Peace-building with Music for the Peace-builders

Peace-building is a transformative process that requires daily objectives met with long-term goals. Though the gun shots may have ceased, bitterness and distrust between communities in conflict can be a narrative just as strong as before. Those who dedicate their lives to peace-building search for ways through which a post-conflict atmosphere transforms into a sustainable, equitable future for all parties involved. Many times, peace education, community engagement, interfaith relations, economic incentives, etc., are all utilized to establish democracy, equality, and social justice in the adjusting society.

In case you are wondering, it is no easy job! As my good friend and peacemaker Aziz Abu Sarah always says (in summary), “You have to wake up every day and decide that you will continue to do this work.” His statement is not one of reluctance and dismay. No. His invigorated words are those of determination and hope.

It is true that peace-builders devote their lives to the improvement of society. Still, do peace-builders need to consider the importance of building peace introspectively? In light of the allegiance to altruism, how should peace-builders consider their needs and continue to be altruistic? Let me introduce you to Reverend Donald Reeves who utilizes the music of J.S. Bach to heal and alter the way he sees his world as a peace-builder in the Balkans.

“During ten years of peace-building in the Balkans, I have been nourished by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, particularly his organ music, which I perform. Playing his music is helping to change the ways in which I see the world. It redresses the balance from a bleak view of human affairs to a saner and more hopeful perspective.” Rev. Donald Reeves (“Peacebuilding and Bach”)

Rev. Reeves is a practitioner in a peace building initiative bringing together Orthodox Serbs in the monasteries  of Pec and Decani with Kosovo Albanians in the surrounding area to strengthen inter-religious, inter-ethnic, and inter-cultural understanding. He concludes that Bach’s music has assisted him during the course of his work. Beside the technical details of visiting the organ every practice session to work on advancing its production for performance and musicality with such concentration and emotional acuteness, Rev. Reeves relates to Bach’s life story.

” Bach’s life was punctuated by the devastation of death. Orphaned at the age of ten, thereafter one member of his family died after the other. So much of his music expresses a long­ing for death, as if his death were a way of escaping his grief and of being reunited with those he has loved. I can relate this to the longing and hope for peace, for union with God.” (“Peacebuilding and Bach”)

What is it about the practice and performance of music that is so meditative and cleansing to the mind and the soul? Beyond the feelings expressed, there is scientific evidence that proves music’s intoxicating effect.

Scholars at McGill University completed a study in 2011 stating, “our experience of the music we love stimulates the pleasure chemical dopamine in our brain.” (“Turns Out Music Is Really Intoxicating, After All”) Scientists tested subjects with MRI imaging while they listened to a song they loved that created ‘chills’ or ‘musical frission’ and as well, while they listened to a song of neutral response. Then by looking at the brain patterns created during the imaging, scientists “identified  dopamine streaming into the striatum region of their forebrains ‘at peak emotional arousal during music listening’.” (“Turns Out Music Is Really Intoxicating, After All”) Thus, the human brain reaches a musical high.

The participants, who answered an advertisement to undergo the study and were checked for mental illness before hand, were requested to also keep tract of: the number of chills, the intensity of chills, and level of pleasure they felt during certain passages. These observations were then matched to the brain patterns in the imaging. The writers of the study concluded,

“If music-induced emotional states can lead to dopamine release, as our findings indicate, it may begin to explain why musical experiences are so valued. These results further speak to why music can be effectively used in rituals, marketing or film to manipulate hedonic states. Our findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry and serve as a starting point for more detailed investigations of the biological substrates that underlie abstract forms of pleasure.” (“Turns Out Music Is Really Intoxicating, After All”)

In my personal experience as well, the listening, practice, and performance of music creates a space and intensity of feeling beyond the justice of words. I find certain genres and composers more stimulating at times than others, though as Rev. Reeves, I can always turn to Bach. One of my previous music teachers explained to me in a lesson that the little bit of space between Man’s finger reaching out to G-d’s finger in the painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel can be filled with Bach’s Chaconne.

There are many tough choices peacebuilders face every day that have nothing to do with their own well-being. Some burnout eventually. Others may continue, but do so unhealthily while resorting to releases that may not support their desired lifestyle or reflect their public image. It is a struggle we all face, no matter peacebuilder, community leader, music director, activist, etc. Undoubtedly, this includes music intervention practitioners,  affecting their success rate in teaching music, empowering youth, and transforming conflict.

Out of all the daily tough choices, the inclusion of oneself in the process of healing should not be withheld. My choice of healing is through the power of music.

  1. Lasar, Mathew. “Turns out That Music Really Is Intoxicating, after All.” Ars Technica. Conde Nast Digital, 18 Jan. 2011. Web. 30 Jan. 2012. <;.
  2. Reeves, Rev. Donald. “Peacebuilding and Bach.” Transconflict. Transconflict, 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 30 Jan. 2012. <;.

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