Stick to Your Guns? No, Stick to Your Songs

Music is not just the language of the gods but quite possibly the language of peace, healing, and reconciliation.

Combat veterans with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury are benefiting from music therapy. In recent years, the Veterans Administration has more than doubled the number of music therapists at its clinics. Music rebuilds damaged neural connections, engages neural networks, and triggers the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” side) to relax patients.

Additional research demonstrates that pleasant music can reduce activity in the brain’s amygdala, which is responsible for regulating our negative emotions. Accordingly, music can open a safe path to remember, to talk, to engage and heal.

The American Music Therapy Association (formerly the National Association for Music Therapy) was founded in 1950 and ever since has been promoting the benefits of music therapy to help with the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. According to Barbara Crowe, past president of the AMTA, “Music therapy can make the difference between withdrawal and awareness, between isolation and interaction, between chronic pain and comfort—between demoralization and dignity.”

At a VA clinic in New Jersey for Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD, a staff psychiatrist slides her bow across her viola playing a soft tune. She is known as the “Violin Doc.” One veteran in the group says, “I’m into classical music . . . to get through the night I listen to classical music.”

Music is not just representational, not just mimetic; it does more than simply imitate a thought or feeling or scene. Music conjures the deepest sources of our shared humanity. It is both a creation and a creator. Each musical piece is a unique expression of truth, telling us something we know without thinking. It speaks to our essence. And it is music that just might save us.

Bach’s “Prelude No. 1 in C Major,” from his “Well-Tempered Clavier,” is universally known by its seemingly simple, gentle rolling keys with each note attracting the other, linking chords, all connecting us to him, his music, and to fellow listeners. Bach’s modulating of keys mediates our conflicted emotions, his repeating notes take us to a non-thinking state, the subtle tension and resolution in the music captures, captivates, and then releases us, harmonized and healed. It is therapy without words.

Such music can transcend cultural, ethnic, and religious boundaries. It can cross continents and war zones. It speaks of a universal beauty, a shared appreciation. If we value beauty, we value life. Violence and war are anathema to beauty and life, inconsistent with our natural state. The result is disharmony, the cacophonous scream of humanity.

A prelude to peace means we must stop shouting, stop shooting, and listen, since only with our own silence can we hear the music. “Where words fail, music speaks,” wrote Hans Christian Andersen. War is not just a failure of words, but a failure of listening. Our universal notes are lost in the spew of outrage. Beauty is murdered with each bullet and bomb. Bach’s “Prelude” becomes a Requiem, a mass for the dead.

Should Russian and Ukrainian soldiers stop shooting and listen to “Prelude No. 1 in C Major”? Absolutely. It is the necessary prelude for peace, as humanity saw in the music-inspired Christmas Truce in World War I. For a few moments, if they truly listen, they will no longer be soldiers, no longer strangers one to the other. They will intuitively see commonality, community, harmony. For that brief time, they will reside together in beauty and peace, going from “demoralization to dignity.” And when the Prelude ends, they will realize they must overcome their subtly changed nature if they are to be killers again.

And so, can music save our species? Thousands of strangers can gather in a concert hall and have a collective, peaceful experience. Weapons and wars cannot do that. Accusations and insults, threats of hellfire, none of these have ever produced a lasting peace. Diplomacy as practiced today is simply a prelude to war. After all, the big money is in weapons, not words.

The resolution to endless war just might be found in the eternal mystery of music, its ability to attract, to rebuild, to connect. It calls to something deeper than reason, since too often we can reason ourselves into or out of anything we wish. It offers the chance to regain our fundamental nature, a trading of swords for symphonies. Why not Bach? Why not his “Prelude”? And after Bach, on to Liszt.

Once we quietly listen, we may come out the other side and remember who we truly are.

Brad Wolf is a former prosecutor, professor, and college dean.  He is the Executive Director of Peace Action Network of Lancaster and writes for numerous publications.