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Some Clues to Social Harmony from Music

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Part of Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue: Collection of papers and notes, problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development (1991). Prepared in the process of envisaging the group dynamics of the World Parliament of Relgions


In a group or gathering, music may be used as a metaphor to view each role or individual as a note, a chord, a musical instrument, or as a melody. The issues of group integration can then be interpreted as:

Hints of these possibilities are already evident in common use of: "the same old refrain", "his usual number", "blowing his own trumpet", "the note they are sounding", "singing the same tune", etc


A tone is characterized by four attributes: pitch, timbre, loudness, and duration. Musical sound can be regarded as having two dimensions, vertical and horizontal organization.

A. Horizontal Harmonic Organization

Namely organization over time. Music structures time and this may be seen in terms of:

In the case of horizontal organization, the focus is on "where the music is going to". This is of course helpful in understanding how an integrative goal may be understood and how the status of different goals has been brought into question through the evolution of understanding harmonic possibilities.

How does a group endeavour to structure time? How are the different notes or melodies inserted into the meeting space and how is their meaning held over time?

B. Vertical Harmonic Organization

Namely the sum total of what is happening at a particular time. The emphasis here is on the vertical relationships, if any, between tones.This includes the results of notes that sound against each other in counterpoint. In, the case of melody and accompaniment, it includes the underpinning of chords that the composer gives to the principal notes of the melody.

This can be broadly defined as the sound of two or more notes heard simultaneously (even if sounded one after another and so integrated by the hearer).

The interplay of consonance and dissonance is the very foundation of harmonic music:


In a group, but especially in society as a whole, it is usual for advocates of a proposal, a model, a method, a cosmology or an ideology, to propagate it as though it alone should achieve dominance -- effectively excluding alternative approaches. Within the musical framework this can lead to pieces which are either immediately monotonous and boring, or whose interesting characteristics quickly become an intolerable imposition unless balanced by other pieces in the musical diet (cf. the life cycle of a hit record).

There is of course no musical continuity between the succession of such separate pieces of music. The challenge lies in the way in which the relationship between distinct "voices" is approached. This is of course basic to polyphonic music and symphonic integration. In music such as the fugue however, the relationship between "competing" voices is explored within a musical continuum. This represents a new level of integration. In effect the concept (strategy, model, etc) is explored, inverted, countered, distorted, etc within the overriding set of rules which permit a new level of freedom. The rules ensure a more exciting balance of tension and harmony.

The key to such integration lies in the time dimension which music effectively organizes. Somehow the potential for organizing the time dimension in which competing perspectives are presented and countered needs to be better understood. Perhaps it is linear time which is the trap, as many have argued. There is the possibility of a new level of integration in the interplay between competing alternatives.

On the one hand the theory of harmony provides a script which could be decoded to provide insights into new relationships between opposing views. But on the other hand there is a need to learn to treat the interplay between such views as a pattern which could be represented in musical form.

In the case of a group meeting there is some merit in seeing it as a "broken pattern" or cycle, vainly trying to get together a coherent tone or harmonic pattern. It may also be seen in terms of polyphony and the challenge of competing voices. But in the light of the historical evolution of harmony, the value of moving the gathering through a series of consonant and dissonant "chords" to a tonic goal may be viewed as somewhat simplistic -- although perhaps only achieved in rare cases. The closing phases of most conferences reveal the superficiality of that goal. The possibilities of integration need to be "liberated" from the simplistic understandings of social "harmony" which prevail.


For Western music, harmony has evolved over the centuries

Vertical harmonic organization (the moment)

Musical composition is currently in a phase of intense experiment. Although concepts of classical harmony have lost their importance, it is not a question of the dissolution of harmony but rather of the uses to which such harmonies are put, and the changing relationship of harmony to musical structure -- and the emergence of a new, fundamentally different harmony.

Horizontal harmonic organization (over time)

Contemporary music may be said to be "goal-free", or to call upon the listener to be responsible for any goal he chooses to derive from the music. The emphasis is very much on: the response of the individual listener, the context to which performers respond (including audience response), and increasingly the process of improvisation. The goal lies in appreciation of the moment whatever the range of sounds which define it.

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