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Nov 23, 2016

Successes and challenges – A participatory music programme for older people

As part of our new evidence review of music, singing and wellbeing, this case study shows a useful example of evidence in action, highlighting both the successes and challenges faced with a participatory music programme aimed at older people. It is based on a report by Jocey Quinn, Claudia Blandon, Plymouth University and Plymouth Music Zone, 2014. 

The Project

The ‘Keep Singing, Keepsake Project’ (KKP) supports older people living in residential facilities who are at risk from isolation. It aims to strengthen social ties and improve participants’ emotional wellbeing through participation in a weekly singing group. It also aims to promote intergenerational communication through performances with groups of young people working with Plymouth Music Zone, a highly regarded community music charity with a national reputation.

The project involves weekly music and singing sessions which include  tea and biscuits and social time at some point chosen by the participants during the session. Participants occasionally listen to recorded music played through an iPad and a speaker but the main focus of the session is on encouraging participation and interactive music making. They sing songs, in some instances chosen in turn by them, accompanied on guitar or keyboard by a music leader. Song books, song sheets in large print and hand percussion instruments are provided for residents to use. Participants sometimes join in with hand percussion instruments. Music leaders draw on participants’ knowledge and experience, making sure that everyone is included in the sessions, paying attention to particular needs and managing group dynamics. At the end of the project CDs and DVDs are produced to give to family and friends as audio and video keepsakes and to provide a record of the work. Participation is usually free to participants although in some settings they contribute a small weekly fee to cover the cost of the session.

The project has received funding from: Arts Council England, the Big Lottery Fund, the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales, Porticus UK, Affinity Sutton Housing and the David Gibbons Foundation.


A qualitative mixed methods investigation was undertaken in two case study sites, selected to highlight key learning points. One of these was a local authority sheltered housing scheme and the other was a privately owned residential facility for older people. Participants were aged 50-95, mostly female (which is true of many participatory music and singing projects) and of white British ethnicity (reflecting the geographical location of the project).

A literature review explored the effects of music on emotional wellbeing and social isolation. This review focused on social rather than medical research because of the project objectives. An underpinning theory of change was developed, based on the idea that objects (songs, instruments) are not passive but,

things with power that can cause effects on participants, and therefore have particular impacts on emotional wellbeing, social isolation’ (p.20).

The evaluation sought to assess how far and in what ways KKP meets its key targets of: promoting emotional wellbeing, reducing social isolation and loneliness and promoting intergenerational performance. The evaluation also aimed to address unexpected outcomes of the project and to make recommendations on how it could be expanded and improved.

Participant observation was undertaken by a researcher during 10 music sessions. The researcher recorded their experiences in a reflective diary. A total of 19 in-depth interviews were undertaken with residents, staff and music leaders. The evaluation also included an innovative music elicitation tool: participants were asked to identify their favourite songs and discuss their responses to them, allowing evaluators to draw on participants’ memories and helping participants reconnect with their past. Qualitative data were transcribed in full and subjected to thematic analysis.

Ethics approval was obtained for data capture activities from Plymouth University Education ethics sub-committee. Researchers exercised sensitivity to the needs of participants, for example, interviews did not take place when participants were upset by the recent death of a resident.

The evaluation was built into project design and a proportion of project funding was allocated.

Key Findings

Participants reported that the music helped them to relax, express their feelings, experience happiness, celebrate survival and share emotions. Similar themes emerged from observation data. The project also found that these benefits are sustained, as songs are portable and participants take this with them during the week. Music is reported to provide an alternative source of comfort and support in a secular society, which is particularly valuable for those facing the end of their lives. The evaluation concluded that the project prevents social isolation and loneliness by creating a social network and bonds between people.

The evaluation also found that participation is challenging for some people, such as those with physical impairments. The support of care staff in facilitating participation in residential settings is an essential component of successful music projects. While the use of song books and repeating repertoire is beneficial for some participants, especially those with memory problems, it may be boring for others. Other challenges include developing intergenerational performance, which can be slow because of the lack of confidence that some older people show in relation to performing publicly. The keepsakes were less important to participants in these case studies than the experience of singing itself. Successful outcomes depend on the skills of music leaders to manage these challenges.

Plymouth music zone

Case study written by Jocey Quinn, Claudia Blandon, Plymouth University and Plymouth Music Zone, 2014

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