Finding Meaning in Music

New CPS research demonstrates how participation in community engagement initiatives can benefit professional musicians.

In research commissioned by London Music Masters (LMM) and supervised by Research Fellow Rosie Perkins, CPS doctoral candidate Sara Ascenso examined the impact of community engagement for professional musicians, focusing on musicians who undertake orchestral work as their main professional activity.

Recent decades have witnessed a rapid expansion in community music projects and findings regarding their positive impact have been unequivocal: community music offers the potential to build important psychological resources such as positive emotions, a sense of accomplishment, enhanced engagement, purpose in life, and social skills. Despite the collaborative nature of this type of work, however, the experiences of the musicians who facilitate it remain largely undocumented and impact evaluations have tended to remain focused on the so-called “receivers” of projects.

The starting points for this research were two innovative LMM initiatives that united primary school children and musicians from two of London’s major orchestras (the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Contemporary Orchestra) to work together and perform new music by emerging composers. Building on these collaborations and on the musicians’ previous experiences with community engagement, the goal was to investigate how these musicians view this work and its value for the profession more broadly. A phenomenological approach was adopted and one-to-one interviews were conducted with fifteen musicians. Despite the experience of community engagement being a highly personal journey, three main areas accounted for the benefits of this type of work across the group: (1) identity: musicians widened their perceptions of what it means to be a musician, strengthened their primary motivations for music-making, and expanded their sense of contributing towards the future generations, both through shaping music education and via the development of new audiences; (2) skills: community engagement provided a laboratory to experiment and consolidate personal, interpersonal, musical, cognitive, and teaching abilities; and (3) wellbeing: community work enhanced positive emotions a sense of accomplishment, purpose, and the development of new social connections, also providing much-needed variety to daily routine.

The results of this study offer a motivating picture of the potential role of community engagement projects for musicians. First, through allowing a more direct experience of the power of music, fostering an awareness of the giving nature of music-making and of its impact on the next generation, these initiatives help build a stronger personal sense of meaning. Second, musicians gain a greater perception of their crucial role in society. This happens through the sense of impacting the development of new audiences and shaping music education. Third, community work provides a valuable space for skill-development. Finally, there is scope for community projects to allow an enhancement of musicians’ psychological wellbeing through not only the experience of moments that “feel good”, but also via increased engagement, finding purpose and accomplishment, and connecting socially. These findings suggest that community initiatives deserve to be firmly considered as an ongoing part of the professional musician’s portfolio in any area of music-making and encourage further debate on the best routes towards optimising collaboration between communities, maximising benefit for all involved.

Learn more

Read the full report at London Music Masters.