Musical Pathways: The Impact Of Music Making Opportunities on Young Offenders

10 Feb 2014

Credits: @flickblu_j

Completed in January after 3 years, Musical Pathways was a project funded by the Big Lottery research programme that assessed the impact which music can have on the identity of young offenders. Here project leader, Patsy Lang of Superact gives us an insight to Musical Pathways and its conclusions.

At Superact we strongly believe that music can have a big impact on the development of a young person’s identity. Physiologically, our brains start to process music emotionally around our teenage years and evidence shows that the music people listen to between the ages of 16 & 24 often elicit strong emotional responses which stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Having worked with young offenders for a number of years I have become acutely aware that both self confidence and a sense of personal identity are often lacking amongst the young people we work with.

With this observation in mind, the Musical Pathways project was created with Big Lottery Research funding to investigate just how participatory music making impacted on health, wellbeing and rehabilitation of young people in justice settings.

Delivered in collaboration between music and arts non-profit Superact, Live Music Now and the University of the West of England, (UWE), the Musical Pathways programme came to an end last month. Project outcomes and conclusions were disseminated at a Symposium in Bristol which was attended by researchers, arts organisations, and professionals from across the justice system.

Policy makers and commissioners are always looking for proof that arts interventions do something, and that they will contribute to stopping re-offending. Gathering evidence for this is very difficult working within the creative world where outcomes are rarely measured in numbers but with holistic measures of well being and improved outlook on life. Despite this we have had very positive feedback on the final Musical Pathways report; some saying it is the best thing they have ever read on this subject.

An extremely thorough document, the report looks at the results of the intervention from the participants, musicians, project managers, and justice workers points of view. This is unusual in a report of this type, but it does give the full spectrum of observation. Data collected over 2 years is both qualitative and quantitative.

Feedback from young participants was wide ranging but by and large positive with comments such as, “the music programme offered  a new experience; purposeful activity and use of  time;  enjoyment;  a  meaningful  learning  experience;  an  opportunity  not  to  feel  stigmatised  or patronised;  improved self confidence;  a supportive group experience;  the opportunity to work with inspiring  and  creative  musicians;  pride  in  personal  achievement;  opportunity  to  be  creative;  and broadened horizons.”

There were of course many challenges working in this area. For example, numbers attending were inconsistent much of the time with interruptions from court appearances, medical appointments, visits, moving to another facility. This impacted detrimentally on programme attendance and participation, limiting what could be drawn from the quantitative data.

Overall the report concludes that creative music making has the potential to engage ‘hard to reach’ young people. Certainly, for the majority of participants involved in this study, the experience helped them to cope with difficult circumstances, including custody, and to consider how music could help them look positively towards the future.

Moreover, the report affirms that music provides a medium enabling young people to engage their life experiences in creative ways, express themselves, and communicate in a form they are comfortable with. The project enabled people to identify positively with music, to draw on knowledge and experiences, and to engage with their peer group.

Professional musicians trained to work with such groups bring skills and experience that enable them to garner respect from young people. They are neither the usual teachers, nor authority figures, but rather working, gigging and performing musicians.

Despite the real challenges in co-ordinating with the facilities to collect data, the research suggests that music programmes which take this approach are a major asset to youth justice organisations, especially since they are located outside the system and can command respect and credibility from young people.

To request a copy of the Musical Pathways Report please email It will also be available for download on the Superact resources page.

Patsy Lang – Musical Pathways Project Director, Superactwith contributions from the project’s Executive Summary by: Nick de Viggiani – Musical Pathways Research Director, UWE.

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