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On Music, Relationships, and Making Music Spaces Safer for Everyone
Part III: Restorative approaches to musical-relational conflict

In Part I and Part II of this series, I discussed how musical activities and relationships are inseparable, and how being together musically in a collective and supportive manner is something we need to practice. In Parts III and IV, I address an important question that has been lingering just under the surface of these discussions: what do we do when something goes wrong in a music relationship?

I ask that question in the collective “we” intentionally, because when something goes wrong in a musical relationship—when someone is harmed, excluded, or alienated—it always impacts more than one person, some form of “we” and “us.” When harm happens in a community, individuals, communities, and institutions are typically impacted in one way or another, and so what “we” do can take many shapes. 

Conflict and harm happen in musical relationships in all sorts of ways. Someone acts in a dismissive way in a rehearsal in response to the suggestion of another person, or an ensemble member (verbally or in their playing/singing) demands that the group follow their musical approach. One person is hired for a job over another, or receives a commission that others had sought, or is chosen for a leadership position desired by others. Bitterness among those not chosen leads to grudges, revenge, or machinations to undermine the leader. A romantic partnership between musicians ends in a way where one or both of the parties are hurt. Members of their music community take sides and build up resentments, and people are alienated from one another. In virtually any music setting, physical or sexual harm can occur due to abuses of power, ambiguities between professional work spaces and those for socialising, unclear boundaries, and myriad other factors. When music communities are not attending to building trust and respect, to the dignity of each individual, and to the wellbeing of all, conflicts and harm can escalate.

For this post I return again to restorative principles, which guided the discussion of connection circles in Part II of this series as a strategy to build relationships of trust, respect, and dignity. Restorative approaches also provide a relational way to respond to conflict. The restorative perspective is grounded in listening and curiosity rather than telling and knowing, and in finding ways to share power rather than ways to exert power over others. 

This sharing of power is a key to a restorative approach. When conflict occurs, a restorative stance understands that each party has something to contribute to a discussion or process, not just the parties in relative positions of power. Restorative processes always involve each party making an active decision to participate in them, without coercion or requirement by another party, which enables power to be shared to a greater degree.

One model I’ve found useful in thinking about my own musical and other relationships from a restorative perspective is adapted from a tool called the Social Discipline Window. It describes four basic approaches to relationships and behavioural norms in a group:

Figure 1. The Social Discipline Window, adapted from Paul McCold and Ted Wachtel 

(more detail available at

Each of the four approaches is a combination of either high or low expectations for behaviour and either high or low support. Because our society incentivises individualism and attention to the self, it may be easy to recall settings in music communities that are supportive of everyone but permissive of harmful behaviours, that punish harmful behaviours and are not supportive of all individuals and the collective, or that are permissive of harmful behaviours and also offer little support. 

Perhaps because we have so few tangible examples of how restorative frameworks can work, music communities and institutions that have both high expectations for musical-relational behaviour and high musical-relational support of all individuals and the collective have been more rare. Institutions face particular challenges, such as obligations to punitive legal structures, that can make restorative processes and perspectives difficult to implement, based as our societies are on retributive justice. 

Restorative justice practitioners and scholars the world over have been working through these and other institutionally complex factors as they’ve sought practical ways to empower people in these settings to live well together, even and especially when conflict and harm occur. Detailed facilitated formats have emerged from this research and practice that have powerfully repaired harm in institutional and criminal settings. Jurisdictions use restorative justice in their criminal justice systems, with evidence reports supporting its effectiveness, and in their education systems. Other institutional settings, such as healthcare and workplaces, are increasingly adopting restorative practices as well. For a deep dive into research on institutional restorative justice, Sarah Roth Shank’s PhD dissertation on the topic is a great starting point.

For those just beginning to consider restorative principles at a personal, community, or institutional level, a practical starting point might be to think through the three steps in a restorative response to conflict. The steps take the form of questions that parties affected by the conflict or harm answer individually and collectively through voluntary participation:

  1. What happened? And what is important to understand about what happened?
  2. Who was impacted and how?
  3. What needs to be done to repair the harms and make things right? 

This can be implemented in a conflict, or potential conflict, at any level. In Part IV, the final part of this series, I will walk through a personal example of how I applied these three steps in a music relationship when I saw the potential for conflict arising.


Read Part I Here 

Read Part II 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.


Ideas related to restorative processes in this post come from the work of Haley Farrar, a restorative practices specialist based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, and from her book The Little Book of Restorative Teaching Tools (with Lindsey Pointer and Kathleen McGoey). 

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.