Publication - OI

‘Music is a world within itself’

Towards a holistic understanding of music in International Relations

Mareike Peschau

Etudiante, Sciences Po Alumna

Mots clés :  Article   diplomatie   musique   ONU   relations internationales 

Music has become an important part of the day-to-day activities of multilateralism. While understanding how music may foster multilateralism provides an opportunity for creating more successful international diplomatic action, existing frameworks in International Relations (IR) are not sufficiently able to holistically capture music. The present paper therefore argues that current conceptions in IR limit our comprehension of music’s impact and, as a result, our ability to harness its full potential.

‘What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.’
(Sontag, 1964, p. 14)


Artistic practices have been integrated into the day-to-day business of international diplomacy, often with the intention of marking special occasions and bringing people together. A prominent example is the annual concert that is held by the United Nations (UN) in order to commemorate UN Day (United Nations, 2020). Music is thereby regarded not only as a way of conferring special meaning upon the event but also as a way of transporting a message. As the UN described last year’s concert: ‘music and dance can help bring us together to reimagine a world “rebalanced”, to be designed and built together for present and future generations’ (United Nations, 2020).

As the example highlights, within International Relations (IR) practice and research music-based approaches are framed as being instrumental in nature. Rather than having an inherent value or meaning in itself, it is conceptualised as a means to an end. Music is, thus, put into the position of a subaltern which neglects its inherently different systems of meaning and learning. The present paper therefore argues that existing frameworks in IR are not sufficiently able to holistically capture music, limiting our understanding of its impact and, as a result, our ability to harness its full potential. It does so by building on the aesthetic theories of Adorno and Bloch, as well as Christopher Small’s (1999) concept of ‘musicking’ and Sarah Lewis’s (2014) ‘aesthetic force’ in order to highlight music’s potential contribution to multilateralism. The paper closes by proposing Hartmut Rosa’s (2020) theory of ‘resonance’ as a new conceptual framework that advances an understanding of music-based approaches to IR as creating resonant relations.

Linking Music and Multilateralism

On first sight, the connection between music and multilateralism may not seem that obvious. While music often accompanies official state acts and high-level meetings, such as the sea shanties performed by local shantymen Du Hag Owr during the G7 summit in Cornwall (Beaumont, 2021), it is widely perceived as adding to the overall atmosphere of the event rather than as impacting its outcomes. Nonetheless, musical language is often used to describe multilateral action, for example, when States agree ‘to act in concert’ or strive for ‘harmony’. As anthropologist Brigit Müller (2013) argues, the UN system strategically uses a discourse of harmony in order to further its aims. Music, thus, provides a convenient tool to uphold the ‘gloss of harmony’ (Müller, 2013, p. 13).

In the following, three dimensions through which music fosters multilateralism, i.e. ‘the coordinated diplomatic interaction of three or more states (or other actors) in international politics’ (Maull, 2020, p. 1), will therefore be highlighted. For that purpose, music is defined as a ‘temporal succession of articulated sounds that are more than just sound’ (Adorno, 2002, p. 113). This broad definition takes into account all musical forms and genres while avoiding presupposing any aesthetic appraisal, meaning, or social function (Franklin, 2005).

Firstly, music provides an opportunity to observe and to build relationships between people and to create a platform for dialogue. According to Christopher Small (1999), music is made up of relationships. He conceptualised the musical act by defining the verb of ‘to music’, or ‘musicking’, as ‘to take part in any capacity, in a musical performance’ (Small, 1999, p. 12). In his view:

‘Musicking is part of that iconic, gestural process of giving and receiving information about relationships which unites the living world, and it is in fact a ritual by means of which the participants not only learn about, but directly experience, their concepts of how they relate, and how they ought to relate, to other human beings and the rest of the world.’ (Small, 1999, p. 9)

A musical performance is, thus, a human encounter that lets us experience the relationships that we find ourselves in. Moreover, musicking is a ‘here-and-now communication’ (Small, 1999, p. 15) that, instead of focusing on the who or what of the actors, only states the relationship that unites them. It therefore opens up the possibility for dialogue by making visible the ways in which the Self and the Other are connected. Different to verbal communication, which has proven ‘less than adequate in dealing with the complexities of our relationships with one another and with the rest of the cosmos’ (Small, 1999, p. 15), the abstract language of music thereby ‘performs functions in human life that words cannot’ (Small, 1999, p. 15). Or, as Theodor W. Adorno described the language character of the arts: ‘Art wants to realise the speaking of the non-human with human means’ (Adorno, 1993a, p.121).[1]„Kunst möchte mit menschlichen Mitteln das Sprechen des nicht Menschlichen realisieren.“ (Adorno, 1993, p.121) Its ability to render relationships graspable and to lay the foundations for constructive dialogue, thus, make music a powerful tool for fostering coordinated diplomacy.

Secondly, music provides access to a social utopia, thereby rendering visible an ideal form of multilateralism and enabling creative thinking beyond what is there. In analysing the work of Adorno, Richard Leppert finds that ‘there lies fundamental hopefulness, if not precisely optimism, conceived within the context of art’s role – music especially – in providing the wherewithal to imagine social utopia.’ (Leppert, 2005, p. 93). In his Aesthetic Theory (1993a), Adorno makes explicit that utopia is the negative, i.e. the opposite, of that which exists. He therefore argues that the existence of Art hints at the possibility of that which does not yet exist, thus, pointing out ‘the possibility of the possible’ (Adorno, 1993a, p. 200). In other words, ‘an “it shall be different” is hidden in even the most sublimated work of art’ (Adorno, 1992 as cited and translated in Leppert, 2005, p. 98). Translated into the words of Ernst Bloch, music therefore constitutes ‘anticipatory illumination’ [sichtbarer Vor-Schein (Bloch, 1974), the hopeful anticipation of not yet realised possibilities.[2]„Vielmehr ist Vor-Schein die Weise des Seins, die ihrerseits utopisches Bewußtsein weckt und diesem das Noch-Nicht-Gewordene in der Skala seiner Möglichkeiten bedeutet.“ (Ueding in Bloch, 1974, … Continue reading

Different to Adorno, who identifies utopia as arising from a lack, Bloch finds utopia in the meaning that music transports and awakens within the Self. As Gallope (2012) points out in his analysis of Bloch’s philosophy of music, Bloch conceptualises ‘musical tones’ [die Töne] as agents that harbour meaning and, thus, carry the utopian potentiality of music: ‘Its autonomy and multi-faceted potentiality are precisely what makes a Ton [sic] like a “metaphysical word”, swooning listeners into episodes of utopian self-reflection’ (Gallope, 2012, p. 378). Bloch thereby highlights the entanglement between the listener and the music as not only opening up a view of utopia but deeply affecting the listener in a transformative way as the tone becomes a guide that ‘shows us our historically inner path as a flame in which not the vibrating air but we ourselves begin to tremble’ (Bloch, 2000, p. 34). In the context of multilateralism, music can provide a vision of a social utopia and, thus, inspire ambitious action. Moreover, it has the power to deeply impact individual decision-makers’ way of relating to the world around them.

Thirdly, music not only inspires utopian visions but can enable concrete transformations. According to Adorno, the transcendent properties of art are most expressed in the immanent experience of a piece of art which he describes as ‘the feeling of being ambushed’ [Gefühl des Überfallen-Werdens] (Adorno, 1970, p. 123). The aesthetic experience, thus, presents ‘a suspended moment’ (Adorno, 1997 as cited and translated in Leppert, 2005, p. 97), a type of cognitive opening, by breaking with the everyday and making something new become apparent. Art historian Sarah Lewis conceptualises this phenomenon as ‘aesthetic force’. Different to Adorno, she, however, highlights its direct implications for social justice and political change:

‘The words to describe aesthetic force suggest that it leaves us changed – stunned, dazzled, knocked out. It can quicken the pulse, make us gape, even gasp with astonishment. Its importance is its animating trait – not what it is, but what it does to those who behold it in all its forms. Its seeming lightness can make us forget that it has weight, force enough to bring about a self-correction, the acknowledgement of failure at the heart of justice – the moment when we reconcile our past with our intended future selves.’ (Lewis, 2014, p. 78)

Based on the experience of the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who highlighted ‘the emancipatory quality of an aesthetic experience’ (Lewis, 2014, p. 77), Lewis argues that aesthetic force can alter our vision and course of action. By touching us on an emotional level, an aesthetic response goes beyond the boundaries of reason and logic, often ending in ‘astonishment can change our view of the world’ (Lewis, 2014, p. 79). In addition to highlighting the gap between what is and what should be, the aesthetic experience therefore inspires us to overcome this divide. ‘Whatever is melodic, lyric, or poetic that gets us to this place can be catalytic in a way that few other things can’ (Lewis, 2014, 81). Music can, thus, achieve a transformation that would not be possible with rational persuasion. In the context of multilateralism, it can therefore be a powerful driver for political change and enable ambitious action.

Grounding these theoretical conceptions in real life and supporting them with factual evidence is far from easy. How can we ascertain that whenever political change occurs following a musical intervention this is actually caused by the musical experience rather than any other possible contributing factor? Nonetheless, there must be a reason for why musical performances, rather than any other activity or art form, have become an established part of high-level meetings. For example, it has been reported that German Chancellor Merkel herself selected the piece that was to be performed at the concert organised during the G20 summit in Hamburg in 2017 (Jones, 2017). This indicates that the music, Beethoven’s 9th symphony, was able to communicate something that the chancellor was not able to communicate herself. Another example is the ‘Transformative Power of Music’ concert that was organised by the United Nations in 2015 in order to support the implementation of the ‘2015: Time for Global Action’ campaign (United Nations, 2015a). As H.E. Mr. Sam Kahamba Kutesa, President of the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly (PGA), stated in his opening remarks of the concert, the event was driven by ‘the conviction that music has the power to mobilize people and transform lives’ (United Nations, 2015b). Again, this indicates that a musical experience rather than any other activity was deemed to be most suitable for mobilising and bringing people together at a global level.

As this brief overview has shown, music has the ability to foster dialogue and communication, to provide a vision of social utopia and to enable ambitious action. Currently the field of IR, however, fails to fully encompass the range of meanings inherent to music, including the impact that it can have on people and situations. Rather than recognising that music can extend ‘the thread of recognition and understanding beyond what previously was seen and known’ (Elderfield, 2006, p. 44), its meaning is, thus, limited to the function that it is awarded by IR theory, for example, as an instrument for propaganda (Garratt, 2019). In order to fully capture the systems of meaning and understanding inherent in music, a new theoretical framework is therefore required.

Resonance: Towards a New Framework

A promising approach for the development of such a framework can be found in Hartmut Rosa’s (2020) Sociology of World Relations [Soziologie der Weltbeziehungen]. His sociology centres on the way that each human is positioned within the world, i.e. her ‘world relations’ [Weltbeziehungen]. Whereas individuals in modern societies experience alienation and a silencing of world relations, resonance is ‘a form of world-relation, in which subject and world meet and transform each other’ (Rosa as cited and translated in Susen, 2019, p. 311). More specifically, Rosa describes resonance as:

‘a specifically cognitive, affective and bodily world-relationship in which, on the one hand, subjects are touched by a certain section of the world and are sometimes “shaken” to their neural basis, but in which, on the other hand, they themselves are also “responding”, acting and influencing the world and experiencing themselves as effective – this is the nature of the response-relationship or the “vibrating wire” between subject and world’ (Rosa, 2020, p.279)[3]“Resonanz können wir nun […] genauer bestimmen als ein spezifisch kognitives, affektives und leibliches Weltverhältnis, bei dem Subjekte auf der einen Seite durch einen bestimmten … Continue reading

Rosa’s sociology, thus, reflects the relation-based understanding of Small’s ‘musicking’ as well as addresses what lies at the heart of multilateralism: fostering successful relationships. Moreover, experiencing resonance, which Rosa describes as the ‘liquefaction of world relations’ [Verflüssigung der Weltverhältnisse], includes a moment of affection and transformation, akin to what Adorno and Bloch describe and Sarah Lewis conceptualised as aesthetic force. Rosa’s sociology, therefore, provides a framework that can capture both the dynamics of multilateralism as well as of the system of meanings inherent to music. By placing the individual within a net of relations, thus, emphasising interdependence, it, at the same time, invites a new understanding of international cooperation.

Listening for Resonance

Thinking about the role of music in IR allows us to shift perspective, away from the seemingly rational game of geopolitics towards the subjective and relational dimensions that lie at the heart of multilateralism. However, more than a different perspective music also offers its own system of meaning through which interpersonal relations are being envisioned and constructed but also experienced and changed. While music is by no means the ultimate solution for building harmonious relations – although too often being framed in that way, it provides us with a different way of meaning making and understanding. It forces us to sharpen our perception of the world around us and to open ourselves up to that which current frameworks and concepts do not yet encompass.

Focusing on music, thus, points out the limitations of the theoretical frameworks that currently dominate the study of IR. This paper has therefore explored Hartmut Rosa’s theory of ‘resonance’ as a new theoretical framework for IR. While there is a need for further elaboration, Rosa’s theory encompasses the systems of meaning inherent in music while providing a holistic understanding of multilateralism that places the individual within the larger world system. Above all, it is, however, an invitation for us all to listen more closely to the world around us.


1 „Kunst möchte mit menschlichen Mitteln das Sprechen des nicht Menschlichen realisieren.“ (Adorno, 1993, p.121)
2 „Vielmehr ist Vor-Schein die Weise des Seins, die ihrerseits utopisches Bewußtsein weckt und diesem das Noch-Nicht-Gewordene in der Skala seiner Möglichkeiten bedeutet.“ (Ueding in Bloch, 1974, p. 21)
3 “Resonanz können wir nun […] genauer bestimmen als ein spezifisch kognitives, affektives und leibliches Weltverhältnis, bei dem Subjekte auf der einen Seite durch einen bestimmten Weltausschnitt berührt und bisweilen bis in ihre neuronale Basis ‚erschüttert‘ werden, bei dem sie aber auf der anderen Seite auch selbst ‚antwortend‘, handelnd und einwirkend auf Welt bezogen sind und sich als wirksam erfahren – die ist die Natur des Antwortverhältnisses oder des ‚vibrierenden Drahtes‘ zwischen Subjekt und Welt.“ (Rosa, 2020, p.279)

Adorno, T. (1993a). Ästhetische Theorie (13th ed.). Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Adorno, T. (1993b). Music, Language, and Composition. The Musical Quarterly [electronic journal], 77(3),

401-414. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

Adorno, T. & Leppert, R. (2002). Essays on Music. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Albert, M., & Kleinman, D. (2011). Bringing Pierre Bourdieu to Science and Technology Studies. Minerva [electronic journal], 49(3), 263-273. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

Beaumont, M. (2021). Sea shanties provide perfect soundtrack for G7 summit. The Guardian. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

Bigo, D. (2011). Pierre Bourdieu and International Relations: Power of Practices, Practices of Power. International Political Sociology [electronic journal], 5(3), 225-258. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

Bloch, E. (2000). The Spirit of Utopia. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1975). The Specificity of the Scientific Field and the Social Conditions of the Progress of Reason. Social Science Information [electronic journal], 14(6), 19-47. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

Elderfield, J. (2006). Manet and the Execution of Maximilian. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Franklin, M. (2005). Resounding International Relations: On Music, Culture, and Politics. New York/Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gallope, M. (2012). Ernst Bloch’s Utopian Ton of Hope. Contemporary Music Review [electronic journal], 31 (5-6), 371-387. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

Grenfell, M. (2012). Pierre Bourdieu : Key Concepts (2nd ed.). London/New York: Routledge.

Harvard Kennedy School. (2021). Courses. The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

Johnson, R. (1993). Editor’s Introduction: Pierre Bourdieu on Art, Literature and Culture. In R. Johnson, The Field of Cultural Production – Essays on Art and Literature. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Jones, B. (2017). Why Merkel chose ‘Ode to Joy’ for G20 concert. CNN. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

Leppert, R. (2005). Music ‘Pushed to the Edge of Existence’ (Adorno, Listening, and the Question of Hope). Cultural Critique [electronic journal], 60(1), 92-133. Available at: [accessed on: 12.09.2021]

Lewis, S. (2014). The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Maull, H. (2020). Multilateralism: Variants, Potential, Constraints and Conditions for Success. SWP Comment [electronic journal], (9). Available at: [accessed on: 12.09.2021]

MIT Political Science. (2021). Undergraduate Subjects: Spring 2021. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

Müller, B. (2013). The Gloss of Harmony: The Politics of Policy-Making in Multilateral Organisations. London: Pluto Press.

Pfleiderer, M., & Rosa, H. (2020). Musik als Resonanzsphäre. Musik & Ästhetik [electronic journal], 24(95), 5-36. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

QS Quacquarelli Symonds. (2021). QS World University Rankings by Subject 2021: Politics. Top Universities. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

Rosa, H. (2020). Resonanz: Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehungen (4th ed.). Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Small, C. (1999). Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Music Education Research [electronic journal], 1(1), 9-21. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

Sontag, S. (1961/2009). Against Interpretation. In S. Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays. London: Penguin Books.

Susen, S. (2019). The Resonance of Resonance: Critical Theory as a Sociology of World-Relations? International Journal of Politics, Culture, And Society [electronic journal], 33(3), 309-344. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

Times Higher Education. (2021). World University Rankings 2021 by subject: social sciences. Times Higher Education (THE). Available at:!/page/0/length/25/subjects/3090/sort_by/rank/sort_order/asc/cols/stats [accessed on 12.09.2021]

United Nations. (2015a). President Kutesa hosts ‘The Transformative Power of Music’ concert. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

United Nations. (2015b). Statement at the ‘Transformative Power of Music’ Concert Opening. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

United Nations. (2020). United Nations Day – 75 years working for peace. United Nations. Available at: [accessed on 12.09.2021]

Pour citer ce document :
Mareike Peschau, "‘Music is a world within itself’. Towards a holistic understanding of music in International Relations". Journal du multilatéralisme, ISSN 2825-6107 [en ligne], 13.05.2022,