The Role of Music in Constructing National Identities

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Music is intrinsic to all human beings, it is an activity that we all engage in every day, whether it be music creation or consumption. On a personal level we use it to explore our emotions, construct our own self-image and reinforce our personal identities, developing our understanding of who we are and what our purpose is in life. On a larger scale we use music to ground ourselves in our cultural surroundings, thus being a tool used to unite cultures and create a shared identity. But, does music play a part in constructing national identities?

“National identity in music is a hugely complex subject. Where you come from doesn’t just shape the kind of music you make; it shapes how people perceive both it and you” - Rob Boffard.

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Before we can begin to look at the role that music plays in constructing national identity, we first need to explore the fundamental components that arguably construct a nation. Miller (1995) outlines five building blocks that construct a nation and how these things contribute to the collective identity of a nation. Firstly he believed that nations were built on shared beliefs and characteristics held by the members of a community. Secondly he believed that nationality ‘embodies historical continuity’. This is the idea that nations are formed from historical misfortune and honour, Miller believes that we feel obliged to continue our belief of national identity because we have inherited something that our ancestors built and fought for on countless occasions. The third feature that is used to distinguish national identity is the act of doing things together, such as making decisions. By using people such as politicians we make national decisions that shape the nation in either a positive or negative way. The fourth ‘building block’ of forming a national identity is the geographical location that joins people together. Some of the national decisions we make are territorial and are aimed at controlling or owning land so that we can have authority over that land. The last component that Miller explored was national character, this was the idea that the members of a nation are supposed to be together and should share a certain set of characteristics, one characteristic used to outline this is biology, this looks at how the people we share a nation with should all be of the same kin. This idea however is directly linked to problems in society such as racism.

It is also important to understand the ideas outlined by Anderson (1983) and Gellner (1994) when looking at the composition of a nation. They believed that an important element that forms a nation is homogeneity. Homogeneity is “the quality of parts or people that are similar to each other or are of the same type”. Anderson believed that this homogeneity created a sense of commitment to the nation for the citizens living within in. Bhabha (1994) expands on this theory by exploring the idea that a nation is moving through time working towards a coherent identity between the people of a nation. Thus creating diverse communities that feel connected through their similarities and therefore constructing national identities. When exploring the ways in which music might construct or effect our national identity we come across a criticism of Anderson and Gellner’s theory of homogeneity. Middleton (1990) explains that the problem with defining specific songs or genres of music as ‘national music’ is that cultures within a nation will re-define the music and change what it symbolises to suit their beliefs whilst introducing their own music that they believe represents them as a culture within the nation.

To begin to understand the formation of national identity we do not only need to know how nations are constructed but also how we form our personal and cultural identities. Personal development is an integral part of forming personal identity, through personal development we are able to take our characteristics and experiences and order them in a way that makes sense to us. When exploring the formation of cultural identity we find that social interaction plays a large role, a person’s beliefs and sense of individual identity will decide whether or not that person wants to enter into a specific community or culture and to decide this a level of communication is needed between those entering the culture or community and those already in the culture or community. These collective individual identities then begin forming larger cultural identities based on common beliefs held by all of those within the community, thus a cultural, shared or collective identity is created. This then has the opportunity to lead to sub-cultural identities in which the beliefs of minority groups are allowed to flourish.

We can then look at the relationship between the idea of collective identity and music. It is mentioned that music does not just construct someone’s identity, but also forms part of their identity. This idea that music demonstrates the ability to help construct collective identity begins to explain the way in which a country identifies itself with certain music, such as a national anthem. This music then reinforces feelings of kinship, reminding individuals that they are part of the same community thus constructing and reinforcing their collective identity.

Now that we have begun looking at the fundamental building blocks needed to construct a nation, and touched upon that formation of individual and collective identities, we can begin to examine the role that music takes in constructing a larger, national identity. One theoretical approach, outlined in ‘Knights Book, Music, National Identity and Politics of Location’, explores national identity and music and believes that music does not play an essential role in constructing national identity. It is believed that national identity and music are socially constructed, meaning that they are created or shaped by the people within a society. Therefore people’s interpretations of national identity and music can be explained as fluid and experiential. Consequently different cultures within a nation will have different experiences and interpretations of music that is meant to represent or symbolise national identity. It can therefore be theorised that maybe nationality is not a fixed concept and instead is re-constructed time and time again throughout history. This concept of national identity being fluid is strengthened in Middleton’s (1990) criticism of Anderson and Gellner’s theory of homogeneity when outlining the idea that ‘national music’ is redefined by cultures within a nation, with the addition of other music styles to suit the specific beliefs of that culture.

In some cases, if the citizens and communities within a country have an overall strong ideology of their nationality and the things that represent them as a nation, then popular songs from certain periods in history become symbols and sometimes even anthems. These songs then represent the country and peoples identification with that country. By taking the British national anthem, ‘God Save the Queen’ as an example we can begin exploring this idea of how countries use music as a symbol of nationality. ‘God save the Queen’ became popular in September 1745 when sung at a theatre production by the cast at the Drury Lane Theatre. The lyrics within the piece of music obviously demonstrate the ideology of nationality – “That men should brothers be, and form one family”, and loyalty to those who reign over the country - “Long live our noble Queen” and is often played or sung in the presence of royalty, thus being recognised as the British national anthem. Curiously, no official version of the national anthem has been published – instead many variations have been written and published that correlate to current national circumstances of the time. For example, in 1919 a version of the anthem was published that promoted the idea of peace, this version has since been included in many hymn books. This provides evidence and supports the theory suggested by both Knight and Middleton, that national identity is fluid and experiential, it is something that is reconstructed, much like the lyrics to the national anthem are rewritten to fit the current state of the nation.

Looking back at Millers five building blocks we can safely say that they are fundamental to building a nation. These fundamentals identify the basic things needed to construct a nation including things such as collective beliefs, geographical location and collective decision making. However, we have also found that identities are fluid, they are largely based on experiences and therefore are changed frequently to fit both individual beliefs and collective beliefs. Simon Firth (1996) takes these ideas of fluid identity and the construction of a nation and looks at how these are affected by music in his essay, ‘Music and Identity’. Firth suggests that identity is a process and music is an experience, explaining that one reflects the other and is comprised by organising social, material and physical things. He suggest that experiencing music is a key part of our identities due to the fact that it offers us an overall sense of ourselves and those around us, he explains this as “the subjective and the collective”. He believes that music does not represent the beliefs of a society and its identity, but offers a window into the relationships and ideologies shared among the society that the music originated from, therefore it could be explained as a way of living their emotions rather than expressing them.

From this we can draw that many essays and theories based around this idea of music and identity all seem to hint that identity is something that is fluid and experiential – saying that music is of a similar nature and instead of being used as a way to express emotion it is instead used as a tool to live our emotions. The British National Anthem is a good example of this. The anthems lyrics were, and still could be, changed at pivotal moments in history. We can begin to conclude this was an attempt to live, or construct, the nation’s actions, emotions and feelings of the time in history, rather than simply reflecting the events taking place that were having an effect on the nation.

If we take the idea that music is constructive rather than reflective we can begin to look at how any type or genre of music, allows people to experience collective identity through symbolism. Jonathan Ree believed that out identities were formed of things around us, not something that we discover but something that we experience, he said: “The problem of personal identity, one may say, arises from play-acting and the adoption of artificial voices; the origins of distinct personalities in acts of personation and impersonation”.

Moving forward from the points raised about the belief system involved in constructing both personal and collective identities, we can begin to explore how a nations social class system may be affected my music and how this could relate to the construction of national identity. Social class is used as a way of describing the social divides within a society, usually based on social status and economic position. The class system is broken up into three types of classes, the working class, middle class and upper class. People within a certain social class will often have a similar educational background and income, those in the working class may have gone to public schools and work for minimum wage jobs whilst those of the higher class are often very wealthy and are believed to be well educated. This is a very basic outline of the social class system of somewhere like the UK, but how, if at all, is this affected by music.

Let’s begin by looking at the different types of music that have emerged from nations across the world. The term ‘high and low music’ making is sometimes used to describe music created by different nations and cultures. Western music is often coined as high music whilst non-western music is seen as low music, examples of these high and low forms of music could be classical music (high) and Folk music (Low). However, Bohlam suggests that there is no difference between the two types of music in terms of the music making process and the overall outcome. On analysis Firth explains that whilst high and low music may form different variations of identity but the way in which music forms identity stays the same. Due to the fact that music is known to be intrinsic to human beings, we are able to analyse music on a basic level, this helps us decide whether or not we like the music we are hearing. Whether music is high or low we still analyse it in the same way, we identify features of the music such as tonality, structure, lyrical content and rhythm, using these we can begin making personal decisions on how the music embodies our beliefs and emotions. These aspects, as we have seen above, are directly linked to the formation of both personal and collective identity.

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The Role of Music in Constructing National Identities. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from
“The Role of Music in Constructing National Identities.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022,
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