Working on The Power of Music: Sustainability and the JUNOS exhibit gave me a chance to think about a personal interest from quite a different perspective. The JUNOS whirlwind has passed but the exhibit is still up, so it seems like a good time to reflect on why music is important in our lives. 

In the Encyclopedia of Human Ecology, Martin Gardiner (2003) points out that music has a number of features that make it especially valuable. To start with, music gives us a way to transmit information using sound, which is a very effective way to communicate. Unlike communicating by touch or a look, sound doesn’t require people to be close together or in eye contact. Under the right circumstances, messages sent using sound can travel a LONG way, e.g., whales calling to each other across entire oceans, and they can be very difficult to ignore. Music can also bring up individual and social emotions, from tears that well up in response to a sad song, to the collective pride associated with a national anthem. At the personal level, producing or listening to music is a popular creative activity that helps people reflect on their experiences and relate to their worlds. But perhaps the most telling sign of music’s influence is that it happens so often and in so many places, building on deep historic and prehistoric roots. From the latest sound-making gadgets to the earliest drums and flutes, music is and has likely always been an important and pervasive part of human cultures.

Glenn and BuffyAs The Power of Music exhibit came together, through a collaborative process involving many creative people, the content fell into four clear themes. One had to do with Bruce Cockburn and his role as The JUNOS 2013 Sustainability Ambassador. The others are associated with sustainably goals, including: Preserving Nature … from the oceans and forests that regulate climate, to the lakes and patches of native prairie that provide habitat for species at riskBeing Resilient … bringing issues to the attention of people and institutions that can take action, or finding ways to adapt; andSearching for Wisdom … respecting and learning from each other and the world around us, and applying what we know to address the problems we face. As the work went on, we found that many Canadian and non-Canadian artists have explored these themes across a wide range of genres, including folk, country, rock, jazz, hip-hop, and more. We could have featured twice as many artists and many more great songs!

Glenn Sutter and Buffy Sainte-Marie at the opening of The Power of Music.

I also noticed that some of the songs we studied could be mapped onto different phases of the adaptive renewal model that ecologists use to describe how capital moves through a complex system. Now that’s a large step away from music, so I should take a moment to explain. Trust me - it’s a pretty cool model, so I hope you keep reading!panarchy model

The adaptive renewal model was developed in the 1980s by a respected Canadian ecologist named C.S. (Buzz) Holling to account for changes that happen in forest ecosystems. Holling noticed that forests tend to cycle through four different phases in response to disturbances, like a fire or an insect outbreak. The disturbance phase – which he called ‘release’ – is clearly destructive, but it’s also creative because it redistributes the carbon, nutrients and other types of natural capital that have been ‘locked up’ in trees. This is followed by a ‘reorganization’ phase where ‘pioneer’ species do well and some capital is stored away again, but ecological relationships are relatively simple and ‘loose.’ Next comes a slow ‘exploitation’ phase, where the relationships get tighter and more complex and the amount of stored capital increases accordingly. Finally, the system enters a ‘conservation’ phase - a climax forest - where large amounts of capital are stored and the system is highly resilient, until the next release phase begins.

Adaptive renewal loops, after Holling et al. (2002)

It gets even more interesting. Since Holling first proposed the idea, other studies have shown that adaptive cycles occur in all sorts of complex systems, affecting everything from our money (financial capital) to the way we understand and learn things (human capital).  Adaptive cycles can also affect each other, with many small releases causing a bigger ‘revolt’, or a widespread conservation phase imposing ‘memory’ on smaller, faster cycles. The notion that “change is the only constant” has been challenged as well. Systems can get caught in ‘poverty’ traps, where their relationships are too loose for a successful reorganization, or in ‘rigidity’ traps, where high levels of resilience make it hard to trigger a release phase (Holling et al. 2002). 

The connection I see to music is through a theory of learning called constructivism (Hein 1998), which says that people acquire knowledge by periodically deconstructing what they know (release), rebuilding new paradigms (reorganization and exploitation), and defending them (conservation) until the cycle starts again.  It’s intriguing to think that music might catalyze or facilitate this process. Some music can certainly be revolutionary; some can be soothing or reassuring, reducing the stress and anxiety of reorganization; some can offer encouragement and support for exploitation; and some can foster the cohesion and resilience associated with conservation. Some music could also help to reinforce or reduce the influence of poverty and rigidity traps.

What do you think? Do you see music playing this sort of role in your life? Are there particular pieces of music that stand out as examples? I’d love to get a discussion going about this, so feel free to get in touch or post on our Facebook site.

Suggested reading:

Gardiner, M.F. (2003) Music. Pp 509-514 in The Encyclopedia of Human Ecology, Vol II, I-Z, J.R. Miller, R.M. Lerner, L.B. Schiamberg, and P.M. Anderson (eds). ABD-CLIO, Denver, CO.

Hein, G. E.  (1998)  Learning in the Museum. New York: Routledge.

Holling, C.S., L.H. Gunderson, and G.D. Peterson. (2002) Sustainability and panarchies. Pp 63-102 in Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. L.H. Gunderson and C.S. Holling (eds). Island Press, Washington, DC.

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