Is Music Inherently Political?
Updated: Jan 3, 2020
Is music inherently political?
I started wondering about this in the shower this morning.
Obviously music can be political. Think of Woody Guthrie, or of “We Shall Overcome,” or “Blowin’ in the Wind,” or Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag.” The list of politically-inspired songs is long and goes way back.
But I’m asking a different question: is music itself – even instrumental music – political by its very nature? And if so, in what sense?
I’m thinking of “political” here not in terms of CNN and Fox News, or of parties and protests and policy debates, but in a broader sense of how we view the world and how that view influences our vision of how we want to shape our society. One might take the view that anything that tends to influence our vision of the world and how we want to shape it is in that sense political.
From that perspective, it seems to me that music might well be inherently political – i.e., that it might have a natural tendency to influence our worldview in a particular direction, which in turn would tend to influence how we make political judgments about how we want things to be.
In broad strokes, the thought goes something like this:
HARMONY VERSUS DISSONANCE
Humans naturally crave harmony. We are psychologically predisposed toward it. We can enjoy dissonance for brief periods, but fundamentally we dislike prolonged dissonance and deeply desire its resolution to consonance -- so much so that we will predictably change our own attitudes and beliefs in order to achieve it.
(If you’re not familiar with it, please Google psychologist Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, which I personally consider the single most useful thing I learned in my entire undergraduate education. I’m not kidding.)
Today’s politics (and probably all politics, but certainly today’s in the U.S.) is all about dissonance. We have a president who consciously and vigorously promotes it, and a population that is seriously stressed by the deep divisions that have evolved over time.
We’re additionally stressed by the grating dissonance between our natural desire for an effective, caring, pragmatic government and our unavoidable recognition that our government (at least at the national level) is increasingly unable to set partisanship aside and work for the good of everyone.
This is all very uncomfortable psychologically. We naturally want things to be harmonious, but we are aware that things manifestly are not harmonious. So we have, both individually and as a society, a serious cognitive dissonance problem.
MUSIC AND DISSONANCE
Music is all about the interplay between consonance and dissonance. That interplay is actually what makes music work. We enjoy the dissonance, but only for so long; we need for it to resolve to consonance before we can feel satisfied and at peace.
As a result, most music by its very nature delivers the experience of bouncing back and forth between dissonance and consonance (or tension and release), but then ultimately resolves definitively to consonance. And in large part that’s why we like it, and why we feel good (and sometimes even uplifted) after it ends.
MUSIC AND HUMAN NATURE
Music, then, naturally plays into and satisfies a powerful human psychological need for consonance. Therefore it seems fair to say that music has a natural tendency to nurture and encourage that part of human beings that craves harmony, or togetherness, or peace.
And that rings true. When we as individuals are part of an audience that shares a satisfying musical experience (that is, a shared journey from dissonance to consonance), we leave feeling perhaps a little closer to the others in the room than we felt before the music started. A feeling of goodwill arises naturally. (I see this all the time on my own gigs.)
Even if we listen to music by ourselves, we still experience the journey to consonance and come away feeling somehow a little more whole than we felt before we started.
MUSIC IS POLITICAL
If we accept that music naturally encourages and supports our human craving for consonance and resolution, then I think it makes sense to believe that music has an inherent tendency to nudge us in the general direction of envisioning a more cohesive, unified and accepting (i.e., harmonious) world, based on a feeling of goodwill toward our fellow humans.
And if music tends to influence our vision of the world in that way, then it is in that sense political: it must also tend to influence our judgments about how we want things to be, and about what we seek to make happen in the world around us.
It also may be that music acts as a kind of salve for the wounds that the dissonance of politics (and life) inflicts on us; music may be one thing that restores us and helps us cope and keep moving forward. In a world that increasingly seeks to divide us, it may be one thing that helps bring us together.
Maybe that helps explain why we all love it so much, and why we keep gathering together to share the way it makes us feel. Maybe part of the solution to fixing the world is to spend more time playing and listening to music.