children Foundation [29] Program in Bosnia referenced by Amela and Randall Puljek-Shank, “The Contribution of Trauma Healing to Peacebuilding in Southeast Europe,” in Barry Hart, ed. Peacebuilding in Traumatized Societies (Lanham: University Press of America), 2008. 174. [31]Ibid, p83 [32] Cynthia Cohen. “Music: A Universal Language?” in Oliver Urbain, ed. Music and Conflict Transformation. (New York: I.B. Tauris), 2008. 37. 

Use the following to cite this article:
Adelman, Ellie. "The Processes of Music and Peacebuilding." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: Date published <>.