Molecular Music and Being Human
By Ben Mattson
There’s something about music. To riff on Shakespeare's Hamlet, it’s neither inherently good or bad, but we can definitely make it so.
It’s true that music serves various purposes — perhaps as something to distract us or enliven us, or something to let us relax and sleep. Yet we can also use it as a reminder to highlight what is common and beautiful within our shrouded political realities. We can leverage music as a stepping stone or portal into connection we might not otherwise be able to reach through ordinary language and diplomacy. In other words, it can be like a laser which, even if only for the time being, pierces the veil of antagonism. The connective power of music, if properly recognized, can be a tool with untold and untested potential. For this reason alone it is worth investigating as being integral to bridging human divides.
It’s easy to get cheesy with this kind of topic, which is why it’s so crucial to remember that music is not an answer in itself. Music (as far as we know) is not an autonomous organism, which can act and bring transformative peace without our help (but wouldn’t it be wildly cool if it was?). It could never be without musicians, other artists, their friends and acquaintances building expanding musical spheres. It requires people taking steps to begin truly listening in the first place, and to give the music (and musicians) a good enough chance. And we can all contribute to composing musical molecules, to creating human bonds.
But why does music bring people together? What is its potential power in building a world with greater justice? I definitely don’t know the whole story here — but answers to these questions should at least include the point that music is a difference-bridger between individuals and groups. Like chemical bonds binding atoms into molecules, music can bind or bring people together. Maybe the music in question is a choir, or an R&B song. For me, a lot of the time it’s extreme death metal.
And maybe music isn’t the best of all possible connecting pieces — I honestly don’t know — but what is the best, and why shouldn’t we engage with every possibility? Different people have skills, which can cross borders, both mental and geopolitical. Sometimes these are diplomatic, sometimes they center on human rights protection. Other times they might be singing and orchestrating members of different ethnicities, which have seen collective trauma. Melodies and rhythms can be, and often are, revealers of underlying commonalities — commonalities all too often masked and hidden by other phenomena (like politics, religion, and other factors, which can be used as difference-creators and accentuators).
Some people (I’m sure we could all think of them) have interests in pumping superficial differences full of steroids in order to dehumanize seen or potential threats to existing power structures. A countermeasure to this age-old tactic is to peacefully show, gently demonstrate how people connect. And one way to do this is through the interpersonal experience of music. This can occur in the context of human rights and overcoming hardship and cycles of violence.
And we can leverage music for ourselves, in our own lives. Have you ever felt closer to people, or more at peace with yourself, when you were listening to music? It’s as if music is so fundamental to much of culture that we overlook it as a source of political inspiration, peacebuilding, and tension resolution. We overlook it as something deceptively simple that can help with a myriad of problems. There are lots of examples; Musicians without Borders is a great one that is eminently worthy of exploration.
Interpersonal connection occurs at the conscious level, but also involves interweaving biological frequencies. In cognitive science, along with other approaches of explaining human dynamics, researchers sometimes call this biological phenomenon entrainment. I like to think of this phenomenon in pretty general terms as involving internal and external patterns which synchronize or weave together: An internal pattern, such as how someone is moving, and something external like a rhythm or melody, for example. Music therapists sometimes integrate this within their work, as do practitioners of dance/movement therapy. I myself have benefited a ton from this. Of course, scientists get more specific about entrainment all the time, but I think it’s crucial to also feel for ourselves how our environments affect us — how we sync-up with rhythms, which are, at least initially, external to us.
We as a society, world, and perhaps even species need to find within ourselves the trust to do this. This isn’t a complete or perfect solution; there is no final equation for human justice and peace, one which weaves together all the disparate strands of experience we call humanity. But I think a good case can be made that something as sublimely moving and connecting as music is an integral element in creating sustainable systems of living. Or at least knitting and binding the right people together to continue to make music, and build the interpersonal molecules and melodies which sustain life, and make it worthwhile.