Musical Diversity as Human Diversity

It’s hard not to open up the news these days–or reach out to your conservative cousin–and be filled with a paralyzing sense of horror and dread. People seem to be retreating ever further into their own little tribal groups. Republicans vs. Democrats; The 1% vs. Working People. And this is to say nothing of the cultural, ethnic, and racial segregation that seems to be getting more and more socially acceptable in certain corners of the world. What can one person with the desire to reach out and bridge divides do?

It might seem idealistic and even ridiculous to say, Pick up a guitar and strum a tune! But it’s not as purely romantic as you think: Jake Harwood, a professor of communications at the University of Arizona, conducted a study which he published in “Harmonious Contact: Stories About Intergroup Musical Collaboration Improve Intergroup Attitudes” in Journal of Communication, in which he found that music “produce[s] a humanizing effect for members of groups experiencing social and political opposition and that it “models diversity.” And you don’t even have to play the music yourself to benefit from these effects: merely listening to music that was produced by someone culturally different from you or that samples music from different cultures can “reduce negative feelings about outgroup members.”

But a feedback loop can arise: people who are more likely to already be open to diverse cultures will listen to more diverse music and therefore continue to open up; those who are not open, on the other hand, are not going to listen to culturally-expanding music in the first place.

So how do you “model diversity” and humanize those that are different for people who are especially closed off and narrow-minded? The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) has some ideas. First of all, start young. Music educator Jacqueline Kelly-McHale, writing for NAfME, has observed that a reliance on general music instruction that is “focused on placement of Western classical music as the highest form of musical experience, or on methods of teaching that grew out of European music education practices” is to blame for both the perpetuation of the superiority of Western traditions and culture as well as for the sense of isolation and alienation in immigrants, ELL students, and other “outgroup members.” If childhood music educators incorporate non-Western music into their curricula–not merely focusing on it for a day or two, bu really studying it and making it part of their syllabi–“ingroup” and “outgroup” members will learn about different values and ways of doing things and will even come to a mutual understanding.

While you’re not likely to be able to single-handedly completely change these practices as a concerned parent, you can certainly advocate for more diverse music education in your child’s classroom: talk to the teachers and administrators and the PTA; offer to come in yourself and teach for a special music day or days–or recommend someone else who can. Encourage a private music teacher for your children to broaden their repertoire of teachable songs. You can also make sure to listen to culturally diverse music styles at home. The University of Arizona study found that even musicians sampling non-traditional music styles, Paul Simon in Graceland most notably, help to open people up to cultural diversity. Does your conservative cousin love country music? Well what do they have to say about the fact that “pure country” music doesn’t really exist? That that genre borrows heavily from hip-hop, pop, EDM and blues? And that those genres, in turn, borrow from world music including Indian raga, South African instrumentation, Arabic music and Afro-Cuban beats?

So don’t use music to close yourself off; allow it to do what it does best: connect. Huib Schippers, writing for, laments the disappearance of “small musics” around the world at the hands of “Christian hymns, military band tunes and Western pop music.” He asserts that “This is the time for all of us who love, make or work in music to collaborate with communities across the world to empower them to forge musical futures on their own terms.” Indeed.