The Power Of Music In Political Struggle (Part 1): Censorship And The Social Influence Of Music

Woody Guthrie

This is the first in a four part series by writer Simon Gall to be published on National Collective on the power of music in political struggle across history.

Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”

Bertolt Brecht

It is my opinion that, as Brecht implies, music and musicians should not simply reflect the world but should seek to change it for the better. In writing this piece I hope to discuss some ways in which music can do, and has done, that. I aim to stress the value of music to political and social movements. To be clear though, I do not think that music alone as organised sound can change socio-political structures but rather, I believe that when music is used effectively by movements it can add a certain positive non-verbal dimension to the campaign that other mediums simply cannot and thus should be seen as an integral part of the overall strategy for progressive change.

In order to demonstrate my point I will focus on two main areas of discussion. Firstly, I will look at the question of whether or not music has a ‘power’ to do things to people; to influence actions or morals, because if music does have a ‘power’, perhaps we can harness it to help achieve our goals. Secondly, I will look at some of the positive ways in which music’s ‘power’ has been exploited in the past by progressive social and political movements, drawing on tangible examples from such diverse campaigns as the civil rights movement in the US, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Afro-Peruvian struggles, the Nueva Cancion movement in Chile, to Afghan nation-building and so on. I hope that by highlighting some of the lessons from the past this piece will, in some way, help musicians involved in the pro-independence movement in Scotland to (re)orientate their creative activities and, ultimately, strengthen the case for self-determination.

The Power of Music

Does music have the ‘power’ to influence human action?

Below I look briefly at the reaction of some of society’s most powerful institutions to various musical incidences in recent history. The conclusions drawn by global tribunals, governmental committees and judges clearly demonstrate their belief that music can, and does, influence society.

Simon Bikindi Case

In 2006 the UN International Criminal Tribunal charged Rwandan musician Simon Bikindi with “direct and public incitement to commit genocide.” The UN prosecutors “had indicted him because they believed that his songs had contributed directly to the slaughter of Tutsis.” [2] Bikindi was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment although his conviction was based largely on an inflammatory speech he had made (and less on his music) in which he called for the extermination of the Tutsis. Final judgment aside, the initial charge was clearly an enormously important, albeit horrifying, statement by international authorities about the power of music.

Hanns Eisler Case

In 1947, at the very beginning of the McCarthy purges in the United States, a prominent German composer called Hanns Eisler, who had fled Nazi Germany a few years earlier, was summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activties. The charge against him was that his music “had aided Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry” in the US. [3] The committee was unable to link him directly to any communist organisation and thus focused on his music as proof that he was a communist. They first interrogated him about the lyrical content of the pieces which often had revolutionary titles such as ‘Red Wedding’ and ‘Red Front’. [3] From this accusation he was immune as he had not written the lyrics, so there was only one place left to turn: the musical content itself. The committee ascribed a certain communist power to Eisler’s music; the power to influence people in, as they saw it, negative ways. If this was not their conclusion, why were they concerned about North Americans hearing his music in films? Eisler was deported and spent the rest of his life in East Germany.


The above examples constitute a sort of indirect censorship; by simply sending an artist away the problem no longer exists (less so in today’s hi-tech globalised world). The logical next step in our examination of music’s power would be to look at direct censorship of music; something that is considered the ultimate act of institutional paranoia of the effects of music on society. Below I will focus on examples carried out by the two principle censorial agents: the state, and religion.

If we accept that, as Martin Cloonan suggests, “censorship is generally driven by the desire to control mass behavior” [1] – though often justified, and perhaps rightly so in some cases, as a mechanism of ‘protection’ for society – it would be logical to conclude that these institutions believe that some organised sounds (music) should be treated with suspicion thus implying that music is capable of influencing (or perhaps corrupting) the ‘masses’ in some way or another.

But the idea that citizens should be “protected” from certain sounds is certainly not new. The first recorded references to musical censorship come from Plato in 400 BC. Plato wrote that:

“The overseers must throughout be watchful against innovations in music and gymnastics counter to the established order, and to the best of their power guard against them.” [2]

He also equated certain musical modes with certain types of, as he saw it, immoral behavior and sought to ban their general use. John Street confirms the historical ubiquity of censorship when he writes:

“Throughout human history, music has been the source of fear and the object of repression. Every century on every continent has seen those in authority – whether as church or as state – use their powers to silence certain sounds or performers.” [2]

As far back as the early fifteenth century, England was home to music censorship when King Henry V issued an edict dictating that “No ditties shall be made or sung by minstrels or others”. [1] And later in 1543, in the build up to the Reformation, a royal decree banned all printed ballads on the grounds that they might “subtly and craftily instruct the King’s people and the youth of the realm.” [1]

Censorship in Modern History

Nazi Germany

Perhaps one of the most important experiments in censorship in modern times comes from Nazi Germany where music was used as a tool to promote racial politics and was “seen as a key element” [2] in the constitution of “Germanness.” The Nazis therefore banned certain styles of music deemed to be ‘alien’ to the new national identity, namely, Jewish, black and modernist styles, labeling the music “degenerate” (Entartete Musik). “Degenerate” performers and composers, like Hanns Eisler, were exiled, arrested or forced out of music. The Nazis clearly saw certain forms of organised sound as threatening to their political project (atonal music for example was deemed ‘unnatural’ as it “contradicts the rhythm of the blood” [2] and was banned) and thus sought to eradicate those sonic elements that could undermine their socio-political structures in the real world (see the Diversity Destroyed Exhibition for more information).

Soviet Union

Another often cited example of state censorship is the case of the Soviet Union. From the time Joseph Stalin took power in the 1920s right through to the fall of so-called Communism, various styles of music were banned. ‘Modernist’ music like that of Arnold Schoenberg was banned from the outset and in 1948, the works of other ‘formalist’ composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich were outlawed on the grounds that the music communicated “decadent Western influences” as well as “anti-democratic tendencies”. [1] In the 1980s, rock and jazz were banned because they were considered to be dangerous due, in part, to the fact that they had originated in the West but also because those genres were thought to embody in sound and style the ‘freedom’ of the West. Stalin rejected any art that could not be considered social realism and thus treated with great suspicion almost every other art movement.

Censorship in the UK

Music in the second half of the 20th century in the UK, for example, has been censored by the state using the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. One important example of this took place in 1984 when police raided a record shop in Cheshire and seized records of the punk band Crass on the grounds that they contravened the Act. The shop owner was charged under the act and ordered to pay £100. Commenting on the musical content of the records the judge proclaimed, “there is a lowering of standards and we feel we should do our best to halt such a fall in standards. It’s in young people’s interests that we do so.” [4]

Implicit in the judge’s statement is the idea that musical standards can affect moral standards in young people. This is a powerful statement to make about organised sound and is not far removed from Plato’s logic.

The Obscene Publications Act, however, is not the only vehicle for censorship in the UK. For example, in 2010, the grime artist Giggs had a ten-date tour cancelled on the recommendation of the Metropolitan Police who also telephoned record companies to urge them not to sign him. [2] They had been concerned about the type of crowd he (and his music) would attract. This again, suggests concern about the link between music and behavior.

Religions and Censorship

Religions and religious groups also recognise music’s power. Some religions have sought to ban isolated musical devices while others have sought more severe forms of censorship. For example, in medieval times, Christian groups outlawed the tritone – a musical interval of 3 whole tones – because it was considered ugly and was thought to evoke sexual feelings. It was even considered to be the work of Lucifer himself and was dubbed the ‘diabolus in musica’, the devil in music.

Other religious groups like the Taliban and, in their early years, the Quakers, banned music outright (apart from religious singing in the case of the Taliban) because they saw it as a distraction from the serious matters of life and thus, threatening to their ideology. This perceived ability to threaten ideologies, as outlined above, is one which is common throughout the world and through all ideologies: an extraordinary power to ascribe to organised sound.

Music as Violence

Another way to demonstrate the power of music is to look at its role in relation to violence. Martin Cloonan and Bruce Johnson have written extensively (see their book The Dark Side of the Tune) on this topic. They highlight, for example, the role of music as a weapon of war and show how it is increasingly being used as an interrogation and torture device to break the spirits of prisoners in order to ‘get them to speak’.

According to the Frankfurt School theorist and composer Theodor Adorno, music can be oppressive in other ways. He saw some music, particularly popular music, as totalitarian and almost fascistic. He believed that the “culture industry”, as a new institution of industrial capitalism, produced nothing more than standardised cultural commodities – standardised in terms of form, time signature, rhythm, tonality etc – which had the effect (and thus power) of standardising people by limiting sonic possibilities, reinforcing the familiar and encouraging passive listening. This in turn, Adorno thought, had the effect of standardising opinion, ways-of-being and general consciousness. Popular music was therefore, in Adorno’s eyes, a tool of oppression and mass behavioural control whose true purpose was to shape individuals and to make them conform to the status quo i.e. industrial capitalist society.

Part two of The Power Of Music In Political Struggle by Simon Gall will be published on National Collective this week.

Simon Gall
National Collective


[1] Korpe, Reitov and Cloonan – Music Censorship from Plato to the Present
[2] John Street – Music and Politics
[3] Lydia Goehr – Political Music and the Politics of Music
[4] Martin Cloonan – I Fought the Law: Popular Music and British Obscenity Law

With thanks to Benjamin Martlew, Stephen Fiddes and Sol Mogollones.


About Simon Gall

Simon Gall is a musician and music teacher. He plays piano with Salsa Celtica and Son al Son and is a singer-songwriter, arranger and part time promoter. He teaches music in community settings for local authorities, arts charities and community centres. He has a keen interest in music and politics and in particular, the places where the two overlap.