The psychology of youth empowerment through music

by Maruša Levstek

For the past two years, I have been researching young people’s experiences of inclusive music-making and the psychology behind it. I have worked closely with a variety of inclusive music projects also known as the Our Future Music programme, funded by Youth Music and run as a collaboration of five music education hubs across the south of the UK. This has been the biggest focus of my PhD so far, the results of which are currently being reviewed for publication by an academic journal and summarised in this blog.

You can follow Maruša on Twitter @LevstekMarusa

The main aim of this research was to better understand not only the effects music-making has on the young people and their wellbeing, but also how these changes take place and what particular aspects of such environments drive them. I have worked with young people, parents, and creative practitioners involved with inclusive music projects targeting young people recognised as marginalised, at risk, or otherwise in need of support. We used music tutors’ session notes and surveys about young people’s personal and social progress. I have conducted several focus groups and interviews with the staff members, parents, and young people themselves, which discussed how making music affects young people and why. The results enabled us to model the route of youth empowerment through music, which consists of identified developments, psychological mechanisms driving these changes as well as the environmental factors that appeared to be crucial in supporting these processes.

In particular, over the time of their engagement with the sessions, young people appeared to improve musically and socially, especially in their communication skills and ability to work in a team. Growth in confidence was mentioned in every single discussion, visible in young people gradually becoming more comfortable around others and increasingly more active in their engagement with the sessions. Music-making also appeared to have a huge positive impact on its participants’ wellbeing. Many described how young people became calmer and better at managing their moods and emotions while making music. Interestingly, such benefits were visible the most in those young people who seemed to particularly struggle at first. I have encountered incredible stories of socially anxious young people making new friends, non-verbal young people singing out loud and individuals with symptoms of ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) sitting still and just listening to music.

When exploring the underlying processes of such developments, there appear to be two main routes, one happening internally and the other in the context of the community formed around music. Making music, writing lyrics and developing personal music taste allows young people to explore and express their emotions and who they are. For this process to take place, I have learnt that it is crucial for tutors to allow the young people freedom of dictating their own musical learning within a structured framework (e.g. session regularity). This remarks the route of self-development, visible in increased wellbeing and calmness described above. The second route of development emphasises the significance of the community formed around the young people, practitioners and in some cases parents and youth workers. Although these young people come from different schools, friendship groups or neighbourhoods, there was always an incredible sense of connectedness, where everyone feels accepted and enough. Many reflected on the power of music in bringing people together, which was further nurtured by the incredible support participants offered each other, especially by those older or more able ones. Additionally, support, acceptance and validation offered by the staff members can be an unusual and unique experience for participants stigmatised by various sources of their marginalisation, for example disability, who might experience new versions of able and competent selves for the first time.

Working with such incredible music projects and being able to combine my love for music and psychology degree has made the best part of my PhD extremely enjoyable and unique. I was astonished by how welcoming and keen to share their experiences everyone has been, which has enabled me to not only survey but observe and experience the transformative power of music on everybody around it. Through this research, I realised how inclusive music projects provide marginalised young people with the tools for becoming active agents in dictating their own development and supporting others around them. Such opportunities can change the ways young people view themselves and even challenge the views of a wider audience through performance. This is why projects like Our Future Music can not only empower individuals, but also communities as a whole.

Please feel free to email me if you would like to reference the results of this project, read the academic paper, or just chat about my research. I truly hope these results will enable the continuation of such amazing projects and motivate for more in the future.

Maruša Levstek is a PhD student under the supervision of Professor Robin Banerjee. Her research project was enabled by Future Creators and the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.

Find out more about our research on Developmental and Clinical Psychology

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