Using Music to Address Social Issues

Many in the classical music world have heard about  El Sistema. Dr. José Antonio Abreu developed this program in 1975 out of his belief that:

 “A child’s physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that music provides.”

(You can find out more about El Sistema at 60 Minutes.) The program has expanded around the globe including the US.

In “The Art of Possibility” conductor Benjamin Zander shares the story of Eastlea – a failing school in London. Against what seemed impossible odds, he presented a two-hour assemble to eleven hundred students concluding with the students singing “Ode to Joy” in German. (There is much more to this story so I encourage you to read the full story here.) The story ends with this quote;

“THE LIFE FORCE for humankind is, perhaps, nothing more or less than the passionate energy to connect, express, and communicate. Enrollment is that life force at work, lighting sparks from person to person, scattering light in all directions. Sometimes the sparks ignite a blaze; sometimes they pass quietly, magically, almost imperceptibly, from one to another to another.”

There is a growing body of evidence that providing a rich music education environment for children enriches their development. Have you heard about using music to reduce crime?

Many people have at least heard the music of Playing for a Change – an organization “dedicated to creating a positive change through music and arts education.” To date, they have raised funds for 7 programs in 5 countries reaching 600 students and creating 130 jobs.

There are projects such as Teaching Tolerance that are a “place to find thought-provoking news, conversation and support for those who care about diversity, equal opportunity and respect for differences in schools.” Materials include some using music to create awareness.

It doesn’t surprise me to see music being a part of these and other programs. Briefly, here is why:

Music guitar
Image by @Doug88888 via Flickr
  • Music exists in most (if not all) cultures. Rhythmic activity and vocalizing seem to be universal.
  • Music is human behavior. In other words, it is something we do, something we create,
  • Music occurs in relation with others. Often that relationship is social. Think of all the events where you experience music – parades, sporting events, and religious events are just a few. Even when we listen to recordings, those recordings were created by others. When we re-create a song we’ve heard, it was created by others. When we create our own music, there is the relationships of your body, your mind and your spirit at work.
  • Music can assist us in altering an emotional state. Most of us have songs that make us smile, that make us think of an event or a person, or that makes us angry. Music can be a mirror to emotions we are experiencing. This is true for individuals and can be true for groups.

My training in music therapy has allowed me to witness the power of music in the lives of many people. I have been blessed to witness the transformational process in my daughter as she grows as a musician and in the lives of students my husband has taught. I am able to talk with my father about the latest concerts or opera he has attended – something he had limited time to enjoy prior to retirement.

For all these reasons and more, I believe music can transform lives. This transformative power is not limited to classical music. It is open to all genres. All people deserve access to quality music as listeners and creators.

Have you witnessed or taken part in music being used to address a social issue? If so, please share it in the comments below being sure to complete the CAPTCHA.


  • Gustavo Dudamel-backed classical music scheme aims to strike right note in US (
  • 6 Keys to Living (with Music) (
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  • Kat Fulton

    Thanks for bringing up music for social change! Yes – I remember in graduate school, my professor explained a case of blasting classical music in a high-crime area. They did it, and then it didn’t necessarily *stop* the crime, but the crime just moved to a different location… or something like that 😉 They needed the therapeutic relationship! That was missing =)

    • admin

      There isn’t relationship in the music to “stop” crime but I since it often shows up in searches, I figure it was worth the mention, Kat. Maybe someday we’ll come up with an interactive music model to reduce crime. For now, El Sistema seems to be interactive with verbal reports of life changes. It would be great to get data though baseline for such studies might be a challenge.

      • admin

        I would agree, Rachelle.

  • Rachelle Norman

    I think it’s a bit backwards to “use” music for the purpose of creating positive social change. It seems to me that a healthy community should have healthy music – that is, opportunities for creating and performing and hearing and sharing music. That was the point of “The Music Man,” right? The community needed a band! These days, of course, that community musical life can take different forms, but it’s no different.
    Rachelle Norman recently posted..Song Spotlight: “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm?”My Profile

  • admin

    Great point, Rachelle. It seems that music and the arts are being lost in many communities and schools. Hopefully, lifting you some positive examples will make people think about the healthy aspects music brings.

  • Linda

    Thanks for this wonderful resource–I’d never heard of El Sistema.

    Sadly, music is one of those programs that’s perennially on the chopping block when school budget’s are diminished. I’m so happy that in our small school district and city, the residents voted on a measure that would keep music and other artistic programs in K-12 going. Let me tell you, the extra $288.00 per year is well worth it. Especially when you have a child like my 4th grader who’s uncomfortable expressing feelings via traditional methods. He really finds his passion in his weekly music class.

    Music is something I have never lived a day without. Sometimes I think if I had to choose b/w my hearing and my sight, I’d choose to hear the music.

    Off to post on Facebook–thanks JoAnn!
    Linda recently posted..Facebook: Happy Faces and Depressed TeensMy Profile

    • admin

      How wonderful to hear of a district where the arts are still in place, Linda! It is a passion of many that has a place in educating the whole person.

      I, too, would find it difficult to imagine life without hearing.

  • Kathy Morelli, LPC (@KathyAMorelli)

    Hi! I think the expressive arts are way under-rated in our society,.,,they provide a healthy way of processing and moving our emotions thru our nervous system…and provide right & left brain integration at a non-verbal level…good for you for blogging about it!
    Kathy Morelli, LPC (@KathyAMorelli) recently posted..Invisible Pain – Mental IllnessMy Profile

    • admin

      Much appreciate the feedback, Kathy. The arts are wonderful ways to learn about ourselves.