The Music that is History and Culture

The late David Noble, himself a distinguished historian, assigned a final paper to a seminar I took with him fifteen or so years ago that forced me to think about how I viewed history.

The essay that I turned in offered a metaphor of history as music, and with the cultural tensions that abound in today’s political climate, I decided to revisit that metaphor. Recognizing history and culture as “music” might help some to see that every story is required to create the whole.

The melody through line for history is the chronology: the dates, times and places events of major import occurred in history. For U.S. history, which is driven in part by rebellion of many with British roots, that timeline stretches back to at least 1215 and the signing of the Magna Carta by then-King John of England, who conceded certain rights to the nobility of his holdings with that document.

Those first concessions established precedent. Though it would be centuries before the British monarchy conceded absolute power, the concept that the monarch did not hold absolute authority resonated through the philosophical thought of many.

As school children, we are given dates to memorize, people to memorize, timelines to contextualize so that we can understand this very basic melody line, which is influenced by the victors in any given historical conflict.

And then, if we’re very lucky in our teachers and our curriculum, we start to get the harmonies.

Class harmony, through unveiling the stories of the impoverished, the working, middle, and upper classes over time. Gender harmony, through examining how men’s and women’s lives and stories differed over time. Race harmony, through examining how people interacted with others who looked different from them. Lifestyle harmonies, religious harmonies, urban and rural harmonies, and the multitude of stories of others all work together to share the rich symphony of history and culture. All are worth investigating. All are worth hearing.

In places throughout the melody, the drum beats of war and conflict overpower the harmonies of culture. The inability of people to recognize the varied harmonies—and those harmonies’ right to exist and contribute to the chord—creates conflict, clashing chords, clashing melodies that have to work together, eventually, to create a new chord, or to subsume a melody line.

I hear a lot of literal discord today; clashing notes from two through lines that can’t seem to find the place to harmonize. But I think it’s important find that chord that creates the harmony. Because when it can’t be found, one melody line may be lost.

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