National identity and music

Can national music truly represent the identity of a country (in a competition)?

Joost Maes


Music is something that is always there, no matter where we go. You hear it in obvious places, like concert halls and clubs, but also in less obvious places, like grocery stores and restaurants. Music has a powerful influence on the individual as well as the collective. Music that can be defined as ‘fundamentally collective’ is national music. Concepts such as unisonance and cultural intimacy make that clear. Political scientist Benedict Anderson came up with the term ‘unisonance’, which refers to the sonic moment that occurs when people from throughout the nation gather in a shared performance of music. This moment, this communal experience of music, generates a feeling of cultural intimacy (Bohlman, 2002).

The question that will be posed here, is whether national music can – in addition to all the things mentioned before - represent the identity of a nation. In order to answer this question, a closer look will be taken at the Eurovision Song Contest.

Eurovision  linked to nationalism in a positive way and in a negative way.

Eurovision which has its start in the year of 1956 originally was intended to show and display the unity among people. The initial motive of the founders of was to bring different nations together  in a way where a live broadcast would be possible across different nations and foremost to bring different cultures together in a format of musical entertainment. There is no requirement that an entry must have a musical relation with the nation it represents in the contest. Therefore this principle already shows that Eurovision wasn't  necessarily created in a overly nationalistic spirit.

A positive paradox of the Eurovision Song Contest is that whilst it is meant as a medium to connect the various nations taking part in it, it also highlights the uniqueness of each participating country. Especially since Eurovision is meant to unify, nationalistic sentiments, especially in the form of pride, could be viewed as a potential threat to the intrinsic purpose of the contest.

One aspect of Eurovision, which has more negative connotations, is the fact that different cultural backgrounds are being overly westernised. This is mainly due to the fact that until roughly 1990, Eurovision was predominantly a western European phenomena. Only then did more eastern European countries join the competition, resulting in the culturally dominating western influences. One can argue that due to this, many performers, originating from outside the western paradigm, adapted their performances to better suit the pre-existing expectations. Hence the freedom to appropriately express one’s cultural background may very well be much more biased towards western culture, rather than expressing the multi-cultural platform, which Eurovision is supposed to embody. That being said, whilst the viewers preference may very well be westernised, Eurovision still offers every countries representative to express themselves and their culture in any way they choose. Therefore though Eurovision has a careful and distanced approach towards nationalism in some way it still embraces the individuality and cultural heritage of each particular nation.

Nationalism and national identities’ correlation with music

Although globalization has influenced further separation and differentiation of global versus national, the globalisation is not responsible for that differentiation. The Romantic Period was the era that glorified nationalism through various art forms - but this was mostly visible in the poetry and music of the time, with many writers and composers deciding to make their national identity a leitmotif in their pieces. This was an important step not just in the history of art, but in history all together, because this era mobilized people’s identities and inspired a mutual sense of belonging and collectivity towards their fellow countrymen. Therefore, many European countries formed their individual identity which differed from the others in this era. Fast forward to the late 20th and the 21st century, where the question of national identity is brought up again, but this time specifically opposed to globalization and its impact on national music. Bohlman (2002) emphasizes the connection between world music and ‘national music’, acknowledging that world music can bind the countries together into a type of loose confederacy. This could however also give rise to nationalist tendencies (108). What we can derive from that, is the fact that national music can only exist when opposed to world music, just like the identities, that whether they are individual or collective, exist merely because they differentiate from the other identities.

The nation’s music, or the music of the nation for the nation, has many elements to it which bring people together. From the micro-linguistic and metric structures to the degree of formality of the performance, there is an overarching type of inclusivity and symbolism with which people can identify with. Identification however is only the starting point, as the music can evoke not only nationalistic tendencies, but also mobilize people during war, like in Serbia throughout 1990’s. In a period of “exclusion from the European mainstream”, music was the easy way to re-identify the sense of nationalism with cultural traditionalism (Hudson, 2007). More complicated examples come from France, where many rappers from the immigrant families point towards racism and social exclusion as the main problems of the society, and at the same time, unifying their identity as Frenchmen (George, 2007).

The influence of Globalization on National Music

Every nation has an ambitious plan to discover its own type of music as well as bringing their national music to the international stage to be celebrated. National music helps identify a culture, as well as educating other countries about a certain culture. The influence of globalization on national music creates a reaffirmation of one’s own culture. National Music can lead to competitions on a world stage that can promote unification. The Eurovision is an example of a music contest that involves various European countries, bringing contestant together to compete on a world stage. The competition welcomes participants to different type and choice of song which they desire to perform. The Eurovision creates a global bonding, bringing together and appreciating music from different countries. Through this, there are possibilities for the existence of the hybridization of cultures and value. This has made every hosting country gained a new identity and sustains annual boost to its economic development. The social and economic process behind the music contest generates a new form of identity. Globalization made music travel across social class and national boundaries. However, with the global flow of national music, there is a profound impact on places and culture. In an era increasingly characterized by the global mediation and consumption of music, how are the relationships between national music and place changing? Mobile listening device, digital music file (Mp3s) have rapidly transformed the way music moves around the world. Many now have access to a kind of ‘celestial jukebox’, enabling them to listen to any song, anytime and anywhere.

To end our blog...

Given the controversial nature of the Eurovision Song Contest in terms of an international platform displaying uniquely national sentiments, we pose the following discussion points/ questions:

  1. The Eurovision Song Contest is more of an example of the hybridization paradigm versus McDonaldization.
  2. Can national music truly represent the identity of the country, or is it merely a snapshot of a fragmented national identity?
  3. World music, or literature for that matter, is an intrinsically optimistic desire, however is there actually such a thing as world music, or is it simply local/national music rebranded to profit off of the hope for the possibility of globalised world?


Bohlman, P. (2002). Music of the nations. In World Music : A Very Short Introduction (pp. 88-110). Oxford, Great-Britain: Oxford University Press.

Martin Stokes, Ethnicity, Identity, and Music: the Musical Construction of Place Oxford 1994, 1-27 (introduction) and 61-70 (National Anthems, Chopin).

Hudson, Robert (2007) Popular Music, Tradition and Serbian Nationalism. In I. Biddle and V. Knights (Eds.), Music, National Identity and the Politics of Location: Between the Global and the Local (1st ed.).  Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

George, Brian (2007) Rapping at the Margins: Musical Construction of Identities in Contemporary France. In I. Biddle and V. Knights (Eds.), Music, National Identity and the Politics of Location: Between the Global and the Local (1st ed.).  Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

This blog is written by:
Hannes Nikl
Adeshina Adeoye
Valentina Brkan
Jakub Jakubowski
Sanne van der Linde
Anouk van der Pas
Joost Maes