“The Potential Role of Music in Transforming Society”

World Peace Academy Basel, Switzerland

Theresia Bothe


For me, music and life are all about style:

Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”

Miles Davis


If the opposite of sound is noise, what is silence?

It was a beautiful experience for me as a performing musician to talk about music and share historical facts, ideas and some of my experience in this course. There has historically been great distance between the ones who speaking about music and the performers, as we could also read in Galtung's essay – but the fact is that this is changing. Ours is a time in which we need to reach out to other fields to enrich our experiences and look for a wider view to overcome the general division of the diverse fields – which often causes our knowledge to seem – or be – very fragmented. It is also a time in which we have to talk openly about things that are happening in the world and affecting in dramatic ways a great amount of people.

Music can be “used” literally as art in conflict transformations, as a messenger, for creating an atmosphere, bringing people together in a performing experience, etc. but it can also be used also as a metaphor in different ways: the form, structure & harmony or for example playing in an orchestra – as Baremboim would say: “if you wish to learn how to live in a democratic society, then you would do well to play in an orchestra. For when you do so, you know when to lead and when to follow. You leave space for others and at the same time you have no inhibitions about claiming a space for yourself”.

I think we need to stimulate creativity to come up with a set of alternatives for solving a specific conflict which we confront, as mediators, parents, teachers, friends or in other situation in which we find ourselves involved. We may be able to imagine situations and design plans, but when we encounter them, they will almost inevitable be different then what we expected.

A musician may imagine something that a desired instrument can't play – so he or she has to transform the idea and make it compatible to reality – or maybe invent an instrument to create the imagined sound!

There are very few (if any) things which remain as they are, our capacity of transformation and adaptation to new situations can be like a mirror in transforming a situation: allowing ourselves to change within the specific process, allows the whole process to be more flexible. It has been said that “the world changes with our example, not with our opinion”.

I think listening and imagining are closely linked and they can develop parallel to each other. It may be true that instrumental music does not “really” tell stories, but we can imagine our own stories when we listen to music. I remember one of the best piano player I've heard said he “told” all sorts of stories while he played! Imagination is as important in music as it is in education in general. Imagining different sound and the mixture of sound is the basic way of creating or “inventing” music – composing, gives a space to the imagined sounds. To perform it or write it down, so it can be shared with others, is something that can be developed.

In my experience our listening capacities can change enormously: I remember when I could not hear the difference between two performances of one same piece of music; I remember when I could not hear the different ways of intonation. There may be things we still can not hear and recognize, but with patience one can develop this perception – with or without naming the sounds - and link it to our imagination and through these experiences stimulate our creativity. At any age this is possible, but which children it is particularly rewarding.

The sufi say “the power of music depends upon the grad of spiritual evolution that a person has touched” I believe that, but I also believe that we need artists who have true strong experiences in other fields as well, who can express and share these experiences through their created art. With this in mind, there are three things to take into consideration when setting music as an instrument for peace: Choosing the music, considering the moment the music was created; the place it will be performed at; and, who the performer/s will be. There is not one more important that the other, these three levels work together.

The idea that the artist has a social responsibility (moral and ethical responsibility as Hindemith would put it) can be appreciated when studying history and the role some artist, some songs or pieces of art have played in transforming societies at a specific time. Also by observing the values that are represent in art, which often represent the core of the problem the society is going through. I believe an artist who is true to her or his self is one who will speak for all, express the spirit of the time and context in which they live, this is an artist who can carry through the difficult task of remaining congruent and genuine in his or her Art. Virginia Wolf says: “Masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice”.

I remember the first time I worked with the street kids in Guatemala, it was not easy to get the to be quiet, but with the question: “where does Music come form?” it happened – the answer was: “music comes from silence”. I'd say there are many kinds of silence, and it is through silence that we can develop the deepest sense of listening.

I wish you all the best for the rest of your studies, Theresia