Harmonious encounters

How do we create a symphony with our voices if we live in media?

This month’s theme is “duet,” which to me as a musician means singing. Duets can involve turn-taking, harmonising, or counter-melody, and each produces a different effect for the listener. How do voices work together, complementing or contrasting each other to create something greater than the single voice can manage?

As well as a musician, I am a scholar of media and religion, and on those grounds I was invited to write this guest editorial. So permit me to get a bit intellectual, though the music metaphor is still instructive.

“Media” includes so much more than just “the media,” which we often use to talk about journalism. It’s the various ways we consume messages, digital and physical, as well as the content of those messages. We can imagine our lives in a duet with media. That works, but I’m not sure it describes life for the majority of us these days. Academics are moving on from blunt distinctions of “offline,” “online” and the famous phrase “in real life.” When screens and text are always near at hand, and messages come to us from upstairs, across town, or around the globe, when is it that we’re “off”? How are these conversations not “real life”?

Dutch media scholar Mark Deuze has an idea I find helpful. He says we don’t live with media, we live in media. He doesn’t mean it in an upbeat, techno-optimistic kind of way, but neither is it depressing. It’s a descriptive statement. As I like to put it, it’s the sea we swim in.

Two years and more of pandemic and repeated lockdowns have surely brought this home to us. Though it’s been an incredible struggle for many, it has been possible precisely because getting paid and paying bills, ordering groceries, meeting with doctors and catching up with grandparents can all be managed online. I’m a university lecturer, and though delivering classes online was not ideal or preferable, the structures were there to make it happen. Life didn’t stop.

To illustrate life in media, Deuze notes that the WHO placed what they call an “infodemic” at the same level of seriousness as the Covid-19 pandemic itself. A lack of information, too much information, unwittingly wrong information and deliberately false information – all contribute to the ill health of the people on the planet. Media are essential to life.

How do voices work together to create something greater than the single voice can manage?

Living with(in) media

So if the duet is not between us and media, how do we apply this metaphor? Let’s return to music. A pure, solitary voice can be lovely. But think about what happens when a second voice comes in. Even when singing in unison, the vibrations of two voices provide us with new information. When the voices depart into harmony, the hair rises on the back of our neck, our heart beats faster and we’re in the presence of magic.

Our limited perspective is a solitary voice. The richer sonic palette is the result of our encounter with difference. We have these encounters in media. We don’t need to look hard to find other perspectives: they are as close as our fingerprint on a sensor or our eyes’ flicking gaze as we pass a window. Fastening our attention to these other voices, we join in a duet.

Turn-taking in music, with one singer followed by another, is like the conversation that allows us to share our views and hear others. It’s exciting and, ideally, equitable. Harmony is when we bring the voices so close they touch. Their difference is clear, but they build, add and make the sound grow. It takes skill to harmonise well, listening and sharing at the same time, but when it’s good, we know it. As depressed as we might be at the bad-faith arguments we see in media, we can also remember examples of growth that would not have been possible without it.

Counter-melody is a harder one. When you encounter a perspective that jars, that doesn’t fit with what you expect or are used to hearing, you might recoil. But in music, the sound that jars turns our attention towards it. Our brain is working to resolve the difference that we hear, and the complexity in turn can help us to expand. Is there something in there we hadn’t heard before that is nonetheless beautiful or true? Of course, not every pair of notes works well together, but if we content ourselves with playing “Hot Cross Buns” all the time, we’ll never get a symphony.

Deuze has a final note that’s worth considering. Because our lives are in media, we are heavily invested in the information we receive. He advises us to develop our emotional literacy, to understand how information affects us and continually monitor how it makes us feel – to react more slowly and cautiously. The work of living within media is challenging but worthwhile. Played right, our encounters with different voices can expand our lives.


  • Michael Munnik

    Michael Munnik is a musician, academic, and former broadcast journalist. He lectures at Cardiff University in Cardiff, UK, on the sociology of media and religion. Prior to that, he worked at CBC Radio Ottawa and served on the board of The Presbyterian Record.

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