Musicking for peacebuilding

Musicking for peacebuilding
Sounding Conflict: From Resistance to Reconciliation
by Allan LEONARD
28 November 2019

The state-of-the-art acoustic facility, the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) at Queen’s University Belfast, was a most appropriate meeting place for a two-day symposium that explored the roles of music, from activist resistance to a hopeful tool for reconciliation from conflict. The event was organised by the Mitchell Institute for Global Peace at Queen’s University.

Fiona MAGOWAN. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Professor Fiona Magowan welcomed several dozen delegates, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor David Jones made some introductory remarks, including two questions that motivate the work of the Mitchell Institute: (1) how is peacebuilding shaped in different cultures?; and (2) how do peace processes become embedded in daily life following political settlements? Professor Pedro Rebelo gave a presentation on the origins of the Sonic Arts Research Centre, which was established in 2001. He explained how the metal grated floor allowed a 360-degree listening experience. This was demonstrated with a playback of a musical piece called “Toys”: “The sounds of very small toys played in a big toy.”

Olivier URBAIN. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

The keynote speaker was Dr Olivier Urbain, whose presentation was “Musicking from empathy to global justice”, with an emphasis on how empathy is crucial in daily life. Dr Ubrain outlined this in three steps: (1) empathy; (2) proactive peacebuilding; and (3) global justice.

In regards to empathy, there is a spectrum that spans concern of the other, no concern, and hostility towards the other. The hypothesis is that one’s exposure to song can affect attitudes towards others. Urbain described results from research experiments that validated the positive effect of music. He also cited anecdotal evidence of music being used to foster violence, such as the case of the genocide in Rwanda.

Urbain is a proponent of the philosophy of peace, as set out by Daisaku Ikeda (whom Urbain has written a book about). Three dimensions of this philosophy are:

  1. Self: the need for one to seek inner transformation first
  2. Dialogue: to connect with others to express empathy
  3. Global citizenship: to develop a higher level of trust

The idea behind the concept of proactive peacebuilding is that you don’t need to wait until a crisis has occurred in order to apply the principles of reconciliation. The value of this is that as there is evidence that exposure to song can have a positive effect on empathy and respect for others, then this activity can be used in advance, anywhere. “Proactive peacebuilding” may be more affirming than “conflict prevention”.

There is also the situation of how music can facilitate post-conflict reconciliation, where the conflict took place generations ago and the current generation will not have any memory of it. Urbain showed a video clip of a Nobel Peace Prize Concert, where the played piano was one that survived the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, restored and brought back to life with a superb performance:

YouTube video

Urbain described the work of the Min-On Music Research Institute (MOMRI), which he directs. The core mission of the institute is the application of music in peacebuilding activities. It was established in 2014 as the research department of the Min-On Concert Association. A popular programme at Min-On is its concert series, established by Ikeda in 1963, with an objective of exposing the people of Japan to others’ cultures, so as to reduce the potential of repeating the enmity of the Second World War. Urbain showed a video clip of Chinese artists performing a dance in honour of a Japanese cultural symbol, the crested ibis:

YouTube video


Urbain spoke about the challenge of working to an agreed definition of key terms pertaining to the application of music in peacebuilding. He tired of academic conferences where much time was spent debating the definition of terms. MOMRI sought to address this by facilitating a series of guest articles on the keywords used widely in the discipline. This series was published by the University of Exeter — entitled “Music and Arts in Action” — in order to stimulate a global conversation on music in peacebuilding. The keywords from Volume 1 are open source and available online. There are also virtual conferences to continue this conversation.

There are three main “red flags”, Urbain said, that have emerged from this conversation about musicking. First, music is ambivalent; it can be used to motivate violence as well as peace: “Music doesn’t care.” What matters is understanding how music works, to decode music in order to learn how to use it. Second, musicking means action. It’s the intention of musicking that matters. Urbain gave the local example of Different Drums of Ireland. Third, music can amplify other practices, for example recovery therapy. But it’s important to remember that attempts to use music in therapeutic ways without a suitable training in therapy could be counterproductive; music is the amplifier, not the means in itself.

Urbain presented an innovative example of musicking for a segment of Japanese young people who were underachieving in school, whether by disinterest, being subject of bullying, or other reasons. The C&S Music School, in Fukuoka, focuses on participants regaining self-esteem through music. There is a high rate of students achieving the equivalent of a diploma within three years of participation, but almost as a secondary effect; individuals’ positive transformations are more profound.

MOMRI also collaborates with activist organisations that are interested in learning the amplification effects of musicking. One of the best known is Musicians Without Borders, whose founder is collaborating with the Sounding Conflict project.

Dr Urbain concluded:

“Music in peacebuilding will not solve all our problems, but it might enhance our capacity to change a small corner of the world through musicking.”

In summary, the power of music in stirring emotional responses has been practiced for many centuries. The Min-On Music Research Institute is working to lead a global conversation about this power, to analyse it scientifically as well as share knowledge and good practices of using musicking for peacebuilding.

The symposium continued with a strong list of presentations and discussions.


Fiona MAGOWAN. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
Olivier URBAIN. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
Olivier URBAIN. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Originally published at Mr Ulster.

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