Music, Violence, and Peace-Building

In this article, 'Music, Violence and Peace Building', published in Peace Review, Dr Helen Hintjens and researcher Rafiki Ubaldo consider the use of music as a means of both bringing about peace and social healing, and a means of mobilizing for violence. The same music, in another context, changes its meaning.


For Johan Galtung, 'positive peace' implies going beyond ending violence, toward greater social, gender, class and inter-group justice. Within the 'positive peace' framework, musical expression, whatever the context, potentially facilitates a wide range of emotionally-informed interactions compared with either speech or the written word.

One exciting and potentially revolutionary discovery of recent years, the existence of the 'human mirror neuron system' or MNS, suggest that human beings respond to music in ways that enhance resonance with others, emotionality, and behaviorally. This powerful emotional bonding effect means music can produce a range of emotions, including rallying the troops, and can be used for torture, or for mobilizing people as well as for greater understanding, social healing and promoting peace. The same music, in another context, changes its meaning.

Repeating the Barney song over and over for hours may be lovely for some four year olds. When you are an isolated adult, in harsh conditions, and unable to communicate with others, the repeated Barney song becomes torture.

Use of music to inflict pain, or incite violence does not undermine, but strongly points to, music’s reciprocal and opposite capacity to promote the reverse—healing and peaceful outcomes. Past trauma and divisions will remain, but at least through contextually-sensitive musical experiences, it becomes possible to try to bring people together across social divides, and to learn something from shared emotional experience, and perhaps move toward the wider and complex societal task of recovering from violence.

Assistant professor
Rafiki Ubaldo