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On Music, Relationships, and Making Music Spaces Safer for Everyone
Part I: The musicality of relationships and the relationality of music

All musical activity is relational. Whether we’re listening, singing, playing an instrument, organising a concert, engineering a recording, or composing a piece, we do it in relationship to other humans.* This might seem obvious in a setting like a bar where your favourite band is playing and the musicians are interacting with each other and feeding off the audience, or at an opera, when the buzzing energy of a full house energises the complex set of relationships among vocalists, orchestra members, and the conductor, not to mention costume and set designers, lighting engineers, and everyone else involved. 

But even musical activity that appears to be individual is intensely relational. When you’re engaging with music seemingly alone, you might be subconsciously relating to past advice you’ve received from a teacher or mentor, to the potential impact of your sound on a future audience, to friendships, or to the experience of the music at a gig.

Sound, and by extension music as a culturally constituted form of sound, binds humans with one another.* As soon as air vibrates in a range we can sense, we connect to memories, associations, pasts, imaginations, and, unavoidably, other people. As a result, the fabric of all those relationships infuses musical activity and musical experience, which itself conditions those relationships. Think about how a certain recording evokes warm recollections of being together with others, or about how certain musical sounds might trigger you and take your mind and body to a memory you might want to avoid. 

I’ve been part of many music communities since my childhood. I started playing the piano in Suzuki lessons (including group lessons) at age 4, and even before that, I had been listening to my mum practice the soprano arias she was learning in her voice lessons since before my earliest memories. I’ve participated in the musical activities of churches, high school music ensembles, recording studios, orchestras, choirs, touring pop bands, big bands, experimental improvisation groups, musical pit orchestras, and more. 

In all of these communities, I’ve experienced—and often been positively inspired by—the power of music to bring people together. Some of my most meaningful relationships, at every stage of my life and everywhere I’ve lived, have been connected in one way or another to shared musical experience. Making music together can bring to the surface some of the most beautiful qualities of what it means to be human: generosity, care, patience, selflessness, and working with others to serve a greater good. In music communities and institutions, relationships can be strengthened, trust can be built, and people can rally around a cause.

I’ve also witnessed and experienced how the power of music to bring people together can foster envy, greed, abuse of power, and other types of harm between people. Musical experiences and being in music communities can powerfully alienate people from one another, bringing out some of humans’ most destructive qualities. Bands break up, collaborators have falling outs, and those with positions of influence abuse the power they have over those with less power.

In his book Loving Music till It Hurts, music scholar William Cheng explores “how human relationships with music [. . . ] resonate with the just and unjust relationships among people.” In the course of the book, Cheng highlights both examples of harm in the name of a love for music and cases where people channel “musical love to empower interpersonal love, and vice versa” (p. 5). I suspect that part of what he might also be pointing to is that understanding “music” and “human relationships” as separate creates an artificial divide between the two, opening the door for harm. 

Cheng also identifies a tendency for people to characterise music as exceptional or even mystical, referring to it with words like transcendent, sublime, invisible, or indescribable. He describes how this musical exceptionalism, like all exceptionalisms, is an ideology of power, in that when we consider music (or certain kinds of music) to have some sort of special transcendental standing, it allows us to set up hierarchies where certain types of people and certain forms of music are excluded, in service to “the music.” When music is elevated to this mystical level of transcendence, it can dangerously mask the harm that so often occurs in music communities precisely because of hierarchies of power within them. 

If we lift the veil and understand how musical activity is an enactment of relationships, rather than an expression of them or a metaphor for them, I wonder whether these hierarchies might become more visible, and how music communities might look differently. In musical work and education settings (both institutional and informal), care and nurturing of relationships is so often left out of our musical approaches, or tacked on as an addendum and understood as separate from the musical activity. But what if we considered that any act in nurturing relationships in a community might be a way of nurturing a musical experience, and that any act in nurturing a musical experience might be an act of nurturing the relationships in the community?

In Aotearoa New Zealand and in many places of the world today, it is clearer than ever that in the music sector we need to look to one another in a spirit of collectivity and support, and not of isolation and fragmentation, as we continue contributing our sonic and other forms of artistry to our communities and societies. If music and relationships are not separate, then friendships, ensembles, communities, and institutions centred on music have both great potential for good and great risk for harm. How do we move closer to the good and further away from the harm?

The remaining parts of this series provide some practical suggestions to that end, grounded in restorative practices that turn away from systems that are punitive, permissive, or neglectful. They pursue these two questions:

How can we practice collective ways of musically being together in communities and institutions, and build those ways of being together into the structures of our musical activities? (Part II)

What kinds of frameworks and principles can help us move forward when something does disrupt the flow of relationships, and thus, of musical activity? (Part III and Part IV)


Read Part II Here 

Read Part III Here

Read Part IV Here


Dave Wilson is an interdisciplinary scholar, saxophonist, clarinettist, and composer based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. He is a Senior Lecturer in Music at the New Zealand School of Music—Te Kōkī at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.


*Music and sound also bind humans to animals, plants, and lots of other living and non-living things. While the focus of this series is humans’ relationships with one another, those relationships are inseparable from human relationships with, and impact on, the many species and other entities of the world that we all share. I’ve written more about this here and here.

The title of this series is an adaptation of the title of the 2023 book On Music Theory, and Making Music More Welcoming for Everyoneby Philip Ewell, which examines race-based exclusion and white supremacy in the field of music theory, one of the countless structural manifestations of the musical-relational problems highlighted in this series. Clifton Boyd and Jade Conlee provide a review of the book at Music Theory Online that also resonates with the themes of this series.