MUSICAL MUSINGS: Justice and Harmony



By Scott Rieker

Director, Emerson Choir


As a middle school teacher, I often heard my students say, “It’s not fair!” when someone received something they did not have. This may have been a solo, a partner on a project, or a reward for a good grade, but the result was always the same: “It’s not fair.” My students had been taught a lie: that fair is equal. (This could also be couched as a confusion between equality and equivalency.) “It’s not fair” demands a consideration of justice, which is—strangely—apt when considering choral music.


Cicero defined justice as “giving a person their due; giving a person what is owed to them.” This assumes that everyone has dignity and worth. This also assumes that there will be subjective factors that influence what someone is owed. The example I used with my sixth graders illuminates this point:

Scott: If someone disrupts the class, should they get sent to the office?

Class: Yes!

Scott: What if they’re crying because their cousin died, and that disrupts the class? Should they get sent to the office?

Class: Oh……….maybe the counselor…?


Circumstances matter; consequently, fair is not equal. Everyone needs, but everyone needs differently. There is an education policy cartoon where the instructor has a class of animals (e.g., a monkey, a giraffe, an elephant, a lion) and says something like, “You are all going to be graded on this standardized test. To be sure it’s fair, everyone has the same task. Now, go climb that tree…” If our goal was to get all of the animals to the top of the tree, the monkey would probably need nothing, and the elephant probably need a reinforced ramp. (And this is assuming it’s really wise or important to get everyone into that treetop in the first place.)


I propose that there are two poles, between which justice lies. At one extreme, there is the mindset: I’ll get everything I can get. This is often called “The law of the jungle” or “Might makes right.” Strength, advantage, privilege, and the like determine what one receives. At the other extreme lies the concept: Everyone must get everything in equal measure. Under the guise of being fair, we often ensure everything is doled out exactly the same to everyone. Sometimes we even call this “equality,” but this is actually “equivalency” or “interchangeability.” Everyone is not the same, and therefore their needs are not the same. People with the first mindset often believe that they deserve whatever they can get, and use any means whatsoever to achieve it. People in the second mindset, on the contrary, often believe that they are wronged when someone receives something they do not. They will often react indignantly and demand equity when what they are demanding is—in fact—unjust. Both of these mindsets grow from the mindset of “I deserve.” Perhaps a mindset of “How can we serve” would be a better perspective.


Somewhere between these lies the concept of justice. We do deserve. We deserve love, respect, material stability, and more. But if we focus on what we deserve, we might miss out on what those around us deserve. Paradoxically, if we focus on what others need, we will almost always get what we deserve.


And, finally…choral music. The first mindset is the “diva.” Every musician knows that person who demands more notes than anyone else, more solos, more spotlight time. You won’t find this person at Emerson, but you don’t have to look far beyond our walls. If a choir were made up of only people with this mindset, the resulting sound would be a cacophony: everyone clamoring to be heard, to be featured, to be in the forefront. This would not be music, nor would it be an ensemble. It would be chaotic noise. The second example, on the other hand, is an absurdity. It assumes that singers are interchangeable. Everyone should be a high soprano…sorry altos, tenors, and basses. Or, everyone should sing the melody…sorry harmony. Or, everyone should sing the solo…sorry blend.

Choral ensembles (and other ensembles, as well) are actually icons of justice: To each as they are due. In a good piece of music, everyone should have interesting musical lines, everyone should have an opportunity to come to the fore, and everyone should spend some time in the background. Sopranos sing the high part; basses sing the low part; tenors and altos add the interesting notes. The difference is: in an ensemble, everyone is serving one another and the music (a greater good). Everyone is conscious of how their line blends with the others, rather than how to make their line prominent at all times.


Music is a model of justice that will serve us well as we strive to create a message of hope in the face of discord. Everyone is due respect and love, as their dignity as a human person demands. Everyone’s needs are different, which influences the particular application of justice in each situation. We do not take everything we can get. We do not expect to receive the same things that everyone else gets. Instead, we look to the needs of others to create a harmonious whole.