22 Sep 2017

Does music unite or divide us?

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:33 pm on 22 September 2017

Over the years many celebrities have used their influence to promote harmony - often by making songs that call for action or change or, in the case of John Lennon, giving peace a chance. 

It's often said that music unites us and songs can be a powerful force in spreading messages of peace.

But a recent piece of research by Samantha Dieckmann at the University of Melbourne proposes that music can also drive us apart, and be equally divisive. 

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Music is a powerful force, she says that can promote empathy.

"Playing music together you’re forced to direct your attention outside of yourself, in order to successfully play music with other people you have to be engaged with what they’re doing, become in synch with them.”

But the other side of that coin is people can be brought together in opposition to others.

“These properties in music that are able to galvanise in music can be done in a way that instead of building bridges it creates division between people, so you are creating this unity between people who already consider themselves to be alike and maybe in way that’s oppositional to other people.”

An example of this was during the Yugoslav civil war.  

The government, far-right regime was appropriating this style of music called turbo-folk for political ends to push their political agenda of nationalism using it as a way to prove cultural superiority.”

In Northern Ireland music was used as a way for loyalists and republicans to cement separate identities and US soldiers in Iraq used metal and rap music to amp themselves up for battle, she says.   

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