Working Together to Enhance the Effectiveness of Musicking in Peacebuilding Activities

Olivier Urbain, Director, Min-On Music Research Institute (MOMRI), Tokyo, Japan

Do you like music? Have you ever wondered how much musical energy is produced on the planet at any given moment? Hundreds of millions of people are participating in musical events today. Now imagine that our challenge is the find the best ways to harness this tremendous energy to fight poverty


Do you like music? What kind of music do you like? Have you ever wondered how much musical energy is produced on the planet at any given moment? Hundreds of millions of people are participating in musical events today, singing, playing, performing, dancing, clapping hands, stomping feet, listening with headphones while reading or walking or eating, composing inspiring melodies, writing lyrics to new songs, producing, mixing, organizing concerts, promoting artists and labels, and much more. They are all “musicking.”

Now imagine that our challenge is the find the best ways to harness this tremendous energy to fight poverty, to improve people’s daily lives, to transform and resolve conflicts, or to unite as we strive to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and transform our world. Can you imagine the huge business opportunities that would be generated by such a movement?

The prominent scholar/activist in the peacebuilding field, John-Paul Lederach, mentioned that we “need metaphors based on vibration, sound, and music in order to understand the essence of peacebuilding” (Lederach 2016)

I want to address two aspects of this challenge: building an active network, and developing the art & science of “musicking in peacebuilding.” In the first academic book on the topic, Music and Conflict Transformation (2008, 2015), I introduced the idea of “social music therapy.” After more than a decade of teaching/writing/conferencing around this idea, I would like to share a bit of what I have learned.

Regarding networking, an excellent start was made by the “Music-Business-Peace Summit” at Indiana University in collaboration with this “Business Fights Poverty” challenge. I focus here on the second aspect.

The Art & Science of Musicking in Peacebuilding

I used to assume that musicking was always a peaceful, safe and life-enhancing activity. I had to learn the hard way that musicking can unleash tremendous power, but not necessarily for good. This is called the ambivalence of music, and it is the first item on a list of seven insights.

  1. Ambivalence
    Music is very powerful, but not necessarily for good. For instance, Ingoma Nshya is an inspiring women’s drumming group from Rwanda. But in the same country, Simon Bikindi, one of the most popular musicians in the years before the genocide, composed songs that were used to promote violence. It is not the music that matters, it is what we do with it. I addressed this issue in detail in “A statement of values for our research on music in peacebuilding” (2016).
  2. Musicking
    In his book Musicking (1998) Christopher Small explains that “To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance (…)” (9). Even when you take the tickets at the entrance, you are musicking!
  3. Booster
    When a patient feels better after a music therapy session, is it because of the music, or the therapist? Music can act as a booster to a range of activities.
  4. Non-Universality
    If you go and visit your neighbor now and insist on singing a song that you love, it might backfire. Playing different types of drums (the bodhran or the lambeg) in Northern Ireland during the Troubles did have very different effects on the listeners depending on their background.
  5. Repetition
    TheWest–Eastern Divan Orchestra is a youth orchestra that allows musicians from Israel, Palestine, and various Arab and European countries, to experience moments of openness and bonding. However they quickly forget these experiences once they go back home. It is only by repeating this type of positive experience that profound changes can occur. “Repetition is key to success” (Robertson 2015).

These five aspects of musicking are described in an article soon to be published by the Music College Society (2018). Here I will briefly mention two additional dimensions.

  1. Power Relations
    “Musical processes and musical products are permanently mediated by power relations” (Araujo 2010, 230). This is one of the reasons why music is ambivalent.
  2. Industry Amplification
    When Kanye West forwarded a conversation with John Legend on Twitter, it had a tremendous impact on his 28 million subscribers. Can you imagine using this kind of appeal to support the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals?

Working Together

The network is already in place thanks to the collaboration between the Music-Business-Peace Summit of Indiana University and this challenge in Business Fights Poverty. Please consider joining us!

The art & science of musicking in peacebuilding is now in full bloom and I invite you to join our collective search for the most effective ways to create business opportunities and other means to harness the power of “musicking in peacebuilding” as we strive collectively to change our world for the better.



Araujo, Samuel. 2010. “Sound Praxis: Music, Politics, and Violence in Brazil” in Music and
Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Lederach, John Paul. 2016. “Foreword,” in Journal of Peace Education, 13:3,197-199.
Robertson, Craig. 2015. “Music Sociology: A Focus on Conflict Transformation.” April 5, 2018 from
Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking. Hanover: University Press of New England.
Urbain, Olivier. [2008] 2015. Music and Conflict Transformation. London: I.B. Tauris.
Urbain, Olivier. 2016. “A statement of values for our research on music in peacebuilding” in
Journal of Peace Education, 13:3, 218-237.

About the Author

Born and raised in Belgium, I obtained academic degrees in my own country, as well as in the US and the UK, including a PhD in Literature from the University of Southern California (1990) and a second PhD, in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford (2009).

I had opportunities to share and exchange ideas in around 20 countries, delivering lectures and presentations as university professor (Soka University, Tokyo, Japan), as director of the Toda Peace Institute (Tokyo and Honolulu), and as Visiting Research Professor at Queen’s University Belfast (Northern Ireland). I am a member of the Board of Directors of the International Peace Research Association Foundation.

Currently I am the director of the Min-On Music Research Institute (MOMRI) in Tokyo. In the field of peace studies, I focus on peacebuilding and the ways in which we can avoid and prevent violence by strengthening elements of the culture of peace here and now in our daily lives and communities. Further, I focus on “the application of music in peacebuilding” from various angles.

I always look forward to connecting with like-minded people from all backgrounds, enhancing my understanding of the topic, and to exploring new insights through discussions and exchanges, using some of my publications as a basis for dialogue: Music and Conflict Transformation: Harmonies and Dissonances in Geopolitics (editor, 2008, 2015, I.B. Tauris); Music and Solidarity: Questions of Universality, Consciousness and Connection (co-editor with Felicity Laurence, 2011, Transactions), Music, Power and Liberty: Sound, Song and Melody as Instruments of Change (co-editor with Craig Robertson, 2016, I.B. Tauris) and “A statement of values for our research on music in peacebuilding: a synthesis of Galtung and Ikeda’s peace theories” in the Journal of Peace Education, Vol. 13, Iss. 3, 2016.

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