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Baking sourdough bread: A metaphor for understanding how music as social action works (and doesn’t always work)

As we were finalising this post, we heard that Dr Kim Dunphy had passed away. Agrigento wishes to recognise Dr Dunphy’s international contribution to dance therapy and cultural development and the profound loss that will be felt by her community in Australia and more widely. This article is indebted to her work.

In Agrigento’s office in Naarm (Melbourne), Australia, Louise’s daughter has been baking sourdough. She has nurtured the starter, asking: Does it respond best to strong white, wholemeal or rye flour? She has watched it develop and fail to develop. She has cared for the dough, experimenting with water content ratios, different rise conditions, and cold or hot ovens.

Sourdough has taught this young woman a lot. It has taught her patience, diligence and humility, and encouraged her to be curious and learn through experimentation. Perhaps most importantly, she has learnt to acknowledge equally what works and what doesn’t.

There is something about the experience of sourdough baking that resonates with the experience of trying to understand how music as social action works. So, we thought we’d share some thoughts on the topic.

But, first….

Don’t we already know how music as social action works?

Agrigento’s 2019 survey of practitioners in music as social action (see our Summary Report) exposed two critical gaps in knowledge and practice about (1) how music as social action works, and (2) how to prepare practitioners for this work.

Focusing on the first gap, our survey revealed that we don’t, as yet, know enough about the mechanisms and processes that link musical action to social change. We believe that factors such as the particular qualities of a participatory experience and the ongoing support of local communities may be critical change mechanisms, however, further investigative work is needed.

In the absence of evidence-based theories, processes and pedagogies, the sector tends to rely on the belief that music itself is the change agent. Furthermore, this belief is often shaped more by personal experiences than by research. In other words, we simply don’t understand enough about how music as social action works.

Fortunately, we are by no means alone as we grapple with this gap. There are a number of projects underway that will help to progress knowledge and practice. These include Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s three-year investigation into the social impact of making music being led by John Sloboda, and Brydie Leigh Bartleet’s (Griffith University) investigation of whether community music can help to drive positive change toward addressing social inequalities in Australia.

In the meantime, the presence of this gap is not necessarily a bad thing. It is not a reason to turn away from what we don’t know. It is, instead, an opportunity to look toward what we can learn. We see this as a shift of mindset toward one that welcomes reflection, criticism, scrutiny, and rigour. This curious and modest mindset characterises what we believe to be exemplary work in our field.

What doesn’t work is just as important as what does

Louise’s September blog post was prompted by our discovery of UK arts and health scholar, Stephen Clift. What we learnt from Stephen’s work in art and health was that, just like in music and social action, there is an urgent need for more rigorous critical thinking about what works and, just as importantly, what doesn’t.

As we head into October, the work of Vicki-Ann Ware and Kim Dunphy—Australian scholars in arts, education and health—brings international development into this interdisciplinary conversation. In recent years, Ware and Dunphy have been collaborating on a research study that has included a systematic review of literature relating to the application of culture and arts-based programming in international development. Their most recent article examines the outcomes documented in the literature. The article looks deeply at how the processes used to achieve outcomes in arts-based initiatives are understood, glancing briefly at the artforms utilised.

There are many useful insights and findings reported in this article. It’s definitely worth a read. We were drawn to the authors’ identification of the challenges associated with the studies that they reported. Just to be clear, the literature that they examined focused on arts practices more broadly, including, but not limited to, music. In summary, the authors report that these challenges included:

  • Insufficient insights into how programs work: The “processes were not well explicated, with many articles describing the activities and their related outcomes without fully documenting how they worked” (p. 154).
  • Under-examination of causal pathway for change: The “distinction between what the programme facilitator does to elicit change, and what happens within the participant in response to that, and the relationship between these two aspects of an intervention” (p. 155) was less well-explored.
  • Limited evidence of actual behavioural change: The studies tended to preclude “conclusive assessments of whether change had actually occurred” (p. 155), relying instead on changing understandings or attitudes. As a result, expectations of change were based on assumptions rather than an actual theory of change.
  • Lack of rigour around examining outcomes: “No studies reported neutral or negative outcomes” (p. 155). Outcomes were reported as consistently matching intentions.
  • Absence of attention to potential for macro-level change: There was “virtually no attention given to population level programs, or issues of replication or scalability” (p. 155).
  • Overlooking of considerations of cost and an absence of comparative studies: Across all the studies, there were none that “provided consideration of costs or alternative options to arts-based interventions, nor comparative trials” (p. 155).

What does this mean for music as social action?

Over the past months, we have listened to many people grapple with questions and knotty problems associated with using music as way to achieve positive social outcomes for people of all ages. Alongside Ware and Dunphy’s work, these conversations affirm that there is a pressing need to consider what works and what doesn’t in music as social action.

At the same time, we have watched collectives such as Decolonizing the Music Room and The Choral Commons forge new spaces for radical conversations about music and systems change. These grassroots initiatives are emerging as vibrant gathering grounds for conversations between people with diverse perspectives who are open to non-traditional ways of thinking about music as social action. We’re not betting people, but we have a strong feeling that some of the progressive ideas needed to advance our field may arise through collective spaces like these.

While Agrigento is inspired by such brave and radical thinking, we also recognise that it won’t provide all the answers to understanding how music as social action works.

Answers will continue to emerge in the small, everyday actions of everyone involved in the field. Music making is a living process that, like sourdough bread, requires ingredients, particular conditions, and human actions. And knowledge is nurtured by people who have a curious and modest mindset that welcomes success and failure equally.

So, the good news for today is that we are already on the path toward expanding our understanding of the mechanisms and processes that link musical action to social change. We just need to keep going.

If you would like to join this conversation or want to sign up for our news and blog notifications, please send us an email or like us on Facebook. We’d also love to hear about any other projects or grassroots initiatives that you think we should know about.

References

Ware, V. A., & Dunphy, K. (2020). How Do Arts Programmes Contribute in International Development? A Systematic Review of Outcomes and Associated Processes. Progress in Development Studies20(2), 140-162.

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