Community Music in the UK: Historical Perspectives

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it (Marx, 1978).

Community arts is, if nothing else, about change, and about using the Arts to achieve change (Webster, 1997).

Community artists are distinguishable not by the techniques they use … but by their attitude towards the place of their activities in the life of society (Baldry, 1974).

Community arts is not a specific form of art, but a specific attitude to art (Braden, 1978).

The purpose of this short historical perspective is to provide a firm foothold in what is generally understood in the UK and Ireland as Community Music. This will be important for any subsequent articles I post on this e-journal as it is through this ‘tradition’ that I am most familiar. I hope this piece begins to solidify key characteristics of Community Music and provides points of discussion and critique that will enable the column to get moving.

Community Music emerged as a sub-strand of the community arts movement during the political and cultural changes of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. The growth of Community Music reflected this period of change, emerging as a socio-political force from the professional community development practices initiated in post-war Britain. The Second World War had destroyed long-established working-class communities, consequently generating a new mobile employment trend as people moved from destroyed cities to new towns. These movements created new communities, and the comfort of ‘knowing your neighbour’ was not now a given. In order to try to overcome problems caused by this mobility, a new profession of the community worker arose towards the end of the 1940s. Those working within this broad sphere of community education recognized the lack of cultural activities and so added a cultural element to its practical purposes. Benefactors of these new elements began to demand arts activities, and so these demands grew throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s. These developments foreshadowed the community arts movement of the late 1960s, and therefore also Community Music.

Considered a ‘movement’, community arts was based on the recognition of the similarities of aims and methods in the work of its founders. According to Owen Kelly, community arts began as one strand of activism among many during the late 1960s (Kelly, 1984). As a watershed for cultural radicalism, the late 1960s are synonymous with those attempting to reform social conditions and those attempting to change ‘the human condition’, or to escape from it. The latter came to be called the ‘counter-culture’ and had its values in anti-materialism, non-conformity, and a stress on personal growth. Counter-cultural dissent capitulated into the revolts of 1968 and drove towards politicizing the personal. The New Left led this ideology, with its emphasis on agency, culture, class-consciousness and the centrality of the social experience. It had reworked Marxism into an open, critical and humanist project. Culture had become the site not for contentment but for conflict, and community artists found solace within the politics of the New Left. 1 Within this trajectory Community Music projects put social issues at the heart of the musical-doing providing springboards from which the communities involved could politicize themselves and their area of need.

Those working in Community Music understood that people in every type of community had been making music for as long as communities had been documented. Reminiscent of the challenge to dominant historical perspectives, articulated by the likes of Michel Foucault, community musicians sought to redress the balance between polarities such as ‘high’ art and ‘popular’ art. Community arts earlier manifestations were therefore associated with the working class and working-class values, placing the work in opposition to the so-called élitist art worlds of classical theatre, art galleries and opera. In short, the general notion of Community Music initiated a time of re-evaluation. In the early 1970s, community musicians identified the work made by the working class, women or the non-European as being on the fringe, suffering from an oppression of the dominant hegemony of contemporary capitalist society. In this way, community musicians differed from musicians in the community by acting as conscious facilitators for people in communities to express themselves artistically.

The cultural and political ambitions of Community Music oscillated around the notion of empowerment through participation in the creative process. In ways that echoed Paulo Freire’s approach to libratory education, outlined in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, many community musicians fought for radicalization and transformation (Freire, 2002). As a consensus, those working as community musicians shared a dislike of cultural hierarchies, and believed in co-authorship of work and in the creative potential of all sections of the community. For some practitioners their belief went further, suggesting that community arts in general could provide a powerful medium for social and political change.

In order for community musicians to achieve any sense of political democracy and change, it was widely considered that the instigation of ‘cultural democracy’ was of utmost importance. Cultural democracy in its extreme condemned the cultural heritage of Europe as bourgeois. As far as community arts had any common philosophy, it did argue that a cultural democracy in which creative arts opportunities, enjoyment and celebration would be available to all was paramount to its cause. Cultural democracy was a doctrine of empowerment and a tool for action.

Community Music fashioned itself within the environs of the counter-culture consciousness and the development of ‘new’ classroom practices from music educators such as John Paynter, Peter Aston, George Self, John Cage and Murray Schafer. These ideas were modelled within the composer/musician in residence schemes popular during the mid 1970s and 1980s. 2 Under the umbrella of community arts, Community Music cut itself free from notions of ‘music in the community’ and ‘communal music-making’, where these terms related to a community being musical. Community Music is therefore understood within the framework of those facilitators who actively encouraged people’s musical-doing. As a form of activism located within the politics of socialism, Community Music initially resisted formalized music education and was a protest against perceived misunderstandings of music’s nature and purpose. Politically constructed to maintain social and cultural hegemonies through ideas pertaining to high and low art, these ‘misunderstandings’ were seen as being rooted in a conception of music that has its genesis in the late eighteenth century.

Progressions in music education and musical understanding, compounded with the political ideology of the community arts movement, provided the foundations for the growth of Community Music. Publications such as Christopher Small’s Music, Society, Education and John Blacking’s How Musical is Man? Provided a noted theoretical base in which advocates of Community Music have argued for alternative orientations in music education (Blacking, 1973; Small, 1996).

In the mid 1970s ‘punk rock’ provided the political imperative community musicians had been afraid to lose in it’s association with music education. As one of the chief instigators in the creation of the music cooperative 3, punk and Community Music were brought together in a short-lived ideological allegiance. With the social and economic problems of the 1970s, Britain had inadvertently provided a catalyst and timing for the development of a punk subculture 4. Against a background of young people’s frustration concerning Britain’s social and economic problems, and a reaction against the era’s rock super-stars, punk aligned itself with the Anti-Nazi league, and Rock against Racism. Like community arts and consequently Community Music, punk rock emphasized class politics, creating a potent fusion between music and political statements. Political unease coupled with an alternative vision of music-making encouraged musicians to work beyond the consideration of music as an autonomous object. Punk and consequently community musicians rebelled against the focus on consumerism perpetrated by the self-styled ‘music industry’.

During the epoch of the music cooperative, a number of key developments ensured that Community Music continued to expand. Described as a ‘key year’ for the development of Community Music, 1984 witnessed several influential happenings (Joss, 1993). Firstly, the first orchestral education manager was appointed to the London Sinfonietta and the first full-scale community residency by a British orchestra. Secondly, 1984 witnessed the creation of the seventh International Society of Music Education’s (ISME) commission, the Commission for Community Music Activity. Thirdly, there was the creation of the Music Education Working Party (MEWP) organized and managed by the Arts Council of Great Britain. 5

The development of these links generated a new breed of music professional and opened a significant space in which to actively enable and support music participation beyond the classroom walls. This ‘new kind of professional’, pinpointed the combination of musical, facilitatory, administrative and communication skills. The momentum of these developments resulted in Britain’s first nationally focused Community Music event held in Manchester in 1989. One of the most important aspects of this meeting was the suggestion that a national association representing Community Music activity would be to the advantage of those who were currently involved in its practice. This organization, eventually named ‘Sound Sense’, proceeded to hold its inaugural meeting in December that same year. 6

One of the key issues for Community Music has been it’s identity, this was true then as it is now. Sound Sense has always been active in trying to reflect what Community Music does rather than what it is. In 1995 Sound Sense released this statement:

* Community Music involves musicians from any musical discipline working with groups of people to enable them to develop active and creative participation in music.

* Community Music is concerned with putting equal opportunities into practice.

* Community Music can happen in all types of community, whether based on place, institution, interest, age or gender group, and reflects the context in which it takes place (Macdonald, Spring 1995).

Described as ‘not so much a formal definition, but a three-part “test”‘, the composite declaration has been a stable backbone to Sound Sense’s work from 1995 to the present (Deane, 1999).

As an organised force Community Music in the UK has contributed to the wider implications of music and music education throughout the country. This can be seen in recently manifestations such as the Music Manifesto, Youth Music, and the Musical Futures project. Articles on such projects can be read in Sound Sense 7, Link 8 and MailOut 9. Case Studies and Issues in Community Music commissioned by Sound Sense attempts to provide ‘thicker’ description of Community Music projects and offers some good insights (Kushner, Walker, & Tarr, 2001). My PhD study provided a detailed historical overview as a prelim to theoretical excursions of Community Music through deconstruction (Higgins, 2006). Evidence of the impact of Community Music can also be demonstrated through the growing interest of Community Music training and education both in the UK and abroad. For a broader overview of Community Music from a world-wide perspective see Kari Veblen and Bengt Olsson’s Community Music: Towards an International Overview, Velben’s chapter in David Elliott’s Praxial Music Education, Bryan Burton’s entry in Encyclopaedia of Community and publications from ISME’s Commission of Community Music Activity (Burton, 2003; Drummond, 1991; Leglar, 1996; Veblen, 2005; Veblen & Olsson, 2002,


1. For an overview of political ideology and cultural policy in the UK during the 1980s see, Henry, Ian, P. (1993). The Politics of Leisure Policy. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd.[return]

2. See Chapter 3 in Pitts, Stephanie. (2000). A Century of Change in Music Education: Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Practice in British Secondary School Music. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Ltd. [return]

3. Music cooperatives encouraged a communal spirit that often resulted in collectives recorded compilation albums, showcasing local acts and offering opportunities for exposure beyond the rehearsal garage. [return]

4. See Savage, Jon. (1991). England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock. London: Faber and Faber. Bennett, Andy. (2001). Cultures of Popular Music. Buckingham: Open University Press. [return]

5. As a key policy decision, the Music Education Workers Party’s (MEWP) mission was to forge a connection between the worlds of education, community development and music[return]

6. See [return]

7. The magazine of Sound Sense published quarterly. [return]

8. A new magazine that is attempting to connect the music education community as a whole. See [return]

9. A magazine that considers the development of the participatory arts across the British Isles. See [return]


Baldry, Harold. (1974). The Report of the Community Arts Working Party: Arts Council of Great Britain.

Bennett, Andy. (2001). Cultures of Popular Music. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Blacking, John (1973). How Musical is Man? In. London: Faber and Faber.

Burton, Bryan, J. . (2003). Music. In Karen Christensen & David Levinson (Eds.), Encyclopaedia of Community: From the Village to the Virtual World (Vol. 3). California: Sage Publications.

Deane, Kathryn. (1999). Making Change Work, Four-Year Plan, 2000/2001 to 2004/2005: Sound Sense.

Drummond, John. (1991). The Community Musician: Training a New Professional. Oslo: The Norwegian Affiliation of International Society for Music Education.

Freire, Paulo. (2002). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Henry, Ian, P. (1993). The Politics of Leisure Policy. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd.

Higgins, Lee. (2006). Boundary-Walkers: Contexts and Concepts of Community Music. University of Limerick, Limerick.

Joss, Tim. (1993). A Short History of Community Music. In Tim Joss & Dave Price (Eds.), The First National Directory of Community Music: Sound Sense.

Kelly, Owen. (1984). Community, Art and the State: Comedia.

Kushner, S, Walker, B, & Tarr, J. (2001). Case Studies and Issues in Community Music. Bristol: University of the West of England.

Leglar, Mary, A. (1996). The Role of Community Music in a Changing World. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 1994 Seminar of the Commission on Community Music Activity, Georgia.

Macdonald, Irene. (Spring 1995). The Leiston Statement. Sounding Board, p. 29.

Marx, Karl. (1978). Theses on Feuerbach. In C. J. Arthur (Ed.), The German Ideology. New York: International Publishers.

Pitts, Stephanie. (2000). A Century of Change in Music Education: Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Practice in British Secondary School Music. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Savage, Jon. (1991). England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock. London: Faber and Faber.

Small, Christopher. (1996). Music Society Education. London: Wesleyan University Press.

Veblen, Kari. (2005). Community Music and Praxialism: Narratives and Reflections. In David J Elliott (Ed.), Praxial Music education: Reflections and Dialogues (pp. 308-328). New York: Oxford University Press.

Veblen, Kari, & Olsson, Bengt (2002). Community Music: Toward an International Overview. In Richard Colwell & Carol Richardson (Eds.), The New Handbook of Research on Music Teaching and Learning. New York: Oxford University Press.

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