Why Disharmony? How Music Can Heal Divided Nations

Fact:  America is currently a socially polarized mess of a country.  Additional fact:  It’s not alone.  Britain, Australia, Austria, France, Spain, Germany and many other first-world democracies are deeply divided, politically flammable nations.  Trump, Farage, LePen and Kurz are political opportunists who have seized upon the anger fueled by growing inequality, a shrinking middle class, jobs insecurity caused by globalization and, most importantly, the polarization facilitated by television and social media.  They wield “alternative facts” or flat-out lies to stoke the anger inflamed by television, fragmented news and social media.  Hypothesis:  The only thing standing between democracy and the wannabe tyrants may be music.  But only a very specific type of music.

Here’s the current ailment that requires music’s healing powers:  the fragmenting democratic countries listed above are not just politically polarized.  There are growing ideological divisions along educational and generational lines, according to the Pew Research Center.  Highly educated adults are increasingly ideologically divorced from sentiments expressed by those with less education.  Fact-based opinion is taking a back seat to emotional-based reaction.  And Our Knowledge Economy is likely to worsen that breach.

Nations Divided by Mass Media

The rupture in our social fabric is being driven by the breakdown (or breakup) of mass media and by the nature of the media, itself.  The cable-led fracture of our news outlets and the loss of local newspapers have rendered the news industry helpless.  The insidious rise of fake news has been laid bare in a survey by a YouGov survey for Britain’s Channel 4.  It is chilling reading.  The survey revealed only 4% of people can actually distinguish between fake news from truth. Only 4% of those questioned could identify all the fake news stories correctly. What’s more, nearly half (49%) thought at least one of the made-up stories was real.  There is a clear trend to people being either unable or uninterested in truthful, verifiable news.

In an October 2017 survey by the University of Maryland/Wash Post, seven in 10 Americans polled say the nation’s political divisions are at least as big as during the Vietnam War.  Nearly 6 in 10 saying Donald Trump’s presidency is making the U.S. political system more dysfunctional and almost 40% believe this dysfunction is the “new normal”.   This is just one of many such surveys that reveal a starkly pessimistic view of U.S. politics, widespread distrust of the nation’s political leaders and their ability to compromise, and an erosion of pride in the way democracy works in America.

Apart from the troubled news front, TV and social media no longer entertains us, as much as they amplify our existing beliefs and habits. They are designed to evoke emotions rather than analysis.  The result has been the creation of deeply fragmented societies, driven by emotions, and radicalized by lack of contact and challenge from outside. Perhaps this explains why the Oxford Dictionaries recently designated “post-truth” as the word of 2016: an adjective “relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.”

The depth of the divide within the U.S. probably can’t be overstated. According to the Pew Research Center there are deep fissures even within political parties.  Even within the GOP, many of the divisions now center on the longstanding principles associated with the Republican party.   Among the public overall, assessments are mixed over whether people like them are better or worse off in America today compared with 50 years ago. About as many say life for people like them is better than it was 50 years ago (37%) as say it is worse (41%); 18% say it is about the same.  Overall, Americans say that the country has been successful more because of its ability to change (52%) than because of its reliance on long-standing principles (43%).

There were only two major commonalities within America: the public thinks freedom of choice in how to live one’s life (77%) and a good family life (70%) are essential components of the American Dream.   Otherwise, what used to be commonly-held aspirations have fallen mightily;   about half or fewer say making valuable contributions to their community (48%), owning a home (43%) or having a successful career (43%) are essential. And just 11% think becoming wealthy is essential.

The late Neal Postman warned of the dangers of mass media back in the 1960s.  He published Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business in 1985 to point out how “hot-medium” television transforms public discourse into an exchange of volatile emotions that are usually mistaken by pollsters as opinion.  Since television images replace the written word, Postman argued that television confounds serious issues by demeaning and undermining political discourse and by turning real, complex issues into superficial images, less about ideas and thoughts and more about entertainment.

He also argued that television is not an effective way of providing education, as it provides only top-down information transfer, rather than the interaction that he believes is necessary to maximize learning. He relied heavily upon the ideas of media theorist Marshall McLuhan to conclude that different media are appropriate for different kinds of knowledge, and describes how cultures value and transfer oral, literate, and televisual information in different ways. He stated that 19th century America was the pinnacle of rational argument, an Age of Reason, in which the dominant communication medium was the printed word. During this period, complicated arguments could be transmitted without oversimplification.  However, with the advent of radio and then TV, accuracy in communication declined despite the fact that available information increased.

Postman noted in a subsequent 1990 speech:  “…… what started out as a liberating stream has turned into a deluge of chaos. If I may take my own country as an example, here is what we are faced with: In America, there are 260,000 billboards; 11,520 newspapers; 11,556 periodicals …” “… Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.”     To this point, Postman effectively predicted that television would essentially turn all news into disinformation. “Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing … The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.”

Humorist Jon Stewart took his formidable wit to slay a hot-medium debate show called Crossfire. This cable show typified the devolving nature of political discourse in the early 2000’s when Stewart appeared as a “guest”. However, his appearance was designed to shame, rather than extol, the hosts when he beseeched them to “stop hurting America.”

Stewart successfully exposed the hosts’ cynicism, leading to the subsequent cancellation of the show.  He accused the show of deliberately provoking division.  And Stewart argued that it was absurd to pretend every issue could be reduced to a forced choice between the right and the left.

Stewart’s clarion call was effective but not decisive. Postman’s monster continues unabated and civil discourse under Donald Trump has devolved to depths never imagined by most Americans. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld observed our societal inability to listen to dissenting viewpoints during a 2017 interview with Stephen Colbert:

The role of media in dividing countries is not a surprise to anyone who has studied electronic media. The dangers of commercial TV were warned of by some of TV news’ greatest anchormen. At a 1958 television conference, Edward R. Murrow took the TV and radio industry to the woodshed for being more focused on profits than on reporting verified news.

Murrow’s warnings were echoed by Walter Cronkite, the “Most Trusted Man in America,” when he shared his concerns about pitfalls of instantaneous, live broadcasting during a “Integrity and the Media” panel discussion. He observed that “Our evening news broadcasts are just a half hour and there are commercials in that half hour, so that the news period is really about 17 minutes. I have a great complaint, that with the complicated nation that we have and with a complicated world which we play a role, that is not nearly enough time to handle just the basic news of the day.” He went on to state that “It is part of the whole degeneration of society in my mind…….We’ve always known you can gain circulation or viewers by cheapening the product, and now you’re finding the bad driving out the good.” Cronkite was similarly concerned about Internet-based news. “In the case of presidential elections, Cronkite said the TV industry should be forced to give away air time to candidates to avoid multimillion dollar TV ad campaigns and keep offices from being up-for-sale to the candidate who raised the most money. The newsman said he values the Internet as a research tool, but he finds some stories published on the Web — scandals especially — play too fast and loose with the facts…

The difference between traditional television and the current state of TV is that it has evolved into a personalized medium.   In the 60’s and 70’s, television was three or four channel universe dominated by a handful of state-sanctioned broadcast companies.   With the advent of cable and global satellite transmission, television exploded into a multi-hundred universe.   The rise of the Internet further splintered the universe of information into thousands of outlets. Today, the very same media which once provided a communal sharing of basic information, has become a dividing force.   Content providers seeks to appeal to a narrow and highly definable demographic by which to maximize advertising investments.   And news organizations now must struggle to find viewers who select their news based upon what they want to hear.   This corrosive scenario is not likely to change anytime soon.  In America, just six corporations control 90% of the media in America:  Disney, NewsCorp, Viacom, CBS, Time Warner and Comcast.

Actress Neve Campbell astutely observed: “If you want things to change in a divided country, you’ll probably have to turn off the TV and pick up the phone and call someone on the other team and try to have a conversation.”    She’s right, except she overlooked music.

The Power of Music

Specifically pop music. More specifically, pop music that speaks to listeners about our commonly held values. Music may be our best, if not only, salvation from the divisiveness of electronic media – despite the fact that it will largely be accessed through that same problematic media. Science all but confirms that humans are hard-wired to respond to music. There is something going on when listening to music besides sound waves, the mechanism of the ear, and synapses firing in the brain. Studies show that music and mood are intimately connected in some non-physical way. Infants have been found to prefer “consonant intervals, the smooth-sounding ones that sound nice to our Western ears in a chord, as opposed to a jarring combination of notes.” In fact, the cries of babies just a few weeks old were found to contain some of the basic intervals common to Western music. Many of the most popular songs reflect and fuel a listener’s deeply personal spiritual longings, speaks to the chaos of the complex world around them and restores commonality in an ever more divergent society
There’s no secret that popular music has been an effective tool for change. Songs like Lennon’s “Imagine”, CSN’s “Ohio”, Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changing”, Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” and CCR’s “Fortunate Son” awakened people to social injustice and evolving morality shifts. But music can not only mobilize, it can unite. E Street band member and songwriter ‘Little’ Steven Van Zandt poignantly explained it in a 2017 concert:

“Kids learned to harmonize and it was a different vibe, some kind of special vibration that took place with different voices mixed together…….I think once we stopped doing that we lost something in our culture. We stopped harmonizing with each other somewhere along the line. We need to be harmonizing with each other a little bit more often these days”. (Video @ 1:01:00)

Music’s power to bring people together is not an entirely new concept.  Scientists have long demonstrated music’s powerful healing effects.   And nonprofit efforts such as Music Unites  and Musicians Without Borders are dedicated to the proposition that music can unite all types of individuals across all borders. Music Unites has brought together all types of music genres, from jazz icon Jon Batiste and the Stay Human Band to Neon Hitch, a rising Warner Music Group artist. By creating this synergy across different types of genres, it forms partnerships and friendships, especially targeted to lower income schools and underprivileged children in underfunded inner city school systems. It aims to transform city landscapes by empowering urban youth through music.   Heartbeat.fm is a Middle Eastern effort to unite young Israeli and Palestinian musicians by facilitating two ensembles of young Palestinian and Israeli musicians (ages 14-22 years old.  They assemble weekly for sustained music based dialogue programs in Haifa and Jerusalem with the goal of creating and then performing their music.  As noted by singer/songwriter Elvis Costello: “A song can infiltrate your heart and the heart may change your mind.”

Music penetrates almost every part of our lives:  our rest, our entertainment, our education, and our worship. Throughout history, it has celebrated the triumphs and tragedies of life.  As Plato said, music “gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination”.  Music both shapes and reflects society.  Dancers follow its beat; protesters use it to find their voice.  It can promote ideals — like peace and solidarity — but it can also prepare armies for battle.  It is part of almost every important personal and collective moment.  In a world of diversity where often values clash, music leaps across language barriers and unites people of quite different cultural backgrounds.  And so, through music, all peoples can come together to make the world a more harmonious place.   Music is harmony; it is a universal public good that knows no boundaries.

A study by the University of Exeter and Tokyo University of the Arts has found that songs from around the world tend to share features that promote bonding and coordination amongst social groups. In the 304 studied recordings of stylistically diverse music from across the world, dozens of statistical universals were found, including consistent features related to pitch and rhythm, as well as social context and interrelationships.

In a 2013 review of the research on music, a music psychologist at the Freie University Berlin described several mechanisms through which music impacts our ability to connect with one another—by impacting brain circuits involved in empathy, trust, and cooperation—perhaps explaining how it has survived in every culture of the world.  According to researchers, when we try to synch with others musically—keeping the beat or harmonizing, for example—we tend to feel positive social feelings towards those with whom we’re synchronizing, even if that person is not visible to us or not in the same room.

The power of music is not recent news. Almost 150 years ago, the great concertmaster P. S Gilmore (he wrote the famed “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,”) seized upon the power of music to organize the National Peace Jubilee. The event was held to benefit the war widows and orphans of the Civil War, and to unite the country after the devastatingly divisive Civil War.  Described by the New York Times in June 1869 as “one of the most remarkable successes ever accomplished in this or any other country,” the Jubilee was held in Boston’s Temple of Peace, a temporary structure built over a three-month period for the sole purpose of accommodating as many as 50,000 attendees.  The event featured an orchestra and chorus of more than 10,000 people, canons, church bells, the world’s largest pipe organ and, to play along with Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus”.  It was such a successful event that it spurred Gilmore to organize the World Peace Jubilee of 1872, a 18-day festival celebrating the end of the Franco-Prussian War and to unite the factions that formed during that war.  Gilmore gathered 20,000 choral performers, 2,000 instrumentalists, and such internationally famous organizations as Johann Strauss and his orchestra from Austria, the Grenadier Guards Band of England, the Garde Republicaine of France, and the Prussian band of Kaiser Franz Grenadiers.   Think of the great global music events of the late 20th century—Woodstock, the Concert for Bangladesh, Farm Aid, and Live Aid—and you’ll envision the sheer star power assembled by Gilmore for these two events.   Gilmore intuited what scientists have subsequently confirmed:  music is the great uniter. Something that people who differ on everything and anything else can have in common.  Music is magic, without the illusion.

Researchers have also found that listening to music releases oxytocin. In one study, patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery were asked to listen to experimenter-selected ‘soothing’ music for 30 minutes one day after surgery. When tested later, those who’d listened to music had higher levels of serum oxytocin compared to those who were assigned to bed-rest alone.

Thus, music is a deep-wired means of communicating belonging which, in turn, communicates a sense of safety and obligation toward your group. Studies find that social cohesion is higher within families and among peer groups when young people listen to music with their family members or peers, respectively. This effect is true even in cultures where interdependence is less valued, proving music’s potential to act as “social glue” that binds people together. In this way, music, like language, can be passed on from generation to generation, creating a sense of continuity and loyalty to one’s community.

The Cure

The key to unifying our divided nations is return our collective attention to our commonalities.  Sociologists have identified approximately 10 core “western” values shared among most first-world democracies:


  • belief that each person is unique, special and a “basic unit of nature”
  • emphasis on individual initiative
  • stress need for independence
  • premium on individual expression and moral beliefs
  • value privacy


  • open society that ideally treats everyone equally
  • equal opportunity for any and all
  • rejection of rank and authority
  • absence of rigid gender segregation
  • directness and informality in relations with others
  • aversion to tyranny and too much power placed in one institution
  • compromises essential to accommodate competing interests


  • a “right” to be well off and physically comfortable
  • judge people by their possessions
  • value newness and innovation

Science and technology

  • values scientific approaches
  • primary source of good
  • major factor in change

Personal control over outcomes

  • belief in changing self and country
  • optimism — nothing is impossible

Work and leisure

  • strong work ethic
  • work is the basis of recognition, power.
  • idleness seen as a threat to society
  • leisure is a reward for hard work


  • aggressive and competitive nature encouraged
  • cooperation is not valued over self-determination
  • belief in free enterprise

Social mobility

  • Self-help and determination
  • vertical (social / economic) as well as physical mobility


  • belief in helping others (related to equality concept)
  • philanthropy admired and religious values embraced
  • a personal choice not a communal expectation
  • involves associations / denominations rather than kin-groups
  • assumes that people are generally good and improvable

Action and achievement oriented

  • emphasis on getting things done in a timely fashion
  • priority on planning and setting goals
  • tendency to be brief and business like,
  • measure results
  • focus on function and pragmatism

These ten shared values (and their variants) offer fodder for musicians who seek to touch listeners hearts and minds.   Over the last 70 years, some of pop’s most loved songs have touched upon these shared values:  Lennon’s Imagine, Jackson’s Heal the World,  Band Aid’s anthem Do They Know It’s Christmas,  Strange Fruit, U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday,  Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., Gaynor’s I Will Survive, Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T,  The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again, just to name a few.   The longevity of these songs is, in part, due to how they touched on core values prized by democratic nations. Like some of the great orations of the past, highlighting those things that unite us will resonate with listeners.   Consider how the essence of American (and Western democracy) values were captured timelessly by Theodore Roosevelt in a speech entitled Citizenship in a Republic.   In this April 23, 1910 oration to a European audience at the Sorbonne in Paris,  Roosevelt said, in part:

“………It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs,who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

“Try to see it my way,” the Beatles sagely counseled. “Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong. While you see it your way, there’s a chance that we might fall apart before too long.” Musicians have an opportunity to not only hone their craft but to help heal a deeply lacerated democracy. If their songs touch upon the common values, they may find their music bringing people together, as once imagined by John Lennon:

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.