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Creative vocals and 'agency' in singing - a rapid research review

Author: Dr Douglas Lonie (2023)
Songwriting - guitar and pen
Why is a creative approach to singing and other vocal work particularly valuable in the context of children & young people's mental health & wellbeing? Dr Douglas Lonie of tialt research consultancy shares some of the key evidence.
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Creative vocals and 'agency' in singing - a rapid research review
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What are the potential benefits of focusing on creative vocals and agency?

Introduction

This rapid research review presents the results of a literature search around the concept of ‘agency’ in singing projects, specifically relating to ‘creative vocals’ processes. Both of these terms are defined based on the literature reviewed, and the links between them are explored. The concepts are also considered in relation to wellbeing, and the implications for practice are presented. As with any limited research process, it is presented to stimulate further discussion and to develop new approaches to practice and further research.  

Musical agency is about feeling like you can pursue the musical ideas that you have, or that there is nothing in the structures around you that limits or stops you from carrying out these ideas.

What do we mean by 'creative vocals'?

There are lots of ways that the research discusses what is meant by ‘creative’ or ‘creativity’. Indeed, there are whole books, university departments and schools of thought that have discussed this for many hundreds of years. For the purposes of this review, we can consider creativity as something that happens when someone feels they are producing something new or novel either to themselves or to other people. In the context of singing that can mean learning a new song, trying out a new genre or vocal style, writing or composing a song, improvised singing, or a performance.

This is quite a broad definition of ‘creative vocals’ but the way it is linked to agency, discussed further below, is that the ‘creative urge’ or action is about moving from something you haven’t done before, to something you are now doing or something you can now do. In this sense it is also about learning, trying things out, and it takes place as a part of a social process.

Creativity as a social process means that it is often about expressing something to someone else, and that often what is considered creative is decided by, or validated by, other people. ‘Creative vocals’ in this sense can be something that happens by someone individually and something that happens by people together in a group.          

It’s also about how you consider yourself as a creative person, creative singer, or someone who engages in creative musical processes with other people. In that sense it’s also linked to the concept of self-identity (i.e., ‘I am a creative person, or a person capable of doing creative things’) and by extension, social identity (i.e., ‘how I make sense of other people and how they make sense of me, as a creative person or someone doing creative things’).

What do we mean by 'agency'?

Much like creativity, the concept of ‘agency’ is used across lots of different academic disciplines in different ways. In the research looked at for this review the concept of agency was mostly aligned with how it is used in sociology and social psychology.

In these fields, agency tends to mean that people feel they are in control of their actions, can carry out actions according to their intentions, and that there are not too many things in the social structures around them that limit the ability to carry out their actions. Davidson and Faulkner (2019) talk about how agency means ‘we constitute ourselves as agents, the authors of our actions, and so generate our identities’.

Linked to the ideas of creativity presented above, we can see how agency is also (and at the same time) an individual and a social process (i.e., ‘I have the ability to act in a way that makes sense to me and also makes sense to the people around me’). It’s an active process, but there are lots of ways that we can feel that we don’t have agency (or, indeed, we literally do not have agency), depending on the social structures around us, as well as what we can and cannot actually do[1]

There’s a whole other body of work that considers what we mean by ‘musical agency’. Basically, it takes these ideas above and applies them to what it means to be a musician, a music learner, or just someone who does music stuff (i.e., most people). Musical agency is about feeling like you can pursue the musical ideas that you have, or that there is nothing in the structures around you that limits or stops you from carrying out these ideas. Even if you don’t know how to do something musically, it’s about feeling like you can learn what’s needed or find the people to collaborate with and help you learn these things. Karlsen put some of this together into a handy illustration that outlines how we might want to think about musical agency as a ‘lens’. It’s worth having a look at the full article if you can, but also useful here because it outlines how musical agency is both an individual and a social process (i.e., musical agents using musical actions for things with other people).

 

[1]E.g., I (the author) have a fairly decent sense of agency when doing research, I have a much lower sense when it comes to driving a car, because I don’t know how to do that and cannot ‘be a driver’ in a society that has quite clear and necessary ideas about what it means to be a driver.  I can just about get away with ‘being a researcher’ most of the time, thankfully.

A sociologically inspired understanding of musical agency as a lens

Figure 1– A sociologically-inspired understanding of musical agency visualised as a lens (Karlsen 2011:118)

Through sharing and performing their songs, participants engaged in identity claiming and making, being seen by peers and relations as something other than a social problem to be fixed.

How is creative vocal work linked to agency?

 

Researchers have focused on how being musically creative can increase feelings of agency from an early age. Barrett (2005, 2012) explored young children’s daily acts of musical creativity and found that invented song making enabled young children to produce original musical meanings, as well as reproduce those of their home cultures. Children are making sense of their worlds, and their places in the world, through creative musical play. Barrett quotes Gee and Green to summarise how this process also functions in groups where “[children] have agency and thus take up, resist, transform, and reconstruct their social and cultural practices afforded them in and through the events of everyday life” (Barrett 2005:189). Creative musical acts in this sense are about world-making, and again exist as both an individual and a social process, i.e., making my world as a well as making our world.   

Barrett (2005) argues that all musical creativity is a social process because things are created in relation to what has come before (e.g., even in individual composition or solo performance, what is considered creative is based on people’s reception and judgement of it). Agency as an outcome of creative musical processes is also a social process as it can only be experienced in relation to other people.

In my own work with young musicians (Dickens and Lonie, 2013), in this instance teenagers in the South East of England, I have researched how agency is linked to creative vocal work. With my colleague Luke Dickens, we worked with a group of young people taking part in a vocal rap-writing and performance project. The young people were living in an area of significant socio-economic deprivation with complex lives and tricky relationships with established social institutions such as school and the police. The practitioner, Max, trained the young people in how to make music using computer software as well as how to write and perform contemporary hip hop. In the process there was the development of both creative musicality (vocal and otherwise) and agency, but they were also developed symbiotically, with one element feeding into the other. The process is summarised in the following table:

Practice vs Sociopsychological processes

The last point in the table is an important one. Agency can be developed in creative vocal work, but projects and initiatives can also demonstrate where individual agency is limited due to broader sociocultural conditions (here social class and economic deprivation). Overall, giving young people the opportunity to express themselves, to do it in a way they feel proud of, and to be heard, is some indication of how agency functions in the context of this creative vocals project and potentially others.

What are the potential benefits of focusing on creative vocals and agency?

Recent research by Bourdaghs & Silverman (2023) shows how songwriting enabled profound social connection and ways to explore and describe shared experiences for a group of individuals with substance use issues. The function of a creative songwriting technique here was to allow participants to express themselves in more abstract ways than regular talking therapies may allow. Through sharing and performing their songs, participants engaged in identity claiming and making, being seen by peers and relations as something other than a social problem to be fixed.   

 

Davidson and Garrido (2019) extend some of these concepts drawing on research on rap and singing projects with marginalised groups which shows how creative vocal work can lead to increased feelings of agency and self-empowerment. The authors draw on the relatively well-known self-determination theory of Deci and Ryan (2000) who propose that people’s innate psychological needs come under three core factors; relatedness – the need to be socially connected and integrated into groups; competence – the need to be effective in our efforts; and autonomy – the need to feel that our efforts are self-endorsed and conducted according to our own free will. Taken together the theory suggests that when these psychological needs are met, feelings of wellbeing ensue and people feel safe, happy and positive.

 

Davidson and Garrido refer to a substantial and growing body of literature that shows how this theory works in practice in creative vocal work, particularly through group learning and performing, but always with a recognition that how creative vocal work increases agency, through the prism of self-determination theory, is always an individual and group process. They provide a useful diagram outlining these overlapping processes:

Davidson and Garrido model

Figure 2 - A model of the mechanisms underpinning the psychological benefits of singing (Davidson and Garrido, 2019:914)

What are the implications of the research for practice?

By taking time to consider what we mean by ‘creative vocals’ and ‘agency’ we can collectively achieve greater clarity on the psychosocial processes taking place in the context of individual and group singing, as well as their outcomes.

As participants, practitioners, and researchers (often at the same time), we can use the concepts discussed in this paper to design research and evaluation processes that are informed by theory and established research, collectively contributing more to the emerging findings, developing bodies of evidence around a broader range of practices in even more diverse contexts.

While most of the papers reviewed for this summary focus on psychosocial processes, there remains a need to consider the findings of research in other disciplines, including neurology and those exploring biological processes induced by creative vocals (e.g., the release of hormones such as dopamine). Further research is also required to better understand whether the effects are the same for creative vocals work focusing on specific topics (e.g., specific life experiences) or more general composition, songwriting and performance.

There is scope for greater local, national and international collaboration to design research processes that are rigorous and valid, but also embedded in the highly sophisticated and often sensitive creative vocals practice that is taking place, particularly if it is with vulnerable or marginalised people. By suggesting that we can apply and extend concepts like ‘agency’, ‘self-determination theory’ and ‘psychosocial process’ across more ‘real world’ settings we must always do so being sensitive to how these concepts are communicated and measured in situ. The challenge for us all is to develop valid creative and inclusive methodologies that do not shy away from the depth of meaning of these concepts, but that do not undermine the practice itself by being bluntly applied.

What are the articles that informed this work and where can I read more?

Barrett, M. (2005). A systems view of musical creativity. Praxial music education: Reflections and dialogues, 177-195.

Barrett, M. S. (2012). Mutuality, belonging, and meaning-making: Pathways to developing young boys’ competence and creativity in singing and song-making. Perspectives on males and singing, 167-187.

Bourdaghs, S., & Silverman, M. (2023). An exploratory interpretivist study of how adults with substance use disorders experience peer social connectedness during recovery-oriented songwriting. Psychology of Music.

Davidson, J, W., and Faulkner, R. (2019), 'Group Singing and Social Identity', in Graham F. Welch, David M. Howard, and John Nix (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Singing, Oxford Library of Psychology 

Davidson, J, W., and Garrido, S. (2019), 'Singing and Psychological Needs', in Graham F. Welch, David M. Howard, and John Nix (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Singing, Oxford Library of Psychology 

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The" what" and" why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.

Dickens, L., & Lonie, D. (2013). Rap, rhythm and recognition: Lyrical practices and the politics of voice on a community music project for young people experiencing challenging circumstances. Emotion, Space and Society, 9, 59-71.

Dingle, G. A., Brander, C., Ballantyne, J., & Baker, F. A. (2013). ‘To be heard’: the social and mental health benefits of choir singing for disadvantaged adults. Psychology of Music, 41(4), 405-421.

Grebosz-Haring, K., & Thun-Hohenstein, L. (2018). Effects of group singing versus group music listening on hospitalized children and adolescents with mental disorders: A pilot study. Heliyon, 4 (12).

Karlsen, S. (2011). Using musical agency as a lens: Researching music education from the angle of experience. Research Studies in Music Education, 33(2), 107–121.

Perkins, R., Yorke, S., & Fancourt, D. (2018). How group singing facilitates recovery from the symptoms of postnatal depression: a comparative qualitative study. BMC psychology, 6(1), 1-12.

Vaillancourt, G., Da Costa, D., Han, E. Y., & Lipski, G. (2018). An intergenerational singing group: A community music therapy qualitative research project and graduate student mentoring initiative. In Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy (Vol. 18, No. 1).

What do we mean by 'creative vocals'?
How is creative vocal work linked to agency?
What are the implications of the research for practice?
What do we mean by 'agency'?
Introducton
What are the articles that informed this work and where can I read more?

About the author

Dr Douglas Lonie is a social psychologist with 20 years’ experience researching the impact of music on people’s health and wellbeing. His PhD explored the impact of music listening and participation on the mental health of young people as they make the transition to adulthood. As Research Manager at the National Foundation for Youth Music in the UK he commissioned, designed and conducted a broad range of research and evaluation exploring the impacts of musical participation and development on children and young people. More recently as co-founder and co-director of tialt // there is an alternative, he is working with clients and collaborators across the cultural sector to design and develop creative and inclusive methodologies to explore the impact of participation in creative processes. 
www.tialt.org
Douglas Lonie

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