How Music Will Change The World

Shain Shapiro, PhD

When you search the word ‘music’ on the World Bank website, a number of inspiring stories come up. In Afghanistan, there’s a story about an MC using his platform to advocate against child marriage and forcible confinement. There’s also a story on the inspiring and inclusive nightlife in Hargeisa, Somaliland, one of the world’s most misunderstood countries. Further investigation shows a commitment from the World Bank, in partnership with UNESCO, to commit to culture in its urban development work, as part of a shared declaration at the World Urban Forum last year. On the OECD’s website, there are links through their Centre of Research and Innovation (CERI) on music’s impact on the brain and cognition, and articles espousing the democratising powers of digitising music catalogues. Moreover, there’s similar articles on the World Economic Forum’s website, including a number of articles demonstrating music’s role in reading and concentration.

This cursory search shows me that all three organisations — all of whom play a significant role in how our global governmental initiatives work to improve global infrastructure — believe that music can support global development, to some degree. Yet, there’s a number of glaring omissions here. Not once do any of these organisations present a holistic, overarching view of music on society. Variables are extracted, but not once is it written that music can be a tool in the development framework. This is because this has never been explored. Music is an add-on, or a nice to have. It’s not seen as a basic human right, one that we can harness to improve livelihoods. And I believe this is wrong and it must change.

And I plan on changing it.


I see our wide-ranging global development industry in three overall stages, recognising that for the purpose of this argument, this is a simplistic separation. The first are those dealing with war, famine, internal displacement, refugees and healthcare. Those concerned with the soil of a place, rather than what will eventually get built on the soil. Second are place builders focused on built infrastructure — wells, electrical grids, dams, buildings and sewage treatment. They worry about how to till and nourish the soil, so what is planted on it thrives. Third are sustainable developers, concerned with maintenance or resilience efforts, including disaster preparedness, climate change and other large, infrastructural issues. These are our crop rotators, pest controllers and gardeners. And everything is connected. In each stage, music is absent.

Take the IMF, World Bank, various UN agencies or specific donor countries, like the United States or United Kingdom. Each organisation has donor guidelines, including conditions on how the support is to be utilised, for what reason and when. These are general conditions that are specified through projects, but across this ecosystem music and culture are bolted on via singular initiatives, rather than built in from the start.


Let’s start with the soil itself. Human conflict reduces cultural infrastructure, along with all else, to rubble. For example, in Syria its national orchestra was exiled, eventually reassembling in the UK. But the networks that music creates remain. Recognising and mapping music and cultural assets ensures that should conflict impact them, there is a database outlining their importance and a pathway to reconstruction, as music lifts up communities, even in their most fragile states. Syria’s metal scene became a platform for resistance and a tool to empower young men, who could have joined terrorist organisations. But we lack structure to understand how to count and value these networks, so they can be used for good. During the Ebola crisis in 2015, an album called Africa Stop Ebola was used to educate people on Ebola in a place where communities were being decimated by fear of contracting the disease. Many people were exiled from community groups, due to their family members contracting the disease. Music was used to spearhead public health awareness. But again, it was bolted on, rather than included in the strategy from the beginning, when resources are set aside to deal with conflict and exile.

In countries and places undergoing significant development through international and transnational donation, music is, once again, absent. Now when we’re able to till & plant seeds in the soil, culture and music, once again, are nowhere strategically to be seen. Often, the word ‘cultural centre’ is used as a catchall for all uses outside of housing and commercial and there’s little scholarship to understand how to recognise and support create and music infrastructure in developing and building new towns and cities. And as a result, music lacks coherence, or clarification, in planning how donor support is used to build, or rebuild places. Take a music festival for example. Around the world, from Malawi to Bangladesh, Flint, Michigan to Argentina, music festivals are part of the community. But few places are designed, at their earliest stage in design / master planning, to support such a use. There’s little scholarship in the development community in understanding how a music festival is a development tool. A successful festival — large or small, free or ticketed — is a town in and of itself, with electricity, sanitation, security, means of access, transport and housing. It is also a social wiring agent, creating networks with each booking or confirmation. This wiring — hard and soft — is infrastructure. And it can be utilised for essential means year-round. Planning for such cultural use builds a need for greater mobile reception, electrification and sanitation. It’s part of the discussion, rather than an add-on after the fact. And this is the same for other music-related uses. Master planning a recording studio in a community can enhance educational opportunities, such as in Langa, South Africa. A music room in a school and donor support to procure instruments can improve cognition.

Such provisions should be written into donor contracts, or terms of reference, so recipients provide for their citizens. Furthermore, if we build in such infrastructural requirements for music and culture alongside everything else, it trickles down as the plants in our soil grow and need further tending. But without this structure, we’re bound to lead with ephemeral, singular initiatives, however well-meaning they are. Take The Sound Initiative in Cambodia. It’s not only training musicians. It’s creating wealth, confidence and responsibility in its community. But it is doing so under a backdrop where music, as a development tool, isn’t recognised. If the support provided to Cambodia explicitly stated and directed that music be part of the DNA of the seeds being planted, such initiatives would be the norm, rather than the exception.


Finally, music and, for the most part, culture is not called upon to care for and support our plants, as they grow and fruit. In sustainable development discussions and the resiliency industry, music is a missed opportunity. While music is beginning to be looked at as a tool to reach our Global Goals in 2030, it is not being looked at as a piece of infrastructure in and of itself. Instead, it is being reduced to its ephemeral impact. There’s no link between creating sustainable, transparent copyright mechanisms and poverty reduction, decent work and economic growth or gender parity, despite most countries in the world lacking basic copyright and IP transparency. There’s piecemeal thinking related to music’s role in sustainable cities, or healthy ageing, despite decades of scientific evidence linking music to wellness. There’s no debate around building codes, materials and construction, despite sound and noise leakage leading to health problems around the world. And often, the solution is to blame the music (and those making and enjoying it), rather than our planning and development structures that govern how cities work.

If music infrastructure was written into donor agreements, than music could be utilised as a tool — at the source — to support sustainable development. Governments deploying resources would have to account for how it is supporting its cultural use and be compelled, through signing accords, decrees and agreements, to recognise the intrinsic health, wellbeing and cognitive benefits of music, as outlined in the aforementioned articles. Facilities for music could be built into master plans and music could be incorporated into wider city governance, which would improve urban resilience and community bonds.

For example, despite New Orleans’ recovery being intrinsically linked to the power of its musicians and culture bearers, there’s little music and cultural thinking in urban resilience. It was New Orleans’ musicians, not their politicians, that supported its rebuild post Hurricane Katrina. This is catalogued in 100 Resilient Cities’ Performing City Resilience Study, but this type of work is rare, rather than the norm. Work like this should be the norm, post any disaster.


The UNESCO Cities of Music program is prioritising the global south — cities such as Brazzaville in Congo — because music creates economic growth and social cohesion. Music education — a driver of global growth — is not made mandatory in how we promote better education and music is not deployed in elder-age care as much as it should. It’s not because music is not recognised; it is because there’s no global guidance or direction to engender this culture shift. If we had transparent, accountable IP management systems, all of which can be created with modern technology, we’d have stronger music industries, and more people earning from them. If we taught music early and often, we’d have more equitable societies. And if we built our homes, offices and places of worship with sound and noise in mind, we’d get along more. If we explored music’s role across our changing planet, we could create more carbon-neutral community experiences and environments, from eco-festivals to influencing the logistics that sustains music (and other sectors), including hospitality and transport.

This requires direction from the top, from including music’s role in global growth in donor contracts to intergovernmental agencies engaging with music (and music engaging with them), rather than both sides paying lip service to each other by staging a singular concert or supporting one initiative, however well meaning it is. We need a Global Music Development Framework that outlines music’s impact across our ecosystem — from tilling the soil to harvesting the fruits — and how it can used inserted into our existing systems to make them better. It starts by recognising the 360 degree impact of music — from birth to death, health to wealth, and deconstructing them. We need international accords and treaties to include music as a provision for development, across war and peace times. We need to recognise and mandate music’s role on our cognitive development and how it brings us together, amidst a world full of things tearing us apart. And we need genuine, global action.

This is the overall theme of work we’re doing at the House of Lords in the UK right now, looking at the value of music in society. And this is what I propose, and what I hope to lead. I will write this framework, should the IMF, World Bank, UN and other agencies wish to support it. I welcome any and all collaborators, so we can outline — in its totality — the role of music in our global development framework. And I call on all of us who use, love, perform or simply passively enjoy music to stand up and recognise that it as an opportunity we need to capture.

Join me.

Shain Shapiro, PhD

Written by

Shain Shapiro, PhD is the Founder and President of Sound Diplomacy. He is also the co-founder of Music Cities Convention & Music Tourism Convention #musiccities

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