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Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Envisioning conferencing: Insights from music

Transformative Approaches Project


This note continues the exercise of envisioning the cognitive contributions of the arts to conferencing in the Year 2490.

1. Harmony and the language of music

One of the mysteries to that future era was our reluctance, in our constantly declared search for social "harmony", to draw upon the articulation of harmony in music. Our excuse, in the midst of factional squabbles over concrete urgent problems, is that no serious person could imagine that music had anything to offer other than some pleasant distraction before or after the reception on the occasion of some such gathering. And yet music could be called the science of harmony. An immense amount of effort has been devoted over the past centuries to exploring the nature of harmony in music.

Music scholars and philosophers of our era have long disputed whether or not music actually "means" anything. They recognized that all composers of tonal music have used the same "language" of melodic phrases, harmonies and rhythms to evoke the same patterns of significance (whether intellectual or emotional). They developed and used a pattern language of musical idioms to carry dynamically complex insights. These were especially powerful in interweaving shorter and longer developmental cycles.

2. Comprehending complexity through harmony

Where we had vainly sought for the keys to controlling our environment through systems science and cybernetics, they married such explorations to the science of harmony as articulated in music. In our era much has been written about the relationship of music and time -- music as time made audible. We have seen the efforts of systems scientists and "world modellers" to represent complex systems dynamics using equations, flow charts and sophisticated graphics -- denying comprehension by most of us. Our descendants projected such dynamics into musical relationships which could be played. The "business graphics" of that time had musical variants. People could hear the various harmonies which provided integration to any policy represented, and they could hear the dissonances which challenged that harmony -- whether as a stimulus to social growth or as a potential crisis. The only equivalent we have to this is the ability of any motor mechanic to listen to an engine as a means of diagnosing its state of health. One great advantage is that everyone could listen to such musical representations, irrespective of the sophistication with which they understood it. The major integrating features were obvious to all, however little they understood the detailed harmonic organization.

3. Enriching patterns of insight through harmony

Such representations of systems insights were not just public relations devices. By listening to the musical representation it became possible to identify and discuss features which could be changed and improved, in the light of musical insights, into richer or more challenging patterns of harmony. The musical perspective highlighted features which made a policy boring -- namely "monotonous" to their ears -- and thus uninspiring to those in whose interest it was being elaborated. We can get some understanding of this process from the way jazz and pop groups collectively develop a piece of music until it sounds right.

4. Policy implications

Space limitations here preclude detailed explorations of the policy significance that they were able to attach to all the many attributes of musical organization. But, for example, where today international development agencies have a range of programmatic approaches on which they rely, in that era such approaches would be recognizable by what are effectively melodic signatures. Such signatures became a way of communicating complex programmatic proposals. And whilst there were many "old favourites", there was greater sensitivity to those which had been superseded, and to the emergence of new melodies which addressed issues in a more interesting way. This clarified the relationship between the fashionable programmatic melodies of the moment and those of more enduring quality.

Of special interest is their use of insights from the temporal organization of music as it impacted on the programme and budgetary cycles which are the skeletal structure of any concrete action programme. A major concern in administering an organization is to ensure financial discipline. They resolved this problem by using a musical discipline of far greater flexibility and more subtle articulation. The cyclic aspect of organizational life acquired whole new dimensions, for in music there can be many cycles of different length and involving different instruments. They also made intriguing use of rhythm and tempo -- partly as a way of dealing with urgency and the need for an appropriately timed response.

5. Encoding competing perspectives

But perhaps of most interest to us are the insights they gained from musical notation and the harmonic relationship between different chords and instrumental qualities. They took the typically politicized factional spectrum around any issue in our time (which undermines any appropriate response) and effectively coded the spectral elements into musical notation. Interventions in any discussion were thus comprehended within a musical framework, whether as isolated notes or chords, but above all in terms of their relationship to the emerging theme. The art of debate thus became one of contributing to the emergence of better music -- recognizing the role and limitations of the particular contribution one could make. The characteristic intervention of our time -- the frequent repetition of a single note, louder than those preceding it -- was an obvious musical disaster (although see below). In this context, "note taking" acquired a whole new meaning in recording the proceedings of the gathering.

6. Proactive response to dissonance

We would however be completely misunderstanding their achievement if it were taken to be a simplistic exploration of harmonies. Their society, like ours, was constantly challenged by deep divisions of perspective. But, whereas we resolve these in the organizational equivalent of a gladiatorial arena, they reinterpreted such dissonance in musical terms. To our ears the music they played would at different times have such qualities as: gothic immensity; the challenging intensity and immediacy of hard rock; the supportive, solidarity of folk tunes; the intellectual intricacies of computer generated music; as well as many others. They had a tool to work effectively with differences and to use those differences to enhance the dimensions of their policies.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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