Youth Music Engagement

Youth Participation in Music is a 3-year project conducted by Research for Youth, Music and Education (RYME) and funded by a standard research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Our research is designed with the intention of providing evidence that will inform planning and policy-making in relation to youth music engagement and education. The research team hopes that by broadening young people’s understanding of their own musical practices and those that take place in local and national communities, young people will recognize a wider range of possibilities for music engagement that will enhance their well-being, emotional competence, communicative capacity, and quality of life in this key area of personal and sociocultural identification.

Principal Investigator: Dr. Susan O'Neill
Co-Investigator: Dr. Yaroslav Senyshyn
Funding Agency: SSHRC

See Additional Team Members below.

What's Proposed

In today’s digital age, youth are exposed to increasingly complex, dynamic and diverse forms of expression and meaning through music, media and popular culture. We know that the ways in which music influences young people is related to the ways in which they interpret it, respond to it emotionally, and make their own personal connections. And yet, we know little about these processes.

Our research is based on a series of studies involving interviews, surveys, school-based programs, and youth-led participatory action research. We are interested in how youth create, experience, and engage with music in their everyday lives within particular socio-cultural contexts. Drawing on a blend of positive youth development, emotional and motivational engagement frameworks, transformative pedagogies, relational and critical education theories, and emergent learning approaches, each study focuses a different lens on aspects of youth experience in and through music, including:

  • The ways in which youth construct and use music to help them manage and express their emotions, communicate with others and negotiate identities and social situations
  • The increasingly multimodal and fluid interconnections found in youth music engagement involving digital media technologies
  • The change processes (initiators and sustainers) and benefits (impacts) that youth derive from engaging in real-world, formal and informal music learning contexts.

How This Project is Carried Out

Evidence supports the notion that young people often give up music following the transition from elementary to secondary school. This project focuses on providing a broad picture of the current state of youth engagement in music between the ages of 11 and 16, and examines a wide range of factors that affect young people’s motivation for taking up, and persisting with, musical activities.

Since music is such a major part of the life and culture of young people, we need a better understanding of the factors that will foster and sustain their long-term interest and that will create more meaningful connections between the music-making that takes place inside and outside school. The project examines a range of factors affecting young people’s motivation for taking up, and persisting with, musical activities. A key aim of the research is to develop a more comprehensive approach to music education and young people’s music participation through a culture of inquiry, in which young people can reconsider musical practices through the lens of transformative learning, dialogue, participatory action research or project-based inquiry, and critical reflective practice.

The research explores youth and music in terms of identities, socio-economic situations, family relationships, peer networks, community and school environments. Study participants are drawn from regions in British Columbia and Ontario, and include rural, urban and inner-city areas.

Transformative Music Engagement is an approach to music learning that focuses on creating expansive and transformative learning opportunities for young people in school contexts. Transformative music engagement involves learners in a critical exploration of their own knowledge and valuing of music through representations that involve existing artistic, media, and cultural ecologies.

Transformative pedagogy is not a method of teaching but rather a set of principles that guide teaching and learning interactions. These principles vary between different epistemologies and perspectives; however, several key elements are common to most approaches, as follows:

  • Teaching begins with student knowledge. Opportunities for expansive learning are provided that enable learners to manipulate or interact within their own artistic/musical and cultural ecologies in a way that helps them make meaningful connections.
  • Skills, knowledge, and voices develop from engagement in the activity. Learners are asked to create, express, or display their own representations of a particular issue, event, or phenomenon.
  • Teaching and learning are both individual and collaborative processes. The role of the instructor is one of facilitator, organizer, leader, and source of knowledge on the topic, but not the primary source of learning.
  • Teaching and learning are transformative processes. Learners share their creative representations with others and engage in a process of dialogue, shared meaning making, and reflective practice on sociocultural and sociopolitical associations.

Why This Project Matters

There are obvious and not-so-obvious opportunities and constraints that enable some learners or limit the potential of others. Increasing our understanding of music learners is not only about knowing who they are but also about knowing what enables or prevents them from being considered as, or from considering themselves to be, music learners. For this, we need to adopt a relational perspective so that becoming a music learner is understood as a continuous unfolding of understanding through meaningful relationships and connections.

We create possibilities for more expansive learning opportunities through knowledge and critical understandings of the contexts and complexity that construct and shape learners’ musical worlds in ways that are both diverse and particular. We deepen our understanding of what it means to be a music learner through a focus on the entire situated person in relation to his or her music learning. We empower music learners by nurturing their reflexive capacity to reflect inwardly about connections between the self, music, and sociocultural understandings.

How This Project is Put into Action

Musical Futures Project: This research-practice collaborative project combined informal music learning practices and youth-led participatory action research with Grade 7 beginning band students at Southridge School in British Columbia. Using real-world music learning experiences, inquiry and reflection, we expanded the scope of a Musical Futures informal learning project and helped students develop listening and performing skills, increase their engagement in music learning, and develop leadership skills as they acted as initiators of the music making, learning, and reflective processes.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Canadian Music Educator (2012, Vol. 53, No. 2), and is reproduced here with permission of the Canadian Music Educators' Association. The authors Susan O’Neill and Kevin Bespflug would like to thank the students and Steve Burrage, a music teacher at Southridge school, for participating in the project. We also thank co-investigator, Dr. Yaroslav Senyshyn and Project Coordinator for Research for Youth, Music and Education (RYME), Deanna Peluso, for their contributions to the research.

Additional Team Members

PhD Graduate Research Assistants

  • Deanna Peluso, RYME Project Coordinator
  • Jim Sparks
  • Gordon Cobb
  • David Erickson

Masters Graduate Research Assistants

  • Bahar Ehsani (MEd)
  • Wen Dee Wong (MEd)
  • Claire Carolan (MEd)

Undergraduate Research Assistants

  • Corey Chan
  • Samson McCahon
  • Kristine Vu
  • Laura Smit
  • Melanie Guyot
  • Hope Zhang

Research Associates

  • Dr. Sandra Bosacki (Brock University)
  • Dr. Valerie Peters (Laval University)
  • Dr. Rachel Heydon (University of Western Ontario)
  • Dr. Carol Beynon (University of Western Ontario)
  • Dr. Lee Bartel (University of Toronto)
  • Dr. Lee Willingham (Wilfred Laurier University)
  • Dr. Gary McPherson (University of Melbourne)
  • Dr. Lucy Green (Institute of Education, University of London)

Teacher Research Affiliates

  • Dr. Kevin Bespflug
  • Dr. Elena Ursu

Research Partners

  • Canadian Music Educators' Association
  • Coalition for Music Education in Canada
  • Centres of Excellence for Youth Engagement
  • Canadian Music Research Centre