Kick over the statues

Music has been used both to suppress and to promote dissension

Dictators have been quick to apply music to social control. Rousing anthems may be used to cohere populations. And anything seen as vaguely subversive has rapidly been banned. Nazi Germany had firm guidelines on the type of music that could be performed. Wagner, Beethoven and Bruckner were in; Mendelssohn, Mahler and Schoenberg (all Jewish) were out.

Conversely, it has also been a rallying call for dissenters. Folk music has often been a medium for commentary on social justice. In the USA, singers such as Woody Guthrie pioneered the modern ‘protest song’ during the Great Depression. Songs such as Billie Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ highlighted racial prejudices. Later, ‘We Shall Overcome’ became strongly associated with the US Civil Rights Movement.

‘We Shall Overcome’ was also heard in Europe during the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Particularly striking was the ‘Singing Revolution’ of Estonia, marked by public singing of patriotic songs, forbidden under Soviet rule. Like the written word, song can communicate powerful ideas, but can also unite groups and appeal to deep emotional forces in a way that books cannot. Evolution has crafted our brains to be especially predisposed to music – and performers tap into this primeval instinct to inspire, influence and inflame.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development