Can Music Open Up a Healthier Masculinity in Men?

'Uncomposed' project blends art and science

"Just having the band play for me, my body went into shivers. I got shivers in seconds. I was not expecting that," says Bradley Peel, one of four men serenaded by a string quintet at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in the film below.

The musicians play a three-minute adajio, part of an initiative developed to help emotionally withdrawn men tap into their feelings and gain perspective on toxic masculinity. Social advocacy group White Ribbon devised the "Uncomposed" project with agency Bensimon Byrne, the Canadian Opera Company, leading music scientists and psychologists.

As the melody rises, dips and swirls, complex moods play across the men's faces:

UNCOMPOSED

"It helped me self-reflect and gave me a tool to take back to my boys," says Scott Johnson, a documentary subject and single father of two sons. "I think I've become a better man through this process."

The composition anchors a broader campaign exploring why men shun sensitivity. This can lead to depression, disconnection, substance abuse and violence.

"For too long, society has taught men to be 'strong' by repressing their emotions. It has heroized this version of masculinity," explains White Ribbon executive director Humberto Carolo. " 'Uncomposed' will start a conversation and encourage men and boys to acknowledge and express a range of emotions."

"We can help end gender-based violence by normalizing and promoting emotional literacy and healthy masculinities among men and boys, and emphasizing that strength is the ability to show vulnerability," he says.

The organization believes men can learn to openly express the depth of their joys, sorrows and fears, forging deeper bonds with family, friends and peers.

Canadian OC music director Johannes Debus and composer Jared Kuemper contributed to the campaign, working with Dr. Elizabeth Margulis, who runs the Music Cognition Lab at Princeton University, Psyche Loui, director of the MIND Lab at Northeastern University, and Frank Russo, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto.

"As a conductor, I see firsthand how music has the power to unlock our emotions—and to help us process them," says Debus. "Music can tap into memories and collective experiences, allowing us to reconnect with moments and sensations we may have long forgotten about. The ebb and flow of 'Uncomposed' invites the listener to explore their own emotions, while the slow tempo induces feelings of rest and reflection."

This video captures the quintet's complete performance:

UNCOMPOSED - Music Video

And the audio track is available at Spotify.

Other recent, somewhat similar uses of original music include efforts to ease acute pain, encourage self-improvement and augment the indigo plant's healing power. The Cure's 1980 new-wave classic "Boys Don't Cry" drives an Australian push that challenges macho stereotypes.

Previously, White Ribbon and Bensimon crafted gripping PSAs about the creeping horror of domestic abuse during pandemic lockdowns and the concept of "letting boys be boys," a fallacy that sometimes leads to tragedy.

Bensimon provided this informative Q&A with ECD and partner Joseph Bonnici:

What led you to create this campaign? What inspired you, and where did the idea come from?

Joseph Bonnici: It's the 30th anniversary of White Ribbon. White Ribbon is the world's largest movement of men and boys working to end all forms of gender-based violence while also promoting gender equity, healthy relationships, and a new vision of masculinities. Since its inception in Toronto in 1991, White Ribbon campaign initiatives have been organized in over 60 countries around the world, so this is an organization with a lot of credibility in this space. We started researching various ways that science and therapy help unlock emotions and quickly discovered the powerful impact music can have. From there, the concept for the campaign came together pretty quickly. We knew there was an interesting way to create a positive and though-provoking conversation about masculinity through music

You brought on some phenomenal partners for this project. How did it all come together?

Some of it was luck and some of it was the power of the idea. The Canadian Opera Company came on as a partner through their musical director Johannes Debus. Johannes and I became friends after he moved from Berlin to Toronto to take on his role with the company. Johannes, more than anyone, understands the power of music. He sees it every day when thousands of people are moved through music. We then paired him with one of Canada's best composers, Jared Kuemper. Our music scientists were from Princeton, Northeastern and the University of Toronto. They were all cold calls and emails where we explained in detail what we were trying to do. It took six months for it to all come together.

How did you find the men who listened to the composition? 

We did a very wide casting of men from all walks of life. We asked the men general questions about their views on masculinity. We were looking for men who were open and articulate about expressing gender stereotypical roles because we believed they might be open to expressing change if we succeeded in creating a piece of music that could unlock emotion and vulnerability. This was one big experiment. We did not try to manipulate the conclusion. For example, if none of the men were moved by the composition, that would also have been a powerful message about masculinity and the narrow view of what that means in society today. But they were moved. This enabled us to tell a very different story about a new masculinity that includes vulnerability.

What was it like to witness the men experiencing the music?

The shoot day was incredibly moving. We were in Canada's most prestigious opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, a 2,000-seat auditorium built for experiencing music. And we had it all to ourselves. It was very intimate. The ambience was incredible. The sound quality was phenomenal. You could hear a pin drop as the musicians began to play our track, "Uncomposed." To be honest, I had the same reaction as our men. I was moved to tears. Not because of the men's reaction, but because I was experiencing the composition in much the same way. This happened to many of the individuals there.

What do you hope people will take away from this project?

I think one sentence from the film sums it up: "Showing vulnerability isn't a sign of weakness, but strength." We realize we aren't going to change the current view of masculinity with one campaign, but White Ribbon can at least start a vital conversation about it. And for the men in the film, I believe we changed their lives.

What's next for "Uncomposed"?

"Uncomposed" will be on Spotify and available for streaming and download. We are currently engaging with other opera and symphony companies around the world to have them play the piece. We will make the sheet music available to any musician for download so it can be played anywhere. We want as many men as possible to listen to the track and the message behind it. The composition is beautiful, and we feel that will help it have a long life well beyond the campaign.

CREDITS

Campaign Title: Uncomposed
url: www.uncomposed.ca

Client: White Ribbon Canada
Executive Director: Humberto Carolo
Senior Program Manager: Louise Moyer

Creative Agency: Bensimon Byrne / OneMethod / Narrative
Partner/ Chief Creative Officer: Joseph Bonnici
Executive Creative Director: Debbie Chan
Executive Creative Director: David Mueller
Art Director: Ana Segurajauregui
Art Director: Angelica Carreno
Writer: Sophia Wilby
Business Lead: Marli Bennett
Project Manager: Efi Eman
Agency Producer: Michelle Pilling
Production Manager: Dan Rankin
Media Agency: Bensimon Byrne
Social Media Director: Kristina Kosa
Social Media Supervisor: Rebecca Milner
Social Media Specialist: Emily Wanamaker

PR Agency: Narrative
Executive Creative Director: Debbie Chan
Vice President: Lauren Baswick
Vice President: Stefania Yarhi
Senior Account Manager: Cole Douglas
Director Experiential: Melissa Da Costa
Account Manager - XM: Jaclyn Kirk

Production House: Soft Citizen
Executive Producer: Link York
Executive Producer: Jaclyn Morga
Director: Henry Lu
Director of Photography: James Arthur
Line Producer: Michelle Pilling

Casting:Power House

Post Production:Button Factory
Editor: Tim Pienta

Transfer: Alter Ego
Colourist: Wade Odlum

Audio House:  Berkeley Inc.
Creative Director: Jared Kuemper
Executive Producer: Tyna Maerzke
Assistant Engineer: Tyler Young

Original Music: Berkeley Inc.
Composers: Kristian Alexandrov, Shannon Gaye, Jared Kuemper
Musician -Violin 1: Drew Jurecka
Musician - Violin 2: Rebekah Wolkstein
Musician - Viola: Shannon Knights
Musician - Cello: Amahl Arulanandam
Musician - Bass: Joseph Phillips

Canadian Opera Company
Music Director: Johannes Debus

Campaign Participants
Bradley Peel
Scott Johnson
Raj Dhiman
Christopher Hamilton

Featured Clio Award Winner

Museletter

SUBSCRIBE

The best in creativity delivered to your inbox every morning.

ADVERTISING