[Columns and Essays]

Music and Grief: Norway After 22 July, 2011

By Marie Strand Skånland & Gro Trondalen


On 22 July 2011, Norwegians experienced a terror attack carried out by a white Norwegian middle-class male with far-right extremist and militant beliefs as a statement of opposition to the nation’s multicultural politics. Seventy-seven people were killed in a bomb explosion in the governmental area of Oslo and in a shooting episode specifically directed at politically engaged youngsters who were attending a youth camp on a small island.

In the grieving process that followed the events of 22 July, music played a fundamental role at both a national and an individual level. Group singing, memorial concerts and services, songwriting, and music sharing became important resources during collective and private reckonings with the shock, anger, and grief brought about by the attack. Nationally, music provided a tool for the expression of shared values and appeared to strengthen feelings of community. Certain songs acquired particular resonances and were repeatedly sung, played, shared, and referred to. Individually, people used music to express or contain a variety of emotions. People listened to music and composed new songs as a form for self-therapy, and shared music as a means of reaching out and of looking inward.

In this essay, we revisit both the collective and the individual musicking that took place in response to the terror attacks. We present descriptions of various engagements with music and reflect upon them, both practically and theoretically. We begin with a short description of the attacks, followed by a look at music’s role as a national and collective response to the terror, then as an individual response. Finally, we close with a few general reflections upon the role of music in crisis and grief work in general.

The Bomb Goes Off

It is a lazy Friday afternoon, 22 July 2011, during Norway’s public holiday, when, at 3:26 pm, a "bang" is heard in most parts of Oslo, the capital of Norway, and its surrounding areas. Is it thunder? Construction work? As people begin to wonder, there arrives this breaking news: a bomb has gone off in central Oslo. On national television, images from the executive governmental quarter in Oslo indicate that it was the target of the blast. It looks like a war zone: on the television, there are confused and shellshocked people, people bleeding, and dead people. At 5:00 pm, the police confirm that a bomb exploded, and the city of Oslo as known by the inhabitants of Norway is dramatically changed.

More bad news, followed by more confusion and disbelief: at 5:27 pm, there is shooting on the small island of Utøya, just outside of Oslo, where a political youth camp (the Workers’ Youth League) is underway with six hundred youngsters in attendance. In the hours following, there is great uncertainty as to whether people have been injured or killed there, but soon the seriousness of these events becomes clear to all. By nightfall, ten people are confirmed to have been shot dead. It appears that the gunman was a young man dressed as a police officer who showed false identity papers. Seven people are also confirmed to have been killed by the bomb in the city centre.

At 10:30 pm that Friday night, Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, says this at a press conference:

Today, Norway has been hit by two shocking, bloody, and cowardly attacks. We don’t know who attacked us. Much is still uncertain. But we do know that many are dead, and that many are hurt. We are all shaken by the evil that has hit us so brutally and suddenly. This is a night that demands much of us all. (Stoltenberg, in Stormark, 2011, p. 344, translated by the authors)

Saturday morning, Norwegians awake to the appalling news that eighty people had been shot dead on Utøya. This number goes up before it is ultimately scaled back to a total of seventy-seven fatalities from the bombing and shooting, and at least two hundred people injured.

A Nation in Mourning: Music’s Role in the National Grief Process

Norway has a small population, and many of its people were directly affected by the tragedy. Hundreds were seriously injured, and hundreds more lost one (or several) loved ones. And while the terror actions themselves directly hit those in the governmental area and on Utøya, the repercussions affected the entire nation. Everyone suffered. In the days following 22 July, people gathered together and comforted each other in various settings, and often music was essential to their grief process.

Two songs soon became particularly prominent and were sung, played, and referred to over and over: "Til Ungdommen" [For the Youth] and "Mitt lille land" [My Little Country]. The first was originally a poem by the Norwegian poet Nordahl Grieg, written in 1936 on invitation as a response to the emergence of Fascism in southern Europe. It was set to music in 1952 by the Danish composer Otto Mortensen. After 22 July, individuals seemed to find comfort in the lyrics and music, and the song appeared to express values that felt particularly relevant to the general opposition to one man’s evil actions. When faced with such a sprawling tragedy, Norway’s relative intimacy as a nation of just five million people soon became obvious. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who was involved. Everyone had the feeling of having lost something. In the sense of community and solidarity that arose after the terror attack, the population’s love for the nation also became apparent, and this is where the song "My Little Country", written by Ole Paus, came in.

Expressing shared emotions, thoughts, and values through song appeared to provide comfort to members of a nation in mourning. In the midst of utter disbelief and shock, new words were hard to find. These songs, then, helped people put their thoughts into familiar words and offer an initial release for a variety of emotions. Though the days following 22 July were painful, these songs did not focus on hate or revenge but on hope and optimism—peace, warmth, solidarity, and a belief in humankind. The songs therefore present a powerful contrast to the cruelty that had struck the nation only days before. Singing these songs became a way of expressing and nurturing hope on an individual and a collective level, and a way of encountering and processing grief.

Collective Musicking

An Ocean of Roses

On 25 July, people were invited to walk in a procession while carrying roses to show solidarity with the victims and those left behind, and as a statement of opposition to the terror attacks three days earlier. In Oslo, more than 200,000 people—one third of the capital’s population—gathered for the march. In front of the town hall, there were appearances from the prime minister and the crown prince, among others, and several artists contributed performances. The audience sang together with them on songs such as "For the Youth" and "My Little Country", among others. This demonstration, and especially the singing together, appeared to strengthen the experience of community and solidarity and revealed a sense of the nation’s vulnerability as well—the renewed awareness of one man’s evil actions and the nation’s collective rejection of them evoked many tears.

After the final song was played on the stage, the people in attendance were encouraged to quietly walk home. But people stayed, and soon they began, with increasing strength, to sing the national anthem: "Yes, We Love This Country", also known by the title "Song for Norway." This spontaneous performance was perhaps based on the need to express solidarity and concern. The collective singing was used as a demonstration, in turn, of connectedness in a time of tragedy, of shared values, and of shared grief. Afterward, as people left, the city centre was found to be covered with roses.

Memorial Service and Commemoration

Days after the terror attack, as well, a public memorial service took place in Oslo Cathedral, located in the centre of Oslo, not far from the scene of the bombing. And one month after the attack, a large-scale official memorial event was arranged in the biggest concert hall in Oslo. At this event, bereaved family members, rescue workers, and volunteers were invited as the live audience.

Both events were broadcast on national television, and music played a vital role in each. At both events, in pointed contrast to the attacker’s ideology and wish for ethnic homogeneity—the musical performances, as well as origins of the performers themselves, were diverse. Along with performances of the songs mentioned above, the Norwegian hip-hop duo Karpe Diem made an impression on many with their performance of the song "A Thousand Drawings" [Tusen tegninger], which had been released in 2010. The two young men in the duo, Magdi Omar Ytreeide Abdelmaguid and Chirag Rashmikant Patel, represent the multicultural Norway, as they are of Egyptian/Norwegian and Indian origins, respectively. Their song paints a picture of what it is like to be a young Muslim in Norway today. On their blog, for example, Magdi writes:

I’m first and foremost a lot of other things, but I’m also religious. It’s not who I am, but it’s part of who I am. Even if I draw on myself as a Muslim and my experiences in the lyrics, "A Thousand Drawings" is about something a lot bigger than me. It’s about accepting that someone believes, no matter what they believe in. It’s about the positive aspects of believing, no matter what you believe in. And it’s about how alike we are, no matter what we believe in. In the music video, we have tried to focus on exactly this, something that is sadly necessary in a world characterised by too much focus on the negative aspects of religion and the differences between us. (http://karpediem.blogg.no/, English translation by the authors)

The music and performances of Karpe Diem became important ingredients of the national ceremonies in the wake of 22 July, both because of their existing impact upon Norwegian pop culture (and youth) and because they represent values that seemed important to safeguard in the face of the defendant’s expressed ideology.

Nine Months Later: A Facebook Event

Nine months later, during the criminal proceedings that resulted from the attack, thousands of people gathered again to sing together. A Facebook event posting created by two women led to forty thousand people gathering in Oslo during their lunch break, again carrying roses, this time singing the Norwegian version of "My Rainbow Race" (Lillebjørn Nilsen/Pete Seeger).1 In addition, people gathered elsewhere throughout the country at the same time to sing the same song. This song, which had also been performed on 25 July 2011, was chosen on 26 April 2012 because the defendant had expressed his view that the song was used to "brainwash Norwegian children into cultural Marxism".2 Although Pete Seeger originally wrote "My Rainbow Race" as a statement of support for the environmental movement, the Norwegian lyrics have also been interpreted as a plea for multicultural solidarity. Singing the song therefore became a way of expressing dissociation from the defendant’s ideology (and confronting his bias toward the song itself).

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder and singing together again strengthened feelings of social bonding and belonging and expressed solidarity with the bereaved as they dealt with this painful trial. And once again, roses were placed in the city centre, this time in front of the courthouse where the defendant was being questioned.

One Year After: Outdoor Memorial Concert

At the one-year anniversary of the terror attack, an outdoor memorial concert was arranged in front of the town hall in Oslo. A range of artists again performed songs that, during the last year, had become associated specifically with 22 July and the process of recovery from those events. Several artists also performed new songs that they had written as a response to the terror. Karpe Diem, for example, performed "Dear Peacock", which spoke directly to multiculturalism, the terror attacks, and the survivors: “Cause a bastard hated peacocks, The bastard brought grey bullets” (Karpe Diem 2012, translated by the authors)

At this event, several of the songs were considerably more direct in their tone and content. Some reacted negatively to the lyrics of Norwegian singer-songwriter Lars Lillo-Stenberg’s song "We See You Now" [Vi ser dere nå], for example, finding it to be too brutal and harsh.3: "… He blew up a bomb and went to an island… " (Lars Lillo-Stenberg, 2012)

Others felt that the song was simply honest and commented that it would be a shame to apply rules to the expression of grief. Either way, the performances at the one-year anniversary event varied more in tone than what had been heard during the previous year, which led to new reactions among the audience as well.


Following the terror attack of 22 July 2011, the people of Norway gathered and bonded together through musicking in many ways, as described above. Not everyone, however, felt comfortable singing together at these moments, as became clear from certain later responses to the April 2012 event in particular. The fact that music evokes such strong feelings of community and identity can alienate people as well as inspire them. After the group singing on 26 April, for example, some felt the need to distance themselves from what they experienced as excessive conformity, and they commented to this effect in the media. Despite the obviously powerful experiences of community and solidarity among those who sang together, then, we must remember that there were many different reasons to participate (or not participate) in the singing. For example, a reporter from the Guardian described the group singing in April 2012 as an act of protest against the defendant, but that is not all it was: many people participated out of sympathy for the bereaved, as an expression of solidarity, to underscore values other than those of the defendant, to share their own grief with others, or for still other reasons. What seems to be most important here is that the participation was voluntary, and that those who chose to sing together enjoyed the experience.

It is also interesting that the spontaneous group singing in front of the town hall on 25 July 2011 was of the national anthem. Given the defendant’s far-right ideology and motives for the killings, it may seem ironic or even offensive that people chose to sing this particular song. However, the inhabitants of Norway share a very small musical repertoire, and the spontaneous singing of the national anthem may be best understood as a joint need to express something collective through one of—or maybe the—song that most of the inhabitants of Norway are familiar with. This song is usually performed and collectively sung by most school children on Norway’s national day—a very public celebration—and since public group singing is otherwise rare in Norway, this was perhaps the first song to come to mind for those who initiated the singing. It could however be problematized how the collective singing of the national anthem so shortly after the killings was perceived by immigrants and others who felt attacked by the defendant’s ideology.

In the wake of the terror attack, then, the inhabitants of Norway gathered on a host of occasions to sing and share music and lyrics. Interestingly, Norwegian culture does not usually accommodate intense emotions; people tend to remain controlled and generally ‘well behaved’, and grief is thought of as something private. When confronted by a national tragedy, however, people began to act in ‘unusual’ ways, so that Norwegians’ customary restraint gave way to the need to comfort each other and express solidarity for one another. Music directly addressed that need and was used as a means of expressing these particular emotions and uniting a nation. The private and the public came together when individuals chose to be private in public.

The fact that music strengthens social bonds is supported by research (Balsnes, 2010; Bonde, 2009; DeNora, 2000; O'Hara & Brown, 2006; Ruud, 2002). For example, Clarke, Dibben, and Pitts write:

From an evolutionary perspective, music has been linked to physical grooming among primates in that it provides an opportunity for social bonding. The advantage of music over speech, in this respect, is that large groups of people can participate in music-making simultaneously, and all can make a contribution to the collective activity. For example, music’s ability to synchronise mood states in large numbers of people promotes coherent behaviour, allowing coordinated collective action. (2010, p. 102)

In the aftermath of 22 July, familiar songs were used to express shared values, empathy, and solidarity in a grim but determined new context. It is perhaps no coincidence that these songs have Norwegian lyrics. Although, or perhaps because, there is a predominance of popular music with English lyrics both heard and performed in Norway, Norwegian lyrics may seem more personal to Norwegians and hit closer to home, which both resonates with and counterbalances the collectiveness of group singing as grief processing. Not only the lyrics but the act itself can be quite personal: Balsnes (2010) notes that our singing voice is closely connected to our bodies, breath, emotions, and identities (see also Clift, 2012; Clift, Hancox, Staricoff & Whitmore, 2008; Persen, 2005; ). Singing in one’s native language can therefore come to represent a particularly open, vulnerable means of sharing emotions and values. This is likely another reason why singing together at these events became such a powerful experience for those who participated. It should be noted, of course, that many of those who participated in the group singing may not have had Norwegian as their first language, so this point does not apply to all in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. The use of music with predominantly Norwegian lyrics can therefore be problematized in line with the use of the national anthem, as discussed above.

It is also true that music acts to amplify the context in which it is performed or heard. For example, Ruud (2011) notes that, often, tears cannot be held back when music is played:

The defence we try to build with our intellect is torn apart. The mirror music holds in front of us gives licence to feel how our bodies are, to let our vulnerability out, to dissolve. (Ruud, 2011, p. 23, translated by the authors)

If group singing addresses a desire for collectiveness, the expression of solidarity, and togetherness, it also functions as a personal expression of feelings and as a way for the individual to deal with and work through a range of difficult emotional consequences related to the terror attacks. Group singing, then, offered participants the ability to acknowledge their vulnerability within the safe context of group musicking.

It is evident that music embodies existing values and meanings (Clarke, Dibben & Pitts, 2010), but it can also acquire a particular meaning through its practice. For the population of Norway, the songs mentioned above will probably always be related to the terror attacks and perhaps elicit many painful memories in the future. However, because these songs were used in situations where people bonded in their grief, they might also bring out memories of warmth and empathy.

Individual Musicking

Music Making

Since the terror attack, there have been many examples of music being used in or as self-care. Individuals have written music, listened to music, and shared music online. One of the youngsters who was on Utøya on the day of the shootings, Tom Christian Lindbäck (age nineteen), wrote a rap about the day, and about his feelings toward the mass murderer. Lindbäck told the media that he had written the rap to feel better:4 "It’s absolutely therapy. I didn’t cope so well after all that happened. So it’s clearly therapeutic to work with music, particularly that song, and to release certain emotions." Several other artists, both professional and amateur, also wrote music as a response to 22 July. For example, Magnus Eliassen wrote the song "Til dem du e gla i" [For Those You Love].5 This song was included on a compilation album to benefit the rebuilding of Utøya and the anti-racism project led by Amnesty International. The album is a collection of songs that were played on the radio and on television in the period after the terror attacks, including "My Little Country", "For the Youth", and "My Rainbow Race." Voicing a thought shared by most Norwegian artists in the aftermath of 22 July, Eliassen told the media that it "feels good to contribute, although it is only a small contribution."6

Music Listening

Another way to use music in self-care or to work through grief is simply to listen to it. One song credited as an unofficial soundtrack for the bereaved after 22 July was Swedish singer-songwriter Laleh’s "Some Die Young", which had a painful relevance in light of how many young people had been killed. Individuals also repurposed or reactivated songs in their own music collections that consoled them. One woman told us that she consciously sought out familiar songs that seemed to reflect her grief in the wake of the terror attack.7 She searched for music on her MP3 player that she related to death and loss and used it as a safe container for her own emotions in a way that allowed her to feel them as well. In Peter Gabriel’s "I Grieve", for example, she found both the sting of grief and a glimmer of hope for the future. Gabriel in fact performed this song on the one-year anniversary of 9/11 in New York as well. Interestingly, it was originally written for the City of Angels film soundtrack in 1998, so it represents an interesting example of how songs acquire new meanings based on people’s need to express and overcome difficult emotions in the wake of crisis. We have seen, then, how individuals engaged with music as an expression of their emotions via songwriting and as a source of consolation through music listening, in addition to the official ceremonies, arrangements, and performances of music in the public sphere.


There has been a vast amount of music written as a response to 22 July by both amateurs and professionals. Songwriting can represent both a creative and a productive means of processing grief; while lyrics can express issues related to different aspects of the grief process, the music sets the emotional tone (Dalton & Krout, 2006). Dalton and Krout further note that music and lyrics together offer a safe and creative context within which individuals can experience and process their grief.

Writing music as a response to crisis has precedents ranging from Penderecki’s ‘Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima’ (1960)8 to Band Aid’s "Do They Know It’s Christmas?" project in the UK (1984), and the Norwegian "Venn" [Friend] for the Indian Ocean Tsunami relief effort (2005). More closely linked to the experiences of 22 July, perhaps, are songs written in the wake of the bombing on Pearl Harbor—for example, Sammy Kaye and Don Reid’s "Remember Pearl Harbor" (1941)—and music written in the aftermath of the terror attack on New York on 9/11, such as Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising (2002) (Gengaro, 2009). Common to all these artists, of course, is the desire to contribute to the situation in some way. Gengaro notes, in reference to Springsteen’s The Rising, that the reason for writing the album was, on the one hand, wholly personal—"that of an artist who works through his own grief with music" (Gengaro, 2009, p. 31)—and, on the other hand, derived from a sense of duty. Songwriters, then, can write music as a way of processing their own grief while contributing to the healing of an entire community. In addition, the feeling of contributing something is likely also part of the artist’s personal healing process. Gengaro writes (2009, p. 33):

Music has always been a vehicle for artists to deal with tragic and troubling events . . . In the wake of 9/11, the emotions of the country were raw. Music very quickly became the salve. As a nation, Americans turned to music to unite themselves through patriotic songs, and to soothe themselves with perennial favorites. When artists began to write new music, they were working through the same range of emotions all Americans felt. They spoke for the victims, the families of victims, the rescue workers, and the average American who felt powerless and vulnerable, or even angry and vengeful.

Listening to music, in turn, is strongly related to our emotions (Juslin, 2009; Juslin & Laukka, 2004; Sloboda, 2005, 2010). It is also therapeutic, in the sense that it exposes emotions and then helps us to understand, regulate, and vent them (Saarikallio & Erkkilä, 2007; Skånland, 2012; van Goethem, 2010; Vist, 2009). Music often both evokes and strengthens positive emotions (Gabrielsson, 2010; Juslin & Laukka, 2004), but it is not unusual for individuals to choose to listen to music that intensifies and prolongs difficult emotions as well (Skånland, 2012; Vist, 2009). By listening to music that mirrors troubling emotions, individuals gain a better understanding of the situation and the feelings they are experiencing. In effect, the music sustains the emotions long enough to allow us to process them and perhaps gain a better insight into our internal states and feelings (Skånland, 2012; Trondalen, 2013).

Music is sometimes described as a friend, or something you can lean on: "[Music] is often felt to be an understanding and valued friend rather than a sounding object", Laiho notes (2004, p. 52). By recognising one’s own emotions in the music, we feel both accepted and consoled, which are important assets when dealing with difficult emotions (Skånland, 2012, in press). In Sloboda’s (2005) study of emotional responses to music, as well, music was described as a comfort through comments such as "one feels understood and comforted in pain, sorrow, and bewilderment" and "through hearing emotions in someone else’s music, it is possible to feel that emotions are shared and not your burden alone" (Sloboda, 2005, p. 204). It should also be noted that music offers an aesthetic experience of one’s emotions and has even been said to "beautify the sorrow" (Vist, 2009). Music’s affirmation of our emotions allows us to better relate pain, for example, to something outside of ourselves, which might make it easier to bear.

The Power of Music: Some Closing Reflections

People experience grief and times of loss in different ways. Some respond with anger, some with heavy sadness. An event such as 22 July also awakens emotions that are generally hidden in daily life. Music allows for connections to all sorts of life challenges in general; sometimes it offers words when there are no words, or support where none could be found (Bossius & Lilliestam, 2011; Skånland, 2012; Vist, 2009). Bossius and Lilliestam describe the interaction between music and those dealing with grief:

Music creates a space—a sounding musical room—where they can rest in the grief, where they can sink into it, and where music helps them deal with and process it and, in a way, move on in life. This music, which brings out such strong emotions and shakes life into the heavy and difficult stuff, also helps them to come closer and take hold of it, to hold on to it and piece by piece reshape it into something that is bearable and manageable, and that therefore becomes possible to carry with them when they leave that station in life and move on. (Bossius & Lilliestam, 2011, p. 264; English translation by the authors)

Allowing oneself to dwell within the music experience and fully acknowledge one’s loss can also help one move on. When music functions as a provider of vitality—that is, of emotional stimulation and expression—it supports personal agency and empowerment (Ruud, 2002). In the aftermath of 22 July, we observed how music worked in this way, perhaps particularly regarding emotional stimulation and expression, as a resource for building social networks and as a provider of meaning and a sense of coherence (Antonovsky, 1987).

The use of music as a response to national tragedy has worldwide precedents, given its effectiveness as a therapeutic tool for coping with crises, grief, loss, and trauma (Alanne, 2010; Sutton, 2002). It has been part of the effort to help people stabilise and cope with post-earthquake repercussions (Tiao, 2011). A variety of musical approaches helped people to care for the caregivers after 9/11 (Loewy & Hara, 2007). And, as mentioned, the shock and grief experienced by the Norwegian population after 22 July resembles the experiences of Americans after 9/11, ten years earlier, and music was part of the recovery of both populations. As was the case in Norway, popular music written in the aftermath of 9/11 fostered feelings of community and togetherness, Gengaro (2009) notes, and "allowed each and every listener to feel part of something bigger than himself." She continues:

The burden of grief could be shouldered by many, the responsibility of rebuilding shared by entire communities. This music, part of the historical record for these events, captures the emotional tenor of a nation in crisis. (Gengaro, 2009, p. 34)

Cultural, physical, and emotional layers of ourselves are all profoundly affected by music. When words fail or fall short, music supplies a range of relevant emotional nuances and thereby props up individual and collective processes of grieving. Music, in its own language, says this: we do care. And that empathy, enacted through music in the wake of tragedy, clearly has a value in and of itself.


[1]See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/apr/26/thousands-sing-anders-breivik-hates?intcmp=239.

[2]See http://www.aftenposten.no/nyheter/iriks/22juli/Mener-Lillebjorn-Nilsen-hjernevasker-norske-skolebarn-6810448.html#.T6zsko7-qjI.

[3]See http://www.vg.no/musikk/artikkel.php?artid=10059139.

[4]See http://www.nrk.no/kanal/nrk_sapmi/1.7817469.

[5] See http://www.platekompaniet.no/Musikk.aspx/CD/Diverse_Artister/Mitt_Lille_Land_-_Til_Minne_Om_22711/?id=88697977982.

[6]See http://www.vg.no/nyheter/innenriks/oslobomben/artikkel.php?artid=10081041.

[7]The woman wished to remain anonymous.

[8]’Threnody’ was dedicated to the Hiroshima victims when Penderecki himself discovered the emotional charge of the music.


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