How can we use music to achieve social change?

Living composers share their views



How can we use music to achieve social change?

Artists have used outlets from painting to architecture as a way to address this question across era and nation. Now thanks to Making Waves, we can hear the answer as explored through music by living composers in Australia.

The project’s latest playlist, Social Activism Waves, brings together a collection of works that each aim to shed light on important social issues and recognise the need for positive social change. Some composers have been moved to create music inspired by politics, the environment, health, and what it means to be human.

So we present this question above to some of these featured composers, with a mission of understanding the impact music can make on our lives and the world in which we live.



Aidan Maizels

The idea of using political themes in art stems from why art is created in the first place. For me, the purpose of creating art is two-pronged: the first thing to note is that artists use art as a vehicle of self-expression; and should one be politically minded, then it is logical to conclude that they will seek inspiration from politics and thus create genuine works with ‘heart’, ‘soul’ and ‘passion’.  The other point is that artists use art as a means of communicating; not only are they expressing themselves, but are looking to engage their audiences. Whilst art may not necessarily have the answers, it should get people thinking.

My (perhaps naive) hope is that people will listen to my piece, find it interesting, look for more information beyond the music and hopefully endeavour to learn more about the causes and impact of global warming. If the person listening isn’t interested in politics whatsoever or disagrees with my viewpoint, then hopefully they like the piece, and perhaps a seed of doubt is planted so that in time they may attempt to read more into the issue. If the person listening hates the piece, hopefully they will go on a ‘what were they thinking?!’ quest in order to find out what possibly inspired that monstrosity of a work. Incidentally, I have been all three of those people at various points in time.

Marlene Radice and Hannah De Feyter

How can we use music to achieve social change? This is a tricky question to answer, as music is only valuable in this sense if it is interpreted in the way the composer intends. People will hear what they want to hear. I believe music only changes what people already want to change. It can challenge the listener, it can enlighten and move them – particularly experimental music, which might encourage people to practice listening in a more active and thoughtful way; a skill that is so necessary for making meaningful social change! Ultimately, however, the work is a snapshot of a period of time.

We composed Something to Burn for COUP Canberra’s 2016 production of Caryl Churchill’s play Vinegar Tom, using Churchill’s existing lyrics. The songs in the play serve a Brechtian purpose, existing to take the audience out of the story and consider what is happening from a wider perspective – in this case, the play’s political message. Something to Burn is about a group of people who feel that something is going wrong with society and that someone other, often a marginalized other, must be to blame for it. This is unfortunately an idea that we are seeing expressed a lot right now, and so we chose to update Churchill’s lyrics by including samples of some recent political speeches. Given that one of Churchill’s reasons for including the songs was to drag the play – which is a period piece – into the present, we really felt we were honouring that impulse with the samples.

This work’s value will change historically and contextually upon where, when and how it is performed. If anything, music is a fickle beast that can be politicised for any purpose. It can be a form of propaganda when used to manipulate. I want this work to mirror aspects of contemporary society and make people question what they are hearing, but I don’t want music to impose an agenda. I want audiences to make up their own minds.

Paul Kopetz

Music is a powerful messenger of human emotions and social commentary. Everyone has known that for a long time. However, in our modern times, we frequently alienate our most important allies – the wider audience – by using a musical language that is too sophisticated. As much as artists would like to think of themselves as leaders of social change, social change can only be affected by the general population partaking in the shared thinking, feeling and therefore acting. If music is to remain a powerful tool in shaping humanity, it needs to possess and champion some sort of connectivity between the message it strives to carry and the people that need to hear it. This fine balance of artistic expression and populism is what all artists should embrace and explore.

My work Social Activism is a composer’s reaction to the 2015 Paris bombings. The events of that day shook me the core, and the following morning I began writing a mini-requiem to all the innocent victims of barbaric acts against humanity. I completed the work the following day realising how deeply moved I had been to have created a musical response to a life-changing social event in such a short period of time. Through this composition, I merely wish to pay my respect to the fallen and express my deep condolences to their forever grieving families.

Image: Paul Kopetz/Musica Viva In Schools 2015.

Shannon Rogers

In a climate where right wing politics and campaigns based on fear and prejudice are rife around the world, we must hold strong the things that unite and connect us – not amplify that which makes us different. My biggest fear is how quickly people can change when led down a darker path, how impressionable our society can become, how quickly some can forget what it feels like to be oppressed, bullied, victimised; only to become the enforcer. Humanity must constantly be reminded that we are not unlike one another. We have all the same wants and needs: to feel loved, to belong, to be accepted by others.

The message my piece Humane carries is one of compassion, empathy and respect. I am deeply saddened by the refugee crisis gripping the world and believe we must employ compassion and empathy when placing judgment on those who have no other choice but to seek refuge elsewhere. The images accompanying my piece represent a harsh reality that none would dare wish upon another, no matter where you are in life they can drag you back to earth and enable compassion.

Music along with all of the arts has the power to make us think and feel and consider what we stand for, what connects us, question the things we don’t understand, and embrace and accept our differences. That is how music can influence social change and as musicians and composers we must not be afraid to ask the big questions or expose the hard issues.

May Lyon

Music has always brought communities together, whether in person or across the world. While most of the time we are composing for the converted, the echo chamber as it were, communities are important places to feel supported and be heard. Using music to encourage this is important, especially as people have the potential to become more isolated in their listening practices. I think most social change has a backing track, from local folk tunes through to classical and rock.

In my piece On the Inside, I wanted to express that we are more complex than what is seen. We all judge on what we see, it is human nature and there is no point railing against that. However, I think it’s important that we ask ‘what?’, ‘who?’, and ‘how?’ more often.

Lyle Chan

My AIDS Memoir Quartet isn’t music about a current issue requiring activism. It’s a memoir of how activism brought an end to a crisis over 20 years ago. This work is a chronicle of my six years as an AIDS activist between 1991-1996. I don’t have an overt ‘message’, aside from the message that we all should bring beauty into the world, in our deeds and in our relationships. Sometimes, there are obstacles to be overcome in order to do that. For two decades, AIDS was one such obstacle to beauty and love.

There have been many reviews of the AIDS Memoir Quartet but here are some where the listener felt a powerful personal reaction. Maybe that’s the point of music in the end, to connect and touch one human being to another:

“I genuinely hoped Lyle Chan’s performance with the brilliant Acacia Quartet would help prove or at least remind me that social change was possible. And it did.” – Liam Siemens, SAD Mag, Vancouver, Canada

“The music prompted a strong emotional response in me, so much so that I found myself suddenly in tears during one movement, I was ultimately grateful for the composer’s narrative. Without which I would not have been able to begin to understand the raw energy and passion behind the activist movement in Australia, nor known the names of those who had fought for irreversible change in the way HIV/AIDS was viewed in Australia.” – Joel Murray, openly HIV-positive political candidate in 2014.

Lyle speaking with Hon. Michael Kirby. Credit: Selina Ou/NGV Photographic Services

Andrea Breen

Music can be used to achieve social change in so many ways, and not just when words are included. The transmission of emotion in music can be persuasive, as can music that accompanies a narrative and images. What is beholden on me as a composer with a social conscience is to ensure that my message is clear and declamatory but not preachy, and to be ethical and congruent in collaborations. But how do we reach a general audience with our messages for social change? By composing for and collaborating with as many art forms as possible and having our work performed and broadcast often. And we need to use our art as evidence to gain government grants to perpetuate their impacts. In the hope for change!

My piece Responsibility is drawn from Seasons & Reasons, a suite for dance and multi-media that was devised collaboratively, with four dancers and a photographer, in response to the impact of global warming and climate change. I composed this piece, and the others in the suite, out of a deep concern for the planet. I hoped to stir audiences to move away from complacency and to take more responsibility for change, no matter how small. The simple repeating viola and cello improvisations over pre-recorded wine glass drones attempt to represent the rotation of inaction that must be challenged in order for our planet to survive.

Because this suite was for dance and multi-media, the visual dimension deepened the possibilities for interpretation and message for the audience. In the suite of dances, Responsibility’was preceded by Connection and followed by Chaos, Death and Hope. This sequence was a quasi-narrative on human relationships with our fragile planet.

You can learn more about these composers and explore further works in the Social Activism Waves playlist online. Making Waves is a celebrated Australian initiative founded by composers Lisa Cheney and Peggy Polias.


Images supplied.

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