Let's Talk Music - A Model for Enhancing Intercultural Communication: Trying to Understand Why and How Music Helps

By Avi Gilboa


This article presents the Let's talk music model, in which people from different cultural backgrounds work in a group setting to address and resolve cultural and identity conflicts. The model is based on musical activities and the goal of this article is to understand why and how music helps to promote this cause. To do this, a careful analysis of the components of "musical identity" was conducted (My music, My culture's music, Other's music I do not like, and Other's music I do not know) and thereafter ways by which music was used to bridge the musical identities of people from different (sometimes opposing) backgrounds were found. The Let's talk music model is then described and examples are given to show how this model enables the interplay within the components of one's musical identity and between the musical identities of different people. It is shown that this interplay eventually enables Let's talk music participants to gain a more developed, more tolerant identity. The article concludes with remarks on the importance of such processes to enable a better society.

Keywords: musical identity; music therapy; musical group work; conflict resolution; identity issues.


The Let's talk music model has been previously described and empirically examined (Gilboa, Yehuda, & Amir, 2009). That paper showed how the model was successfully implemented with eight immigrants and four Israeli-born students who met for 24 weekly sessions with a music therapist. Quantitative and qualitative research that accompanied the project showed that as a result of the group process, students could express more acceptance and openness towards one another. In addition, participants, both immigrants and non-immigrants, could identify more easily with their cultural roots as well as with their host culture. It was found that music was a key component in these developments.

Several years have passed since then and Let's talk music has developed and been conducted several more times. It was implemented in various cultural combinations and attempted in shorter 13-session versions as well as in longer 26-session versions. In addition to multicultural groups, a bi-cultural version was attempted to bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews through music. The cumulative experience and knowledge resulting from these groups motivated me to write the current article, where I would like to examine the social and philosophical aspects of Let's talk music more closely, and try to understand why and how music helps to bridge cultures.

Social Aspects of Music and Its Darker Sides

To begin, I would like to ask a very fundamental question: Why should music have the ability to bridge between different (even opposing) cultures? Seemingly, the answers to this question are obvious: For one, music is a universal phenomenon and is, therefore, relevant to all people no matter what culture they belong to and what language they speak. Music, being universal, can serve as a common denominator, a common language, for people from different cultures, and thus, enhance communication between them. Moreover, throughout history, music was used to aid and to cure individuals and groups in different cultures (e.g., Sekeles, 1996; West, 2000). Why should it not be used to aid and cure societies of their malfunctioning relationships?

However, when referring to music in social contexts one must be very careful. In contrast to the well-known and well-documented bright sides of music (such as its ability to touch and to cure, to enhance well-being, and to promote health) there is a dark side that is evident mostly in social contexts. There are numerous studies that highlight this (e.g., Blaukopf, 1982; Cloonan & Johnson, 2002; DeNora, 2000; Frith, 1981; 1989; 2004; Garofalo, 2010; Martin, 1995) and their common theme is that because music is strongly interwoven in the fabric of society, it is used to form not only unity (among ingroupers) but also segregation (towards outgroupers); not only friendships but also rivalries. Music, in many cases, is connected to and involved in cultural stereotyping and prejudice (thoughts like "people who listen to country music are simple-minded" are quite common); it reflects social gaps and hierarchies (beliefs like "classical music is more sophisticated and ‘intelligent’ than pop music" are widely accepted); and it has a role in social power games (e.g., radio stations might prefer to include types of music that strengthen the mainstream and to exclude types of music that represent marginalized social sectors; e.g., Jaffe, 1987; Wall, 2007).

It is both fascinating and frightening to learn how music is used by societies in ways that disregard personal dignity or well-being. Garofalo (2010), a music sociologist who refers to these dark uses of music, stated that if music has the power to inspire love in people, it will inevitably be capable of inspiring feelings of hatred in others; if music has the power to unite, to motivate, and to define identities of people and groups, it will inevitably have the power to segregate, to motivate against, and to define who does not belong to a group. There are many examples of such uses of music and the intrigued reader is referred to Johnson and Cloonan's (2009) book Dark Side of the Tune and to the special issue of the journal Patterns of Prejudice published in 2013.

However, music is used to define one and to segregate others not only by societies and cultures. Individuals actively define their identity by the musical choices they make. Musical styles, musical choices, and musical tastes, reflect and sometimes delineate where one social group ends and where the other begins. Individuals' musical choices are therefore neither casual nor coincidental; they are not merely individual. Each and every musical choice is a signifier of one's personality, social identity, and culture. Putting all of the choices together forms a musical fingerprint, an integrative musical identity of that person (Bodner & Gilboa, 2009; Gilboa & Bodner, 2009; MacDonald, Hargreaves, & Miell, 2002). In doing so, individuals are inevitably also defining who is out of their scope, who does not belong, who cannot take part. This point is extremely important to the underlying ideas of Let's talk music, so I will elaborate somewhat and try to explain how I understand the concepts of musical taste and musical identity. This configuration is based on my experience with several Let's talk music groups, on the musical choices made by participants throughout the groups, and on participants' responses to musical choices that were made by others.

A Configuration of Musical Identity

Figure 1 illustrates a person’s musical identity as I see it. As can be seen, the musical identity includes four circles. The inner circle, My music, includes all of the musical styles that one likes and defines as part of his or her musical taste. A person can, for instance, say that she loves rock music from the 1970s and 80s, and also Bach's music and Baroque style in general; she can also say that she loves folk songs and that she loves playing and singing Beatles and other similar music on her keyboard. All of these styles will be included in the inner My music circle.

A schematic representation of musical identity
Figure 1. A schematic representation of musical identity [view full size]

The second, more encompassing circle, My culture’s music includes musical choices that are not necessarily connected to one's personal taste but more to his or her cultural environment. This circle is often unnoticed (or even neglected) but it comes to life when moving to a different cultural environment. For instance, a person who emigrated from Argentina to France might identify herself with Argentinian folk music, and perhaps some songs she learned in school as a youngster. Although she does not listen to such music on a daily basis, it gains significance when she is asked to present herself in France.

The third and fourth circles define the negative sides of one's musical identity, that is, the types of music that he or she dislikes or even disapproves of (third circle) and the types of music that he or she simply does not know about (fourth circle). The third circle is actually a person's musical alter-ego. It contains types of music that the person knows but resists and disregards. The fact that there is a negative attitude towards these types of music implies that the person has an emotional connection to the music. To give an example, let us imagine a person from a lower socioeconomic status who cannot stand classical music and its ridiculous mannerisms. If the person did not care about this music he or she would simply be indifferent to it. It is the emotional flame that reveals the connection. This person is not simply opposed to the music and its concrete sounds but also to the social values that this type of music signifies to him or her. It might be that this person perceives classical music to represent the high class and elitism; perhaps it is connected to his or her feeling that this social status is marginalizing him and his cultural environment. Therefore, he or she is not resisting the music merely for its sounds but mainly because of what it stands for. As shown in Figure 1, the third circle is illustrated as a shadow of the second circle, implying that it is projected off the music that one likes. Going through the list of musical types that one dislikes can teach a fair amount about his or her identity and values.

The fourth circle refers to the other types of music that exist in the world. It is the biggest circle and its boundaries are perforated to imply that it is unlimited. This circle contains types of music that the person has never heard before, or has heard of but has not taken an interest in. Therefore, these types of music are perceived as uninteresting, difficult to understand, or even boring. For instance, a person from a Western culture who hears Balinese Gamelan music for the first time will probably listen for a few minutes (if he or she is polite) and then lose interest. Different types of such music might be mistakenly referred to as more of the same.

To summarize this configuration, musical identity includes the types of music that we choose, that we like, and which are connected to our personal history but also with our cultural background. Musical identity is not only the music we listen to, but also the values and ideas that we, or our culture ascribe to that music. Musical identity also includes what we deliberately choose not to listen to (and the values that are attached to that music), and even what we do not make an effort to be acquainted with.

So then, the question that we opened with, "why should music have the ability to bridge between different (even opposing) cultures?” now becomes even more troubling. If each person makes his or her own musical choices, defines his or her own musical identity; if each culture has a specific musical corpus that defines and forms it – what exactly is universal about music and how can it help us bridge differences or enhance intercultural communication?

Musical identities of two people from different (musical) cultures
Figure 2. Musical identities of two people from different (musical) cultures [view full size]

Figure 2. Musical identities of two people from different (musical) cultures

Let us examine this question with Figure 2, which shows the musical identities of people from different cultures. For the sake of simplicity, the figure shows a very basic situation in which My music includes only one type of music (while in reality this usually includes many types of music). It is evident that classical music, which person B loves (see dotted area in her My music circle), is not liked by person A (see dotted area in his other's music: do not like circle). In addition, country music, which person A loves (see diagonal lines in his My music circle) is totally unknown to person B (see diagonal lines in her other's music: do not know circle).

However, a careful examination shows that despite the clear difference between person A and person B, there are some very important, very basic points in common. First, both person A and person B love a specific type of music. This is probably in itself universal and if focused upon, could be a bonding activity. Second, both person A and person B exclude a type of music: Person A dislikes classical music and Person B is not acquainted with country music. Such exclusions of musical styles are, too, is quite common and perhaps universal. In everyday life we are usually unaware of our musical dislikes and of our musical unknowns, even though knowing this can be very insightful. A third point that stands at the base of the two former ones is that music, no matter which type, from what country or culture, involves the act of listening. Although the act of listening is usually taken for granted, it is an essential ability when attempting to communicate with one another. Emphasizing and developing this shared ability of people, no matter what types of music they prefer, can be of great help in intercultural groups. The fourth and last commonality is that music, regardless of its culture or country of origin, and regardless of whether one likes it or not, almost always has some kind of organization. Organization can be rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, emotional, or other. This organizational factor has a natural effect on people, especially when they are making it, forming the sound, and handling it. The ability to do things together according to agreed rules, forms group coherence – a very basic human need (Wallin, Merker, & Brown, 2000).

It is exactly these commonalities at the basis of the Let's talk music model. A general look at the model shows that music making and listening are at the basis of forming a supportive and containing space. In this space, participants are invited to present their musical identities, to examine their own and others' musical identities, and also to question the boundaries of theirs and others' musical identities. The basic assumption of this model is that the more people expand their musical identities, the more they broaden their inner musical circles (my music and my culture's music) at the expense of the outer circles (Other's music I do not like and Other's music I do not know), the more they will be tolerant towards the other.

The Let's Talk Music Model

The Let's talk music model involves a group of up to 20 participants who come from different cultural backgrounds. There are two versions of Let's talk music: A multicultural version in which participants are from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and a bi-cultural version intended for Arab and Jewish participants. A music therapist who can implement music therapy techniques as well as clinical insight to the group process moderates the group. The bi-cultural version has two moderators, one Arab, and one Jewish. A music therapist with extensive knowledge and experience with music therapy work, especially with group work supervises the moderators. Let's talk music adheres to group dynamics and these are continuous processes during the sessions and during supervision.

Groups are either 13 sessions or 26 sessions long, and they are divided into three stages. The first stage of the group is about 2-3 sessions long and the main goal is for participants to get to know each other, and to create a positive and safe atmosphere. This can be done by becoming acquainted with the participants’ names. Names often have personal significance as well as cultural meanings, and getting to know them can already be a step in promoting acquaintance and in raising cultural curiosity. Another recommended way to promote acquaintance is to divide participants into pairs and to give them time to get to know each other. When they return to the group circle, each one is asked to tell the group about her peer and what she discovered about him. This activity encourages focused listening and attention to the other, a crucial ability in subsequent stages of the group.

Apart from getting to know each other and feeling comfortable with each other, it is important at this stage, to familiarize participants with music, both as listeners and as music-makers. To develop the awareness of focused listening to music, which differs from the more common mode of listening to music while doing other things, it is recommended that a brief excerpt of music is presented several times, and each time the different aspects it has, such as objective attributes (e.g. the volume of the sound, is it vocal or instrumental, what instrument(s), singer(s)), and subjective attributes (e.g. the impact that the music has on you specifically, do you think the music is good or not, any associations that come to mind, etc.) is discussed.

Another recommendation is to introduce an assortment of instruments at this preliminary stage, preferably drums and other percussion instruments, and to experience an initial session with the instruments. For many of the participants, this might be their first encounter with an instrument; others might feel obliged to adhere to cultural constraints such as music is only for the professional. Therefore, it is important to take very small steps, and to create a containing and forgiving atmosphere. It is recommended that the first music-making activities are structured and that the interventions (verbal and non-verbal) are enabling and encouraging. As the group develops, it is possible to introduce less structured activities that can bring forth group dynamics, conflicts, and unresolved (musical) situations.

The second and central stage of Let's talk music is based on a round of musical presentations. This is a diagnostic-therapeutic model developed by Amir (1999; 2012), in which one is requested to edit musical pieces that are meaningful to him or her, and to present them to others in the group[1]. A time limit of 10-12 minutes is defined so that, in preparing and editing the presentation, the presenter is required to make critical decisions regarding the musical pieces that he or she decides to include in the presentation (as opposed to those she will decide to exclude), the length of each piece (may be a song from beginning to end, or a single verse of the song, or even just a few seconds of that song), the order in which the pieces are organized (e.g., chronologically telling a life-story, order of importance to the presenter), as well as the way transitions are made from piece to piece (e.g., fade out – fade in manner, abrupt transitions). This musical autobiography serves as a mirror of the participant's inter and intrapersonal world (Frohne-Hagemann, 1998) as well as her cultural environment and her relations with her cultural environment (Gilboa, Yehuda, & Amir, 2009).

After preparing the presentation, it is presented in the group. Group members attentively listen to the presentation and get acquainted with the presenter and acquire a deeper understanding of her life style, norms, values, and cultural environment through the sounds and songs. Subsequently, the group members are given time to share their impressions with the presenter and the presenter to share her experiences with the group. Often, the presenter is surprised by the accuracy with which group members understood her; many times the presenter is surprised (or even irritated) by group impressions that seem to be irrelevant or totally off. All of these impressions are important because, as the Johari window layout argues, they form an interplay between what one knows about oneself and tells the group or does not tell the group, and between what one does not know about oneself and the group tells her or does not tell her (Luft, 1984; Luft & Ingham, 1961) See Amir (2012) for an elaboration of this theoretical idea.

One or two such presentations are scheduled for each session and as the round of presentations progresses, group members get to know each other more intimately. Participants compare themselves, explicitly or implicitly, to others, and find differences and similarities between them and others, both in personal and in cultural aspects. As the round of presentations progresses, each group member sees reflections of herself in other presenters, thus getting to know one more intimately. In addition, each presentation raises different cultural issues, some of which enrich participants' knowledge and diminish cultural ignorance, others stimulate arguments and conflicts that can then be dealt with and negotiated. It is therefore natural that during this stage, we initiate conversations about sensitive cultural issues.

Other discussions are initiated during this phase, spontaneously after a musical presentation or as a planned activity. In the bi-cultural version of Let's talk music, for instance, it is possible to ask Arab and Jewish participants to discuss the Israeli Remembrance Day (commemorating all of the soldiers that died during Israel’s wars) or Al-Nakba (The Catastrophe commemorating Palestinian displacement and dispersal that accompanied the creation of the State of Israel). These topics evoke high levels of tension. In the context of Let's talk music, we use the warm relationships that develop between participants as well as musical means to contain the intense feelings and enable a fruitful dialogue.

As mentioned before, music making is further encouraged at this stage of the group and less structured improvisations can be experienced. Participants can play individually or with the support of the group, dyadic, triadic, and team improvisations can take place. Music making is a multi-faceted opportunity to learn about listening and cooperation as well as about social variance and conflict.

The final stage of Let's talk music, comprised of 2-3 sessions, is designated for reflection and saying goodbye. At this stage it is important to highlight the fact that the group is coming to an end, and that time is almost over. With this in mind, participants can prepare to part ways, raise final issues, or possibly, find ways, musically or verbally, to sum up their experiences in the group and to say goodbye. A personal written reflection of the group process can be very effective at this stage. It is also possible to initiate a joint activity to enhance group cohesion and acquaintance before the group comes to an end. In one of the groups, participants were asked to form multicultural groups of four participants each (not more than two participants from the same country), to create a multi-media exhibit that expresses who they are (as a group), to film the exhibit and distribute among the group members. The exhibits were posted on the class forum for everybody to watch and learn from. In addition, these exhibits served as a farewell present and for some, as a memento of the process that the group members shared.

Some Examples

Let us now look at some examples of reflections written by participants from two Let's talk music groups that took place in 2010 and 2011. We will see that many points in these reflections echo the theoretical ideas developed above. The 2010 group was a multicultural group with 13 participants from various countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, France, Italy, USA, UK, and Israel (one of the Israelis being an Arab). This group went through all of the stages described above, but it did not enroll in music making because of time constraints. Participants' responses to this group, as reflected in their assignments, were very positive, in some cases–enthusiastic. Apart from enjoying the group, they reported undergoing significant personal processes such as shaping their identity and succeeding in creating dialogue with others. Here are some impressions of an American participant, who at the time immigrated to Israel on her own with limited social connections and support. Here she was summarizing the significance of Let's talk music to her:

Let's talk music taught me a lot about other cultures, and it also taught me a lot about myself, and my own culture. More important than any of those lessons, however, is the fact that Let’s talk music taught me to question the cultures of others, and to question my own culture…
I learned how much culture had diffused from one country to the next when I heard pop music in Russian that sounded just like my music from America (albeit with lyrics that I couldn’t understand) and I learned just how much countries maintain their own highly-defined cultures when I heard students play genres that were entirely foreign to me, but which members of the class who came from similar regions to theirs were bopping their heads and their feet to… So I gained a lot of important knowledge, but, like I said earlier, I gained something even more important: I learned to question. I constantly find myself looking at the world around me through “Let's talk music Goggles” and wondering ‘what country is that person from? How do they feel about being in Israel now? Do they stick very much to their ‘in-group’ of people from their country or do they branch out?… This class has given me an entirely new perspective of my day-to-day life.

Evidently, this participant was feeding from the interplay between the second circle (My culture's music) and the fourth circle (Other's music I do not know). She was focused on opening her ears to new musical experiences and intrigued by the fact that such diversities exist. This outsight led its way to deep insights about her culture and her music.

A different participant who emigrated from Kazakhstan after marrying an Israeli, referred to the group as a space where she could conduct an inner dialogue regarding her identity and her culture:

This course helped me to think about myself, about my culture, and about my background. Of course, such issues naturally exist in my life because I came from a different country, I have a different religion, I look different, etc… but up until now, I did not have the opportunity to give myself time to think and answer: How exactly do I define myself? How do I define my cultural place? How do other people perceive me and what do they expect of me? What would be the best way to present myself? ... The group [activity] forced me to put these things "on the table" and to process them. The fact that the process was connected to music made the whole thing very interesting. I am not a music major and I am not used to thinking in musical terms… and this course taught me how this is possible… how music can complement what we cannot speak about.

We can see how music became a mediator in this process, not only between people from different countries, but also between identities within the same person. Music, perhaps because of its indirectness, enabled this participant to address very deep and perhaps painful identity issues (second circle in figure 1 My culture's music) that would not have been possible otherwise.

The following participant addressed the disparity between My music (the inner circle in Figure 1) and My culture’s music (the second circle). Through her musical presentation she tried to understand the disconnection between two parts of her identity:

When I was preparing my musical presentation I tried to think about the values that I regard as basic to my identity, and I 'constructed' my presentation upon these values. After presenting, and especially after listening to the feedback, I realized that the songs that I chose for my presentation reflected my (religious and national) ideals and values but that these choices were not necessarily connected to what I listen to on a daily basis (which is more secular in nature)… This disparity between who I am on a daily basis and what I believe in could be a result of my rapid and recent development in music studies, which may have alienated me from the music I grew up on…

As a final assignment in this group, participants were asked to choose one group member with whom they felt culturally close. They were asked to find a joint song that could represent both of their cultures. Participants were also asked to make contact with a group member from whom they felt culturally distant. Here, too, they were asked to find a joint song despite the differences. This assignment resulted in fascinating dialogues, insights, and musical negotiations. For instance, one of the participants, an Israeli who emigrated from the UK, summarized the common song she chose with her Arab-Israeli partner:

We chose the song A Thousand Miles to represent both of us. The song points at our similarities… we have many things in common despite our cultural differences. This is a song that Halla[2] [the Arab-Israeli group member] put in her presentation and which I connected to very much. I told Halla that if I understood Arabic, I probably would have connected to the Arabic songs in her presentation as well. Indeed, after listening to her presentation again I had the urge to understand these words and I thought it might be a good idea to learn Arabic…

In this case, the participants found a common musical denominator. It seems that the grounds for the commonality were the My music circle, that is, this specific song belonged to both participants' personal musical taste. This was enough to overshadow the cultural differences they had.

The attempts of pairs who felt culturally distant were fascinating. Here is an example of two group members, Rachel, an Israeli-born religious participant and Osty, a Christian participant who emigrated from Kazakhstan. At the beginning of this inquiry, both participants agreed that they felt somewhat distant (culturally) but definitely not very distant. The Israeli born participant began the inquiry based on the assumption that what is far from her, what exists beyond the borders of her country, is probably close to her foreign partner:

I have a confession to make… I really love the Eurovision contest… sometimes I even download their songs… There's this song that represented Estonia this past year or the year before that I really like… Of course, I don't have a clue what the words mean… and you will probably tell me that the lyrics are totally idiotic… But I liked it because it is a very interesting combination of electronic music with string instruments… I'm not sure what language they are singing, it sounds like Russian but I am not sure. Well, I'd love to hear your opinion on this.

The answer was surprising and it undermined the equation: "What is foreign to me is familiar to the foreigner":

Sorry, but I didn't understand a word of this song. I gather it is Estonian… I might disappoint you, but I don't like the Eurovision at all and actually can't bring myself to watch it… I used to watch it but then there were fewer songs that I liked, so I stopped… But… you know… I thought a little about what we said here and I came to the conclusion that it is the Israeli-Jewish culture that can serve as a common ground for us, despite the fact that it is so different for each of us. This may be a bit complicated but it is really so. Israel unites us and at the same time it stands between us because I didn't have Israel in my life before. I hope I'm managing to make sense… In any case, I suggest that we should try to find a song in Hebrew. By the way, what do you think of Shiri Maimon? [a young Israeli singer who came in fourth place in the 2005 Eurovision contest]. I like a few of her songs… maybe we could find something of hers that you like too…?

Once again, disappointment. Shiri Maimon, who represents appreciated Israeli-ness for one participant is perceived by the other as low quality music:

Sorry, but I don't like Shiri Maimon. I have very little patience for contemporary Israeli pop… however, if we are more into pop style, I would suggest Ninet [made her breakthrough in an Israeli music reality show equivalent to American Idol, the same year as Shiri Maimon].

Osty goes along with Rachel and she suggests one of Ninet's songs. Interestingly, this song is based on a Reggae groove, a musical signifier that is originally not connected to either Israel or Kazakhstan. In any case, it seems that the fit is made:

So, Rachel, what do you think of this song? I used to like it… it's very interesting, calm, with an ethnic shade, and it reminds me of Reggae music…

Rachel answered immediately:

I love this song! So I guess we can announce that we have a song! BTW, do you like Reggae?…

The path of inquiry in this example went through Rachel and Osty's My music circles as well as through their My culture's music circles. At earlier points of the inquiry, when they had not yet found a commonality, musical pieces that are part of one's "my music" (first circle) are part of the other's "disliked music" (third circle) and vice versa.

The second group that I would like to refer to was from the bicultural version of Let's talk music. In this group there were 11 Jewish and eight Arab participants and as in the previously mentioned group, it included all the elements of Let's talk music groups except for the music-making element. In many aspects, this version of Let's talk music is more difficult to pursue. For one, the intensity of the intercultural conflict is by far higher and it creates a more aggressive and charged atmosphere. In addition, as opposed to the multi-cultural version, which is based on a blend of cultures, this version is based on a clear contrast of cultures: Arabs vs. Jews. This instantly focuses one's attention on his or her national identity and dampens other more personal identities. Feelings in these groups are not as unequivocally positive as in the multicultural version. Here we hear a great deal of ambivalence. On the one hand, there is the feeling that the participants managed to reach a common ground to get to know each other, but on the other hand, there was the feeling that the painful conflictual issues that stand between the groups were not resolved or agreed upon.

Let's first refer to the reflection of one of the Arab participants of this group. She stressed that the group enabled not only acquaintance and dialogue but that it developed her ability to listen to others:

I think that the group dealt with very important issues regarding Arabs and Jews. I think that it emphasized the most difficult problems between these sectors. These problems came up in the group and they also manifest on a larger scale in life in this country. First of all, there was the problem of listening. In the beginning of the group, I found it difficult to listen. I attacked and expressed my very rigid opinions, and I believe that there were many others like me in the group. As time passed, I learned to breathe, to really listen, to absorb the information that I am presented with and only then – to respond.

Apparently, the developing ability to listen was connected to the fact that participants in this group were extensively involved in listening to one another's musical presentations. The skill of first listening and then responding was how participants practiced their musical presentations. Apparently, this skill seeped into everyday communication. Being able to listen in the midst of conflictual states is not something to be taken for granted. Music was the means that enabled this to happen.

Identity issues were prevalent in this group but to a more intense extent. With the following participant we can see this was evident in preparing and presenting the musical presentation:

Preparing my musical presentation was a very significant thing for me. It took me to many problematic places, [such as] to the extremely difficult question of “who am I?” … I always knew that I had a problem defining myself, understanding who and what I am and where I stand… and because of this, preparing was so difficult. It required that I underwent a process with myself… [In presenting] I was afraid of the responses of both sides, the Arabs and the Jews. I was afraid that they would both reject me. To the Jews I could be perceived as too extreme and too "Palestinian" and to the Arabs I could be perceived as too liberal and modern. This intimidated me very much. But the responses were much more positive than I expected and this was very good for me. It also helped to calm some of my identity issues, and made it seem a bit more normal and a bit less threatening.

This is a typical Arab-Israeli identity complex and it is rarely admitted out loud, certainly not when Jews are listening. Arab participants were not the only ones preoccupied with identity matters. One of the Jewish participants described the spiral process that she went through during the sessions:

This was one of the only groups in my studies that I felt succeeded in touching me in deep places of identity. I was surprised to discover how much music can reflect deep processes… I felt like a boomerang, moving from my "self" to the other and back again. In the beginning it was difficult for me to let go of my comfort zone... As time passed I felt I could identify with the other – with the pain, the authentic religious passion, with the aspirations… at times it frightened me to realize how the differences between us were small despite the cultural difference but then, at times it frightened me to realize how much people whom I perceived as similar to me were in fact so distant… By the end of the group I felt that I was returning to my "self", and most of the time managed to perceive these insights not as a threat on my identity, but as an opportunity to broaden it.

I will conclude this part of the article with the words of one of the Jewish participants in this group who raised a very important issue regarding the timing and pacing of conflict and concord. On the one hand, she wanted the group to be involved in a deeper encounter: "At times I felt that we were going around in circles and not saying the truth because it is 'not nice'… I think that from time to time it would be a good idea to let some of the emotions overflow and to deal with it". On the other hand, this participant understood that in order to maintain a long-lasting relationship between the sides, one needs time and patience and that it is essential to maintain the personal relationships so that the process of mutual revelation and resolution can unfold. Timing and pacing are terms that are closely related to music and to music making. Clearly, this participant pointed at one of the most important and profound issues of Let's talk music groups. Similar to the way music must be organized in order to be appealing, Let's talk music groups must have an internal organization that can enable a healthy and effective unfolding process.

Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Let's Talk Music

This article opened with an attempt to understand why and how Let's talk music helps to bridge between cultures. We found that this is because Let's talk music provides the space, the time, and the right atmosphere needed to investigate one's musical identities, to compare and contrast them with one another, and to negotiate these identities with other musical identities. Let's talk music provides a space in which different, sometimes contrasting, types of music are played and listened to with deep respect and genuine curiosity. Let's talk music provides a space in which timing is patient and pace is sensitive to the needs of an unfolding process.

In his book Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Rorty (1989) spoke of the "ironist" who lives in continuous doubt regarding the existence of any one total truth (which he terms a "final vocabulary"). Ironists do not think of their truth as closer to reality than others’ truth, and they frequently find themselves playing one truth against another. By doing this they might undermine one of the most fundamental commodities of society, i.e., having the feeling of a safe, common and agreed upon base, and yet, Rorty sees the ironist stance as important in promoting liberal practice. It is through the ironists' constant search for different perceptions of core concepts such as justice and kindness that they can know how to strive for them. I believe that Let's talk music encourages its participants to become ironists and thus, to promote liberal practice. The price that participants are requested to pay is to leave their comfort zone regarding their beliefs about what is good or bad music, to start doubting their habitual musical choices, to try and understand why they resist some types of music and if and how they can engage with other truths, with other musical identities. In fact, Rorty claimed that it is the role of the arts to advance the search for possible vocabularies, possible truths. It is through the imagination of the artist and his/her sensitivity to other possible truths and vocabularies that the art consumers are invited to meet other possibilities and to mix them with what they already possessed until that point. I believe that Let's talk music enables participants to be both artists and consumers in the process of broadening musical vocabularies.

Taylor (1994) pointed to the importance of recognition and how our identity is shaped by its presence or absence. According to Taylor "… a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves" (p. 25). The need for recognition (both in its individual and social form) is intensified by the premise that we are dialogical beings and that our identity evolves through dialogue with others. Thus, insufficient dialogue with others can result in severe identity problems. In the context of multicultural, multinational countries, it is often the case that sectors in a country practice such non or misrecognition upon each other. It is especially typical for the powerful hegemony to misrecognize the smaller, less powerful sectors in their country. Politics of equal recognition, which Taylor highly encourages, tries to do the opposite. According to this way of thinking, all human cultures have something to say to all human beings and therefore "…everyone should be recognized for his or her unique identity" (p. 38). To do this, Taylor gave an example from educational contexts in which he recommended expanding the body of literature to include not only works familiar to the hegemonic culture but also of minority cultures. By doing this, new vocabularies are attained which can then be compared and articulated, leading to a richer and more inclusive horizon.

It is my claim that the processes that take place in Let's talk music work precisely to promote recognition of different identities and different cultures. Let's talk music provides the comfort zone required for music dialogue, for people to come out and be heard and yet to listen, acknowledge and recognize others who do the same. Let's talk music is a perfect playground for practicing politics of equal recognition.

To conclude, let us not underestimate the importance of the processes offered in Let's talk music. Let us adhere to the values that Rorty (1989) and Taylor (1994) put forth. Delving into one's (musical) identity, finding internal contradictions, then making efforts to understand the identities of others and how they are not necessarily consistent with ours, are all excellent exercises in being ironists, in understanding how complex the world is and how much sensitivity is required to live in peace with one another. Listening to others with great respect and curiosity, sometimes adopting others' music are all examples of engaging in true dialogue, of recognizing and acknowledging others. Let's talk music participants are thus encouraged to acquire tools for enhancing recognition of others, tools that they can apply not only among their group peers but also later on in social life in general.


[1] See also Bruscia's (1998) "audio-biography" and O’Callaghan's (1984) music life review which shares similar features.

[2] All names in this article are pseudonyms.


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