White Ribbon uses music to unlock men’s emotions

A composition scientifically crafted to evoke a strong response is meant to challenge societal beliefs about masculinity.
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White Ribbon is employing the universal language of music to challenge entrenched cultural norms about gender roles and male vulnerability in a new campaign.

The campaign, called “Uncomposed,” is built around a piece of original, orchestral music specifically designed by world-renowned producer Jared Kuemper, Canadian Opera Company music director Johannes Debus, and several North American cognitive scientists, to evoke strong emotion in the listener.

In an experiment, a number of men who expressed traditional beliefs about male vulnerability – namely, that they should repress their emotions and deal with them privately – were then brought in to listen to the music, performed live for them by a quintet in partnership with the Canadian Opera Company, and their emotional responses were recorded.

The goal of the experiment was to discover just how deeply held those beliefs about emotional “strength” are, and whether or not the organization could guide the participants to a new, healthier variation of masculinity through music. The men’s journeys were recorded, and now have been released in a cut down, short documentary format.

“As a man, showing vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness – it’s actually a sign of strength,” says Joseph Bonnici, partner and ECD at creative agency Bensimon Byrne, which helped develop the campaign. “Blocking out all of those emotions society tells you that you shouldn’t feel or express, as a man, is destructive of your mental health.”

“Our goal is to ignite societal change that promotes emotional literacy and healthy masculinities,” adds Humberto Carolo, executive director of White Ribbon, which had made previous efforts the challenge the ways men and boys express their emotions. “Society has taught men to be ‘strong’ by repressing their emotions. It has heroized this version of masculinity. ‘Uncomposed’ will start a conversation and encourage men and boys to acknowledge and express a range of complex emotions.”

A 2021 survey commissioned by White Ribbon shows the extent of the issue: Though 76% of North Americans believe boys and girls are taught differently how to express their emotions, and almost 150 million North Americans would feel relief if showing emotion was more widely accepted, at least 30 million of them have told their sons not to cry.

Further, more than 81 million North American men say they’re reluctant to cry out of fear they’ll seem weak, and another 46% say they find it difficult to express their emotions to anyone aside from their immediate family and partner.

The documentary video is only one part of a larger campaign built around the piece of music, Bonnici says, noting that “the goal is for this piece of music to be distributed as widely as we can possibly get it.”

A recording of the track has been released on Spotify for streaming and download, and the agency is talking with other opera and symphony companies globally to get them to play the piece as well. In addition, White Ribbon has released the sheet music to the public so other musicians can learn and play the track.

Those efforts to distribute the track are paired with a Dec. 8 panel discussion featuring professional athletes who talk about emotional vulnerability, as well as some of the music scientists behind the track.

The moonshot goal for the campaign, Bonnici says, is for it to be adopted into school curriculums to help teach young men “a healthier version of masculinity for everyone.”

“We want as many people as possible to listen to this track and be moved by it, but also understand the messaging behind it,” he adds.

Narrative and OneMethod also worked on the campaign.