Music for social impact: practitioners' contexts, work, and beliefs

Lead Research Organisation: Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Department Name: Research and Enterprise


How we best understand the role of arts in the rapidly changing society is a question that continues to preoccupy public discourse worldwide. There is a tension between "art for art's sake", where the intrinsic properties of art are seen to deliver unique inherent value, and "art for non-artistic outcomes", highlighting wider benefits art can deliver, such as economic, health, and social welfare improvements. Within the world of music particularly strong claims have been made for its inherent "universal power" to bring personal or social benefits. A countervailing view is that there is nothing universal about the effects that music can achieve. Rather, to reliably achieve impact, the content and presentation of musical activity must be carefully adjusted according to the context and the intended outcome.

These tensions have influenced a growing body of participatory music-making activities being offered to groups around the world defined by their social needs or deprivation, work which focusses on marginalised or excluded groups (in regions of poverty, conflict, or social disruption, including refugees and migrants, people in prison, homeless people, etc.). These Socially Impactful Music Making (SIMM) Activities assist people to generate artistically valued musical outputs (performances) while also helping them to achieve defined social goals (such as inclusion, empowerment, community building, activism). As SIMM activities generally employ professional musicians as facilitator-trainers, the outcomes therefore reflect what these practitioners do in their sessions, the skills, beliefs and motivations they bring to their work, and the conditions and constraints under which they operate.

Little is formally known about these practitioners, however. Existing research is dominated by case studies of individual projects, or clusters of projects inspired by a single model. SIMM is a field in which grandiose claims are made for the social benefits of musical engagement, and where critical, including self-critical, practitioner perspectives are put in second place. Declining public resource for the arts adds to the pressure to "tell the best stories" rather than critically reflect on practice. As a result, understanding of the complexities of such work is frequently constrained and opportunities to identify problems and propose solutions are limited. To understand the value of SIMM activities and their potential, we must interrogate who is involved, and why.

This project will provide an integrative cross-cultural analysis of the field as a whole from the perspective of the practitioners who deliver the work, undertaking a systematic in-depth analysis of SIMM practitioners, and how their backgrounds, training, and beliefs affect the way they carry out their work and assess and improve its effectiveness. Through in-depth interviews and case studies of organisations or projects across four countries (Belgium, Finland, the UK, Columbia), this project will uncover the characteristics of the SIMM practitioner. Country selection reflects locations with relevant practice to investigate, with different cultural and political contexts for SIMM, offering insights into local versus global factors.

Practitioners' own understanding of the actual social impact of their work will be examined, identifying factors which help or hinder this appreciation. Through a context-sensitive understanding of incentives and pressures experienced by practitioners, this research will provide insights for training (how to support the development of resilient but reflective practitioners), commissioning and funding (how to support monitoring and evaluation which allows for, and learns from, experimentation and failure), and the creative development of best practice (through enhanced opportunities and frameworks for interprofessional knowledge exchange).

Planned Impact

Project Impact will be on those most engaged with the development of SIMM activities: practitioners, funders, and trainers, informing them of the outcomes of the project and engaging with them to craft the project and interpret the results and its implications. Public understanding of SIMM activities will be raised, including their potential and limitations.

Practitioners: The field of practice is relatively new, and practitioners often operated in relative isolation, resulting in a heterogenous and locally inflected patchwork, hampered by lack of access to organised reflective knowledge about the field as a whole. This project will provide them with a systematic and articulated account of practice in different locations and settings, coupled with curated opportunities to reflect, with peers, on the implications for their own practice. The project will contribute towards the knowledge base and associated knowledge exchange that is essential for the establishment and maintenance of an effective and recognised professional practice. SIMM is not yet at this stage, and this project will catalyse moves to fully professionalise this field.

Commissioners and funders: Although some of the larger commissioners and funders undertake or commission evaluations of the programmes and projects they support, these often focus quite narrowly on measurable social outcomes for recipients/participants. Declining funding also generates an environment of only telling "good news" stories. By providing stakeholders with a deeper understanding of the potential, and limitations, of the skills and approaches that musicians bring to their SIMM work, and situating this understanding within a broad, globally inclusive perspective on how this emerging professional field is taking shape, this project will reframe how these bodies evaluate the work they fund. New insights are expected into how commissioning organisations can create working environments where reflective articulation of what went wrong is as valued as inspirational success stories. These stakeholders will be represented in the advisory group of the project, and in practice-oriented workshops in each of the countries studied.

Training Organisations: Training of professional musicians takes place largely in institutions that prepare artists for the concert platform and the recording studio (conservatoires/music schools). Pedagogic programmes that prioritise the skills and approaches required for effective SIMM work are in their infancy, and there is an urgent need for curriculum models which take greater account of the specific environments and approaches which SIMM work entails, the problems it encounters, and the skills needed to deliver it. Teachers can and should bring their own personal professional experience to bear on their students' development, but the outcomes of this project will allow such experience to be globally contextualised through an emerging understanding of good practice in this field, and the beliefs and skill sets which characterise this practice. The investigators are situated within training institutions, so the research will feed directly into the redevelopment of curriculum for the SIMM practitioner, informing the training field as a whole.

Public Understanding: The topic of the social impact of arts projects has significant public interest, and abiding media attention. A simplistic narrative of "the power of music" dominates public awareness, and we will work with practitioners and advisers to encourage media commentators to enrich this narrative, highlighting the variety in types and purpose of SIMM intervention, and how context, skill and intention can substantively help or hinder the delivery of impact. Shifting the public discourse from "Music is inherently a powerful agent of social change" towards "Music can assist social change when delivered in the right time and in the right way" will be a useful corrective to uncritical hype.
Description Member of Scientific Committee of SIMMposium #5 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Selection of participants for nine weekly sessions with talks, panel discussion, and Q and A's on the Social Impact of Making Music and participating in sessions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Opponent at PhD defence of thesis entitled 'Exploring the potential of special music education in child development' by E. Dumont, at Maastricht University, The Netherlands, on the 10th of February 2021. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was one out of 6 highly esteemed opponents seated in the Corona of the PhD defence of the thesis entitled 'Exploring the potential of special music education in child development: A case study of special music education in The Netherlands' by E. Dumont, on the 10th of February 2021, at Maastricht University, The Netherlands. The defence was attended by music education practitioners and students of the Maastricht Conservatory of Music, among others. The event was featured on the front page of the regional newspaper.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021