[Position Paper]

Music Therapy, Social Policy and Ecological Models: A Located Example of Music in Australian Schools

By Alexander Hew Dale Crooke


While music therapy courses rarely cover the finer points of social policy, a basic knowledge of how this system of governance works can be highly beneficial for those wanting to maximise their presence and impact in a given field. Taking an ecological approach, this article presents how music therapy as a discipline and practice can be seen as located within structures of policy. Further, it illustrates how understanding these structures can help practitioners and researchers capitalise on the opportunities they provide, and work around the barriers they impose. It does this by providing a background of the ecological model approach, and discussing how this approach can be useful for thinking about the relationship between music therapy and social policy. It then uses the policy situation surrounding music in Australian schools to give a grounded example of how understanding this situation can help position music therapy to meet key policy goals at national and localised levels. It is hoped that increased awareness, and an example of how it can be applied, will empower music therapists to learn about policies in their specific areas, and capitalise on the opportunities they provide.

Keywords: Social policy, policy, ecological model, school music, music therapy, education


Music therapists are trained in music therapy theory, research and practice, but course providers place limited emphasis on the policy surrounding their craft. Further, once practising, time left for pondering their position in relation to wider discourse is scarce. However, understanding the political context of one’s work or field can be advantageous. Just as Abeles (2012) urges music teachers to emerge from their classrooms long enough to vote for political candidates that value music education, music therapists would also benefit from engagement in the world of policy.

While casting a well-placed vote might be important, for fields as fluid and multidimensional as music therapy, relationships with policy can be more complex. Because music therapists practise with a multitude of different populations, for different reasons, and in different settings, it is difficult to present one specific policy issue or context that is applicable to all. However, it is precisely this diversity that can make it so important, and rewarding, to engage with policy.

Music therapists are constantly exploring new areas and finding new applications of their practices, whilst simultaneously working to consolidate or maximise the position of the profession in traditional arenas. However, with the exception of work in sub-fields such as community music therapy (Stige & Aarø, 2012) and resource-oriented music therapy (Rolvsjord, 2010), research is predominantly targeted towards generating knowledge to inform other music therapists. While this is critical for advancing the field and ensuring practitioners are engaging in best-practice, arguably, the ability of research results to be used to advocate and communicate the benefits of music therapy in a way that has maximum impact is limited. Being aware of the current policy agendas that surround a particular area (and language used to articulate them) enables both practitioners and researchers to position themselves in a way that makes their work transferable to policymakers. For a discipline that is both diverse and constantly evolving, being able to communicate how music therapy can contribute to policy goals in specific fields can be vital for increasing recognition and support for practice in multiple contexts.

This support may take many forms, of which funding and job creation are the most obvious. To quote the Australian Government’s “Job Guide” website:

Job opportunities [for music therapists] depend on the number of people in the community requiring this type of service, level of awareness in the community of the benefits of music therapy and government policy, legislation and funding for community health care, education and social services. (Department of Education and Training, 2015, para 6)

Further, awareness of barriers embedded within policy (i.e. legislation and funding priorities) are as important as knowing where opportunities lie. For example, knowing what will not be funded allows music therapists to reposition themselves so that they are addressing a need that will be supported by policymakers or budgetary allocations.

At the theoretical level, awareness of policy contexts can also facilitate engagement in multidisciplinary dialogues. It can promote the transferability of music therapy knowledge, skills, and benefits of to other fields, both maximising their impact and advancing the standing of music therapy in specific fields, and in general. It also provides a common lexicon, and enables participation in sociological conversations about the pursuit of the “good-life” in contemporary society. In short, being aware of the larger social contexts of policy can help not only individual music therapists, but also the discipline, and potentially humankind itself.

Using an ecological modelling approach, this article aims to start this conversation by providing a brief overview of social policy and how it relates to music therapy. It begins with a description of ecological models, their existing applications within music therapy, and how they can be used to think about the discipline itself. It argues social policy is a major part of many ecological models, and thus outlines the contemporary origins of social policy and the influence it has had in the Western world over the last century.

While this discussion acknowledges international influences, it is located within the Australian context and thus uses Australian examples. This includes an example of how social policy has influenced the ecological model surrounding music in Australian schools, and how developments on several levels of this model have opened a window for music therapy in this setting. This example not only aims to illustrate how music and music therapy can fulfil policy goals in the Australian education context, but also how knowledge of policy, contexts, and ecological models can inform advocacy and practice in music therapy more generally.

Ecological Models

The ecological model, as it is understood in the social sciences[1], was borrowed from the field of ecology to help understand and appreciate the idea that all human action is located within social contexts (Richard et al., 2011). Some attribute this appropriation to community psychologists of the mid 1900s, who aimed to widen the focus of existing psychological theories and acknowledge the impact of an individual’s environment on their behaviour (Kingry-Westergaard & Kelly, 1990).

For Bronfenbrenner (1994) this “ecological environment is conceived as a set of nested structures, each inside each other like a set of Russian dolls” (p. 39). In his earlier models (see Figure 1), Bronfenbrenner (1979) placed the individual (or child) at the centre, with four concentric rings radiating outwards, each representing levels of the social world which influence their behaviour or development. The first ring (“microsystem”) represents intrapersonal relationships with specific players (i.e. families, friends, peer groups) played out on a daily basis. The outer ring (“macrosystem”) represents social forces such as culture and social norms, but also include patterns at national and international levels shaped by economics, policy and philosophy. Importantly, Bronfenbrenner (1979) and subsequent theoritsts (McLaren & Hawe, 2005; Richard et al., 2011) describe these levels as intercational rather than heirachical.

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model, showing all levels of the social world that affect the daily functioning of an individual
Figure 1. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model, showing all levels of the social world that affect the daily functioning of an individual. Adapted from "Visual Experience Enhances Infants' Use of Task-Relevant Information in an Action Task," by J.C. Eisenmann, D.A. Gentile, G.J. Welk, R. Callahan, S. Strickland, M. Walsh, D.A. Walsh DA, BMC Public Health 2008, 8(223), Copyright 2008 by Eisenmann et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. Reprinted with permission. [view full image size]

Articulated by some as a contextually specific “meta-concept”, or a “guiding” set of “heuristics” rather than a testable construct or theory (Richard et al., 2011), this conceptual model is under constant revision and development (Tudge, Mokrova, Hatfield, & Karnik, 2009). Nevertheless, it provides a useful framework and has been adopted by fields including epidemiology (Baral, Logie, Grosso, Wirtz, & Beyrer, 2013), public health promotion (Richard et al., 2011) social policy (Ostrom, Cox, & Schlager, 2014), environmental studies (Benessaiah & Sengupta, 2014), and animal behaviour (Lu, Koenig, & Borries, 2008).

Musicking in Context: Ecological Models in Music Therapy

Ecological models can also been applied to musical activity, or musicking (Small, 1998). Whether performing or selling tickets at the gate, musical activities do not operate in a social vacuum. Each exists, and is located, within certain contexts and social systems.

This idea has been influential in Community Music Therapy (CoMT) theory development. Stige and Aarø (2012) position the “ecological metaphor” as one of the seven key qualities of the CoMT movement, and their definition shows clear parallels between Bronfenbrenner’s model: “several interacting levels of activity in human life, such as individual, group, organization, locality, and various macrosystems” (p. 153). In CoMT, however, there is particular focus on the two-way interaction between musical activity and social systems. This interaction occurs in a setting or context that affords opportunities for musicking, constrains it, or informs how it occurs and the form it takes. Yet, musicking can also act as catalyst for social change through the transmission of values or ideas, altering the contexts in which they occur. Consider a hypothetical example of songwriting with homeless youth. They might choose a musical style like hip-hop (given their age), and their lyrics may refer to sleeping on the streets, safety, drug use, and maltreatment by the wider community (given their living conditions). Their environment or life-situation affects the music they make. However, after listening to their music the community may become aware of the issues homeless youth face, take steps to improve their situation, or work to prevent homelessness. The musical activity born of a certain context can help change that context. This is know in CoMT as the “ripple effect”, or “the idea that the impact of music therapy can work ‘outwards’ from an isolated person towards community” (Pavlicevic & Ansdell, 2004, p. 16).

A Discipline/Practice in Context: Music Therapy in Ecological Models

The practice of music therapy itself is also a form of musicking affected by ecological models. Music therapists may have a preference for how they practise, yet this is affected by the relationship with their clients, which is in turn affected by the regulations of their licensing body (i.e. the Australian Music Therapy Association), and more broadly by the discipline’s international standards. While sometimes restrictive, such systems also offer support, training, resources, and opportunities.

Likewise, music therapy is affected by the community context in which it takes place. Perhaps if working in outback Australia, clients only want to work with country music. If working in a maximum-security prison, perhaps one must work with instruments that cannot be used as a weapon. Whilst working in dementia care, perhaps one might be aware that benefits achieved in one moment will not be sustained into the next. In a hospital, often only interventions that have been “proven to work” by medical research standards are endorsed. And perhaps, when a government cuts hospital funding, music and other arts-based therapists not covered by nursing unions are the first to lose shifts.

However, these context-driven restrictions may provide opportunities for repertoire expansion, funding, and inter-disciplinary collaboration. Further, work undertaken in these contexts may impact the way music therapy is perceived as a resource, or the way music is practised in a community. For example, maybe one uses harmonicas in a prison, and a prison musical culture is started that leads to the country’s best harmonica ensemble. The short-term benefits experienced by dementia patients may lead to an innovative in-the-moment-based practice approach. Perhaps in undertaking research that adheres to medical standards, music therapy is demonstrated as being more effective than drugs for recovery time, and every hospital employs 20 music therapists, who start a union that secures the place of music therapists in hospitals. While these examples may seem fantastical, the message they aim to transmit is that systems affect what we do, but we too can affect systems – if we know how.

But how do we find a way to work within systems, and either work around their restrictions, or make them work for us? The first step is to identify them. Who are the stakeholders? Are there regulatory bodies? What are their goals and agendas? What are the norms, cultures or policies that permeate or govern activity in that setting? Essentially, what is the ecological model? Once identified, one can determine how this model shapes their work, and how their work may in turn shape or inform the model.

Social Policy - An Ecological Heavyweight

A significant element of any ecological model surrounding human service fields in Western societies is social policy (Fawcett, Goodwin, Meagher, & Phillips, 2010). Where Titmuss (1974) defines “policy” as “the principles that govern action directed towards given ends” (p. 23), “social policy” can (broadly) be understood as the principals which underpin government action – i.e. redistribution, intervention, or the organization of social and economic systems – aimed at attending to the needs of citizens and societies (Clasen, 2013; Titmuss, 1974). These philosophical (Sabatier, 2007) or paradigmatic (Saunders, 2013) approaches to government policy have historically been based on sociological and economic theories. While these vary between countries and political parties (Clasen, 2013), there are discernable patterns in their development throughout the Western world over the last century.

Social Policy: An Brief Historical Overview of Theoretical Approaches

Social policy as we know it today began in the early 1900s (Fawcett et al., 2010), and can be seen as rooted in the classic sociological and economic theories of Weber, Durkheim, and Marx. Responding to the advent of widespread capitalism and industrialisation, these theorists argued for government intervention to address the erosion of traditional social networks, and the alienation and displacement of both individuals and groups from mainstream society (Wilson, 2006).

Following the second World War, many developed nations, including Australia, drew from the social and economic and theories of Beverdige and Keynes (Jessop, 2013). In broad terms (for a critical perspective, see Marcuzzo, 2010), these theorists advocated for full employment and wealth redistribution through government-led social welfare initiatives that aimed to ensure social security and a minimum standard of life for all citizens (Jessop, 2013). This led to the “social democratic” (Smyth, 2004) or “welfare state” (Barr, 1993) approach to social policy, which aimed to address social disadvantage through government regulation of markets, and public expenditure on the provision of social services, such as education and healthcare (Le Grand, 1997; Smyth, 2004).

Following decades of government intervention and welfare services paid for by the taxpayer, the welfare state entered a stage of “crisis”. While there were several dimensions of this crisis, it is often popularly characterised by the world economic downturn following the oil crises of the 1970s. The proliferation of non-profit government services were said to be “sapping” the economic potential of developed societies, thus reducing the amount of available capital, while at the same time limiting their potential to compete in global markets (Moran, 1988).

From the 1970s onwards, “neoliberal” theory (Duménil & Lévy, 2011) – otherwise known as “economic rationalism” (Deeming, 2013) – began to dominate social policy, and sought to remove government control of market economies. Famously characterized by Margaret Thatcher’s statement; “There is no such thing as society” (as cited in Steele, 2009), this approach prioritised free trade and saw free-market economics as the best way to address disadvantage (Deeming, 2013). Proponents argued state-run services and infrastructure were inefficient, and sought to deregulate (or sell-off) social services with the idea that market-driven competition would ensure cheaper, better-quality provision (Centeno & Cohen, 2012).

In the following decades, neoliberal policies were scrutinised for their excessive focus on economic principles (Labonte, 2004). This created a major shift in global policy rhetoric back towards the importance of society and community, and the government’s role in ensuring the welfare of citizens. Authors such as Smyth (2010) have explained this as a return to the social democratic philosophy of the welfare state era, which at the same time echoed Marx’s earlier criticisms of capitalism.

Advent of Social Inclusion

One outcome of this shift was the advent of “social inclusion”: an approach to social policy that aimed to both address the shortcomings of neoliberalism, while also provide a response to rapid globalisation (Saunders, 2011). Dominating European social policy discourse throughout the 1990s (Wilson, 2006), social inclusion was heralded as a new paradigm in theories of social disadvantage. It challenged the concept of poverty, and the assumption that social wellbeing is governed primarily by economic factors. Exponents argued one can be financially poor, but happy and not socially excluded, or financially well-off, yet excluded from important aspects of social life and therefore unhappy (Saunders, 2011). Governments adopting this philosophy took a multidimensional approach to addressing disadvantage, and focused on providing citizens opportunities to participate in various aspects of social and economic life. Most notably, this approach placed significant emphasis on subjective aspects of the human experience, such as community participation, belonging, connectedness, and social wellbeing (Taket et al., 2009).

Social inclusion was adopted as Australia’s national policy framework in 2008 (Saunders, 2013). In the same year the government released several key principals associated with this approach to underpin all government action (Australian Government, 2008). To ensure the quality of life of all citizens, this agenda prioritised the provision of resources, capabilities and opportunities for all people to:

  • Learn (participate in education and training)
  • Work (participate in employment, unpaid or voluntary work including family and carer responsibilities)
  • Engage (connect with people, use local services and participate in local, cultural, civic and recreational activities)
  • Have a voice (influence decisions that affect them)
    (ASIB, 2010, p. 15)

These priorities aimed to redress the 10 years of Australian neoliberal policy preceding it (Saunders, 2013) that was characterized by deregulation, decreased workers’ rights, a focus on economic performance (Deeming, 2013), and “excessive individualism” (Smyth, 2010, p. 7). At least rhetorically, this agenda did provide a contrast in its equal emphasis on paid and unpaid work, and recognition for the importance of social connection through cultural and community engagement.

Changing World of Social Policy

Despite the prominence of social inclusion in recent decades, contemporary global policy discourse has since shifted towards concepts such as “big society” in the UK (see Bulley & Sokhi-Bulley, 2014), “flexicurity” in greater Europe (see Keune & Serrano, 2014), and “social investment” and “inclusive growth” in Australia (see Smyth, 2015). Broadly, this may be explained by the “vagaries of the political cycle” (Saunders, 2011, p. 182), a long-observed phenomenon (Centeno & Cohen, 2012; Sabatier, 2007) in which social policy oscillates between conservative and liberal philosophies as new ideas come into vogue and political parties jockey for power. Indeed, the decline of social inclusion in Australia can be attributed to the re-election of a conservative Liberal government in 2013, which disbanded many of its associated policies and governance structures (Johnson, 2014).

Despite this decline, Australia has yet to adopt a new comprehensive paradigm or set of governance priorities (Johnson, 2014), and some authors continue to articulate social inclusion as the focus of the national social policy agenda (Saunders, 2013). Academics also retain a focus on the concept when researching quality of life locally (Brown, Cobigo, & Taylor, 2015) and internationally (Giambona & Vassallo, 2014), suggesting the concept holds relevance in both policy and research fields. Others have suggested that, rather than disappearing or being replaced, social inclusion has evolved into more substantial or well-conceptualised policy approaches. In the Australian context, for example, Smyth (2014) suggests we may be transitioning into an era of “inclusive growth” – a policy approach which offers the potential to merge social and economic goals in a more cohesive manner, yet still retains the social emphasis advocated by proponents of social inclusion.

This generalist summary of the development of social policy theory necessarily skirts many of the major debates in this field in order to provide a manageable introduction in this context. Indeed, like any field, there are many nuances that cannot be covered in a single article. Nevertheless, this brief overview provides some important markers for establishing a base understanding of the area. It also demonstrates the inherent fluidity of the field, and the inevitability of shifts in policy priorities over time and between geographic regions. This aims to provide both a starting point for thinking about the area, and communicate the need to remain up to date with developments over time and in specific geographic contexts.

Why We Do We Care About Social Policy?

While social policy approaches are under constant renegotiation, paradigmatic shifts at this level of policy usually occur over decades (Saunders, 2011), making them a valuable point of reference for identifying the priorities of a given government. What’s more, the extent to which they influence the world around us make them particularly relevant for determining the ecological model surrounding human service fields (Fawcett et al., 2010). To locate them within Bronfenbrenner’s model, social policies could be conceptualised as sitting within the “macrosystem” (see Figure 2).

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model showing the social policy as placed in the macrosystem.
Figure 2. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model showing the social policy as placed in the macrosystem. Adapted from "Visual Experience Enhances Infants' Use of Task-Relevant Information in an Action Task," by J.C. Eisenmann, D.A. Gentile, G.J. Welk, R. Callahan, S. Strickland, M. Walsh, D.A. Walsh DA, BMC Public Health 2008, 8(223), Copyright 2008 by Eisenmann et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. Reprinted with permission. [view full size image]

These political philosophies govern our laws, economic systems, and social conditions; they affect the priorities of a school board, the liveability of our neighbourhoods, mass media (although this is questionable); they impact families through access to services like welfare and childcare; and consequently, they affect us as individuals. Arguably, in some way they affect everything in our social world. Most importantly for this discussion, they significantly influence our work environments.

Social policies not only represent political theories at the paradigmatic level, they also reflect and inform ongoing debates, struggles, and evolutions of thought in more specific policy arenas. As such, they provide both the broader context (or bigger picture view) of the systems we are working in, as well as insight into more localised areas of policy. Knowledge of policy at this wider level therefore allows awareness of existing (and impending) regulations, reforms, priorities, and agendas of a specific area of practice, as well as the theoretical stances that underpin them. Such knowledge is valuable for music therapy practitioners and researchers alike.

For practitioners, awareness of how policy shapes the ecological model surrounding music therapy permits awareness of factors that can both enable and restrain their work. This includes specific government priorities, policies, or funding that may facilitate practice in a particular area, as well as regulations or funding cuts which may provide barriers. Comprehension of social policy priorities at the “macrosystem” level also equips practitioners with knowledge about wider debates, thus enabling insight into where music therapy might meet policy goals (and therefore be supported) in new areas.

For researchers, theories of social policy clarify which indicators of wellbeing and development a given government uses. This in turn enables investigators to structure research in a way that directly targets issues currently given primacy in funding and resource allocation. By assessing the ability for music therapy to meet these key government priorities, they can also argue for systemic integration of music therapy into existing social service structures.

For both researchers and practitioners, knowledge of policy also enables one to specifically identify language used by policymakers. This enables the processes and benefits of music therapy to be framed back to policy makers in a way that is transferable, or easily understood, and may therefore increase the impact of advocacy. Importantly, this should not be translated as the need to adopt research approaches or tools used by policy researchers – the population-based measures often used by such researchers (Kostenko, Scutella, & Wilkins, 2010; Saunders, Hill, & Bradbury, 2008; Scutella & Wilkins, 2010) would rarely be useful for assessing the benefits of music therapy. Rather it can be seen as illuminating the potential of assessing constructs deemed important by policymakers, and framing benefits using language they themselves use to articulate their priorities, so that findings are best positioned to have an impact on the policy surrounding one’s field.

Fawcett et al. (2010) speak of social policy as an incredibly powerful and empowering tool for players in social service fields, suggesting an inherently symbiotic relationship between the two areas. They see social policy as depending on social services to achieve the intended goals of their agendas, and the social services as being shaped by, and also shaping, social policy. This two-way interaction illustrates the ecological nature of the relationship. Indeed, Ostrom et al. (2014) suggest ecological frameworks are particularly useful for understanding links between social policy and the provision of public goods. Fawcett and colleagues go further; suggesting the relationship between social policy and social services is one of the main drivers of social change in contemporary societies.

An understanding of how policy forms the ecological model that surrounds music therapy as a discipline (and the interaction between the two within this model) may help identify specific contexts where conditions are conducive for novel and creative approaches to be introduced and or practiced. For a group of practitioners who are constantly looking for new areas in which to apply their skills and theory, having insight at this level is invaluable.

Social Policy and Music in Schools: A Located Example

The best way to communicate how knowledge of policy can enable the expansion of music therapy practice is to locate this premise within a real world example. To do this, the remainder of this article contains an ecological analysis of the policy surrounding music in Australian schools. This includes an overview of recent developments at the macrosystem level of social policy, and in more localised levels of education policy, that have provided a window of opportunity to advocate for a space for music therapy in Australian schools.

To explain how the relationship between these levels has been conceptualised, and how this has in turn identified both the opportunity for music therapy in this context and the language and concepts needed to capitalise on it, this section begins with a presentation of the ecological model. This is followed by an explanation of the developments in each level of the model, and how music therapy can be seen to fit within it in a way that meets policy goals at these different levels.

Importantly, identifying this model required an analysis of policy documents. As McClelland and Smyth describe; “social policy is the expression of intent or purpose. This expression can be in the form of a very detailed policy statement, a group of related statements, a very general statement of values or an informal agreement” (2014, p. 1). It is within these statements that “expressions of intent”, or the articulation of policy goals and agendas, can be found. This makes a review of policy documentation an invaluable source of information when assessing the presence, influence and opportunities of policy in a given ecological model.

An Ecological Model

The ecological model surrounding music in Australian schools can be conceptualised as having at least four distinct levels: social policy, education policy, schools/school communities, and young people (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Ecological model surrounding music in schools showing four levels of social players, including social policy, education policy, schools and young people.
Figure 3. Ecological model surrounding music in schools showing four levels of social players, including social policy, education policy, schools and young people. [view full image size]

As discussed, social policy paradigms are informed by current debates in sociological, economic and political theory, and provide a general idea of how governments should create and administer policies for the betterment of society. Governments adopting these paradigmatic approaches then aim to address and operationalise these large-scale theories through general national policies, and policies in more specific areas.

One of these more specific areas is education. Education policy is shaped by the goals of social policy paradigms, in that governments address larger policy agendas through specific policies or legislation in school systems. Put simply, governments see schools as a way to achieve policy goals, and therefore stipulate (through education policies) how schools should operate to achieve these ends (Cranston, Kimber, Mulford, Reid, & Keating, 2010).

Subsequently, school communities are affected by education policies. They are bound by legislation to teach within a predetermined curriculum, deliver specific programs and services, and in some models, achieve certain performance targets seen as necessary by policymakers to achieve policy goals. Education policies also dictate funding provided to schools, further shaping what schools can provide to students. While (in Australia) government or public schools experience the impact of these policies to a greater degree than independent schools, they influence all registered education institutions.

At the centre of this model are the students, who are in turn affected by the school environment. They can be seen as the end-users of this ecological model: essentially, each of the outer rings shape students’ experiences in school, and how they are prepared for later life.

An Interactional Model

In keeping with Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological model, the above system is interactional. While the description suggests a hierarchical, top-down model (social policy affects education policy, which affects schools, which in turn shapes outcomes for young people), policy-based systems can be seen as cyclical (Howlett, Ramesh, & Perl, 2009). Sabatier (2007) describes the process of policymaking as “the manner in which problems get conceptualized and brought to government for solution; government institutions formulate alternatives and select policy solutions; and these solutions get implemented, evaluated and revised” (p.3). While largely a simplification of a complex, non-linear process involving interaction between many players on many levels (Fawcett et al., 2010), this description is useful in identifying the idea that the outcomes of a policy process should (in theory) inform its drivers.[2]

In our model, student outcomes (i.e. how they are prepared for, transition into, or function in adult society) should theoretically inform social policy (see Figure 4). If the outcomes are seen to promote the positive functioning of students, and the society in which they are located, the model will be reinforced. If students are found lacking in someway, whether in transitions to work or mental health, this provides information with which to reassess the social policy agenda, and its approach to education. For example, if students emerge from school with poor social skills, this should inform the social policy model, which in turn mandates (through education policy) that schools must provide social programs.

Figure 4. The theoretical cycle of influence between social policy and outcomes for young people in schools, showing the stages of the cycle and the direction of interaction.
Figure 4. The theoretical cycle of influence between social policy and outcomes for young people in schools, showing the stages of the cycle and the direction of interaction. [view full image size]

We can also imagine music in this cycle. Let us propose we can instil musical cultures within schools, and following the work of Rickson and McFerran (2014), that these cultures act as intermediaries between schools and students, leading to a range of valuable student benefits. This should inform top level policymakers of the need to build support for music into education policy, which would in turn support musical cultures in schools through funding and legislation.

While this seems theoretically sound, before making this argument in a convincing way it is necessary to ensure the benefits of music communicated to policymakers are ones that fit with their priorities, and that these are communicated using language that resonates with them. Before we can even do this, however, we also need to determine how we can argue to get music into this cycle to begin with. To determine how we can do both of these things, we need to take a more detailed look at the levels, players, and forms of interaction in this ecological model.

Social Policy and Education

One of the most important interactions of this model is that which occurs between education and social policy. This relationship is both reciprocal and cyclical, with each area exerting significant influence within the other. As described above, the influence of social policy on education is largely enacted through education policy, which shapes the priorities, resources, and delivery of state-based education systems. Education itself is considered important for many societal outcomes, from a competitive national economy to addressing issues of poverty and social inequity (Lauder, Brown, Dillabough, & Halsey, 2006). As such it has long been considered an important part of the policymaking repertoire for fulfilling different social policy agendas.

While neoliberal policy priorities for education focused on preparing young people for participation in the workforce to promote economic growth (Howlett et al., 2009), recent developments in both social and education policy spheres have shifted this focus. Arguably driven by the advent of social inclusion, over the last decade in Australia we have seen the promulgation of a policy environment which (at least rhetorically) places equal emphasis on the social role of education (Wyn, 2009). Key education policy documentation released over the last 10 years has shown that government is not only open to the idea of supporting social or subjective wellbeing in schools, but that it has become a policy priority (MCEETYA, 2008). Furthermore, this widened conceptualisation of education has included recognition for the potential role that music and the arts can play in this context (Parliament of Victoria, 2013). This opens a window for music therapists to argue that they have a key role to play in mainstream education, and that this role should be supported by policymakers, as it will help them to address their own policy goals.

But how do we make this argument in a way that is convincing to policymakers? This is where knowledge of policy literature and the agendas within them again becomes imperative. Using this literature we can undertake a three-step process:

  1. Identify the key policy goals for young people
  2. Make clear links between these policy goals and the benefits of music therapy
  3. Articulate and demonstrate these links using policymaker language and indicators to ensure they can be understood and operationalised by government

Music Therapy in Schools and Policy Goals: Making the Links

There are two key policy documents that can be used to identify Australian policy goals relevant to this area. The first, which lists indicators of social inclusion for young people in Australia (Ryan & Sartbayeva, 2011), provides general goals at the social policy level. Using this framework, it is possible to identify which of these policy priorities can be addressed through music therapy in schools (note, to make a convincing argument it is important to be realistic about what can be achieved, and therefore in this example we do not argue that each priority can be addressed).

  • The opportunity to access services: Educational participation and outcomes (including extracurricular activities)

Music therapy has been reported as effective for supporting young people’s participation in education. This has been articulated in terms of facilitating increased engagement in learning activities (Cheong-Clinch, 2009), promoting positive classroom behaviours (Baker & Jones, 2006), and as promoting the acquisition of language skills (Kennedy & Scott, 2005). Others report music therapy as effective in channeling the aggression and frustration of students with emotional disturbances and learning difficulties into experiences of creativity and self-mastery (Buchanan, 2000; Montello & Coons, 1998). Given they take place outside of classrooms, the majority of these programs also provide opportunity for participation in extracurricular activities.

  • The opportunity to connect with others in life: Connect through family, friends, work, personal interests and local community

School-based music therapy programs have been reported as strengthening parent-child bonding (Davies & Rosscornes, 2011), promoting positive social interaction (Choi, 2010), and fostering significant connection between peers (McFerran & Teggelove, 2011; McFerran & Crooke, in press). The practice of community music therapy has also been reported as creating connections within communities (Stige & Aarø, 2012).

  • Sufficient level of social participation/social capital: Participation rates in clubs, societies or leisure activities and the extent to which young people are engaged or isolated from their local community

Social participation can be seen as either an extension or outcome of the previous two points. Theorists also link participation in music therapy to the acquisition of proto-social musical capital, a precursor to the development of social capital in the conventional sense (Procter, 2011).

  • Sufficient resources to deal with personal crises: Ability to cope with problems

Music therapy in school contexts has been widely reported as providing students with the skills to cope with several personal crises such grief and bereavement (McFerran & Hunt, 2008; McFerran, Roberts, & O'Grady, 2010). Other studies report music therapy interventions as beneficial for addressing negative coping styles, and teaching positive coping skills such as: problem solving (Gooding, 2011), relaxation techniques, and interpersonal skills for dealing with a range of issues (Choi, 2010).

  • The opportunity to have their voices heard: The nature of the clubs or societies young people are involved with.

While not always linked to participation in clubs or societies, the ability for music therapy programs to promote self-expression, and give students an opportunity to have their voices heard is also widely reported (McFerran, 2010; McFerran & Crooke, in press; McFerran et al., 2010; Montello & Coons, 1998).

By matching the benefits of music therapy directly to these national indicators, we can start to make an informed argument that school-based music therapy programs have the potential to meet the social policy goals for young people. We can drill further down to the education policy goals in this area to make this link stronger. To do so, we can take the statement from the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians and again identify policy goals music therapy has the potential to address (see bolded text):

Schools play a vital role in promoting the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians, and in ensuring the nation’s ongoing economic prosperity and social cohesion. (MCEETYA, 2008, p. 5)

Again, reports of music therapy programs promoting the social (Cheong-Clinch, 2009; Choi, 2010; Gunsberg, 1988; Humpal, 1991) and emotional (Kim et al., 2006; Nöcker-Ribaupierre & Wölfl, 2010; Sausser & Waller, 2006) wellbeing and development of students in schools settings abound. Cases have also been made in regards to fostering cohesion in school (McFerran & Teggelove, 2011) and community settings (Elefant, 2010). Arguments may also be made for the role of music therapy in addressing other goals outlined here – e.g. that school-based music can promote spiritual development (Wills, 2011), and that music therapy is inherently bound with aesthetics (Aigen, 2008; Stige, 1998) – although these are not ones made here.

Arguing the Case and Finding a Space

Having linked school-based music programs with the priorities of current social and education policy, there is one last part of the ecological model that is important to examine in this area: existing music practices within schools. The field of music education has long lobbied Australian (Stevens & McPherson, 2004) international (Fiske, 1999) policymakers for a supported place in mainstream education, with some impressive results of late. Policy literature shows significant advocacy for government-supported music education (Parliament of Victoria, 2013), and recent funding has been dedicated to these ends (Victorian Labor, 2014). Further, associated literature suggests music education will achieve the full range of educational, aesthetic, and psychosocial wellbeing outcomes for students (Australian Government, 2005; Teachout, 2005; Vaughan, Harris, & Caldwell, 2011).

Where does this leave music therapists – do they really have a place in schools, or is this the realm of music educators? Recent research suggests that music therapists do a have a role in this setting. Significant critique has been levelled at claims that music education can promote psychosocial wellbeing and other subjective outcomes (Crooke, Smyth, & McFerran, 2015; Stevens & Stefanakis, 2014). This parallels a growing body of evidence that argues school-based music programs must be delivered appropriately if such subjective and wellbeing goals are the intended outcomes. This includes programs that are tailored to the needs of particular schools and student groups, specifically address wellbeing goals, and are facilitated by those skilled in participatory and democratic modes of delivery (Crooke & McFerran, 2015; McFerran & Crooke, 2014). Evidence also suggests that programs which are delivered in classroom environments, or maintain a heavy focus on training or education-based participation, can be counterproductive in this area (Crooke & McFerran, 2014). As such, there is a clear argument to be made that, if governments and policymakers are serious about achieving policy goals such as increased social and emotional wellbeing and connectedness for young people, and they are willing to fund music in schools, then helping to introduce and support music therapy in schools will help them achieve these goals.

Towards Interaction: Influencing the System

By taking a systematic approach to arguing how and when music therapy can achieve policy goals in schools presents an effective way to advocate for a place in educational settings. This provides music therapists with an “in” – or a chance to initiate practice – and the opportunity to demonstrate their value in this context. This approach also enables this value to be demonstrated using the very language and indicators used by policymakers themselves.

This process is particularly important for research. By framing the outcomes or benefits of music therapy in a way that directly addresses policymakers’ own goals and agendas significantly increases the potential for research to further advocate and argue the need to support music therapy in schools. Making clear links in this way not only makes the benefits of music therapy transferable, but also initiates its influence in the policymaking cycle. Once it has found a foothold in this context, framing outcomes in a way that links to policy priorities thus flows on to the next stage of the cycle, in which policymakers amend existing policy mechanisms to support these outcomes. It is in this way that social policy authors such as Fawcett et al. (2010) suggest that human services can influence the world of social policy – from the inside out. This also reinforces the notion of the interactional ecological model.


This paper is intended to communicate how knowledge of political landscapes can be greatly beneficial for the field of music therapy. Importantly, it does not aim to communicate all of the policy concepts, language, and debates needed for music therapists to advocate for their discipline. Rather it serves as a “call to arms” that urges music therapists to engage with the field of social policy in order to achieve this. This engagement inherently requires one to become aware of not only the particular policies surrounding their context of practice, but also the social policy concepts, approaches, theories, and paradigms which are influential in the wider geopolitical context in which they are located. This paper has aimed to communicate the potential in undertaking this engagement, and provide a broad outline of how to go about it.

Mapping how social policy fits on to the ecological model surrounding the practice of music therapy, both as a whole and in particular contexts, provides insight into how research might be shaped for maximum impact in interdisciplinary spheres, and potential opportunities for expanding areas of practice. For a field that is often re-negotiating its place in existing settings and forever pushing forward and looking for new contexts in which to practice, systematic approaches like the one presented in this paper offer a strategic tool for advancing advocacy and procuring recognition and support. Knowledge of social policy theory also allows music therapists to enter into larger-scale debates regarding the best way to achieve the “good-life” (Ostenfelt, 1994) for the citizens of contemporary society.


[1]“Ecological model” is used interchangeably with the terms “socioecological model”, “ecological perspective”, and “ecological approach” (Richard, Gauvin, & Raine, 2011). This paper uses “ecological model” to denote their collective usage in the social sciences.

[2]The act of influencing policy, commonly referred to as “public policy”, is a complex field in itself. It possesses its own history with the development of theories, approaches and ideas that parallel, but are distinct from, those of social policy. The complexities of this field, and the necessity to respect it as a different arm of the political machine, prevent further discussion here. For a useful introduction, see Howlett et al. (2009).


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