Community music is a vibrant and widespread phenomenon in Australia, enriching the lives of millions of people across the country. It is flourishing in every imaginable location from bustling urban centres to remote outback towns. Much of this activity remains hidden from the outside world. This invisibility seems to stem from community music’s greatest strength: strong local engagement and support, often leading to relative independence from external drivers and forces.

To learn more about this unsung but significant aspect of Australia’s musical life, Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre launched Sound Links, a two-year research project, in collaboration with partner organisations Music Council of Australia, Australian Music Association, and the Australian Society for Music Education, funded by the Australian Research Council. The Sound Links research team came to the project with long-standing backgrounds in community music and music education, and consisted of Professor Huib Schippers (Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre Griffith University), Associate Professor Peter Dunbar-Hall (Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney), Dr Richard Letts (Music Council of Australia), and Research Fellow Dr Brydie-Leigh Bartleet (Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre Griffith University).

Sound Links sought to uncover the dynamics of community music in Australia and the models it represents for music learning and teaching in formal and informal settings. The research team focused on a careful selection of six contrasting communities, ranging from multicultural suburbs to largely monocultural country towns, from rural networks to remote Indigenous communities, and interviewed and observed over 400 participants in these settings. A further 200 participants also contributed towards a nation-wide survey on the topic. The resulting report was launched as a book on 10 May 2009 at a Community Music Symposium co-hosted by Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre and Music. Play for Life.

The 250-page Sound Links report paints a vivid picture of musical activity in Australia, and makes a number of recommendations for creating a sustainable environment for community music. From an international perspective, it also constitutes the first study that considers widely different practices with a consistent approach, creating the opportunity to draw conclusions about site-and project-specific characteristics, as well as more general features of community music activities.

The scope for case studies in music was vast: across Australia, there is a bewildering array of community activities. ranging from almost invisible small-scale initiatives to fairly major organisations. From this wealth of possible examples, with input from Music. Play for Life, the partner organisations and their vast networks. six were selected from a list of over 20. These communities included a middle-class outer suburban location (Dandenong Ranges, Victoria), a large established regional city (Albany, Western Australia), a small rural town (McLaren Vale, South Australia), a culturally diverse urban area (Fairfield City, New South Wales), a remote Indigenous setting (Borroloola, Northern Territory), and an urban Indigenous setting (lnala, Queensland).

Dandenong Ranges, Victoria

The Dandenong Ranges Music Council (DRMC) case study provided a vibrant model for creative and innovative community partnerships, both through their ongoing activities and through their flagship projects such as the Fire Cycle Project, Composers Connecting Community, and the Water Cycle Project. This commitment to partnership building also extends to education, where the DRMC has successful school-community collaborations that occur on an everyday level and a flagship level. At the heart of many of these collaborations is a strong commitment towards supporting activities and events that centre on local issues, which have been developed through consultation processes with the broader community. The programs show a commitment to social inclusion and provide equal opportunities for participation regardless of age or abilities. As Bev McAlister (DRMC Executive Officer) describes: “The DRMC’s philosophy is about creating the opportunity for people of all ages and abilities to make music, and for music to be performed and integrated into the lifestyle of the community” (personal interview, 14 September 2007). Overall, the creative and inspiring leadership given by Bev McAlister and the DRMC team is a striking factor in its success and in particular, how they nurture sustainability and independence amongst the organisation’s various units.

Albany, Western Australia

The Albany case study revealed a striking community-mindedness in this regional centre, which translated into a commitment towards participating in and supporting community music-making. Due to the scale and close-knit nature of Albany, the interaction between the community groups was very high. Sheena Prince (Senior Music Teacher, Albany Senior High School) notes this shared approach to music-making: “In Albany I’ve been really impressed with the number of people who’ve wanted to get better at their craft and share it with other people” (personal interview, 15 October 2007). This creative climate was also strongly nurtured by community leaders and philanthropists, who are part of a long and significant tradition of supporting and fostering the arts in Albany. From an educational perspective, engaged teachers played a significant role. Likewise, highly useful models of informal and non-formal music learning and teaching were found, such as the popular music program Recipe for Jam and the Celtic music program Just Fiddling.

McLaren Vale, South Australia

The McLaren Vale case study provided a practical model of how a school-initiated community music program can take shape. The Tatachilla Lutheran College is nurturing a number of school-community collaborations which show a commitment to intergenerational learning, and in turn enhance the school’s curriculum and students’ learning experiences. These programs, such as the Community Carols, also provide important music educational opportunities for parents, grandparents, and the broader community. Greg John (1-lead of Performing Arts, Tatachilla Lutheran College) explains the importance of this inclusive approach to community music-making: “It’s about community building and relationship building and the underpinning thing in all of this is the music. That’s the thread that goes through all this community building around here, where you can get people from the stiff accountant through to the hippy performing together“ (personal interview, 9 December 2007). Clear structure, support and key leaders were also identified as crucial elements in the successful running of these events. The community music in this region was not simply limited to Tatachilla Lutheran College. A range of other significant venues and places nurture community music activities in McLaren Vale and neighbouring towns.

Fairfield, New South Wales

The Fairfield City case study examined how community music programs operate in a culturally diverse urban location. This case study gives compelling evidence for the connectivity between community music and cultural identity, particularly in case of migrant communities. Many attributed Fairfield City’s musical vibrancy to the strong commitment musicians feel towards maintaining their cultural customs and traditions. As Tiffany Lee-Shoy (Senior Policy Advisor, Cultural Planning, Fairfield City Council) suggests: “One of the things that you’ll notice is the use of traditional forms of art, particularly music and dance, to be that conduit of adjusting to life in Australia where there is a leaning on homeland culture to be that connection socially, and to be that connection toward culture as well in Australia” (personal interview, 18 February 2008). Community music also connects the generations of particular cultures and impacts upon the somewhat complicated situation that arises when second and third generation migrants look to define themselves in relation to their parents’ and grandparents’ cultures. This case study has hinted at the role community music could play in connecting these cultural groups further. At present, the most visible cultural connections are in schools and various community music educational programs, with a very positive impact on the lives of the young people.

Booroloola, Northern Territory

The Borroloola case study revealed something of how community music operates in a remote Indigenous context. It showed that notions of culture, kinship and the land are deeply connected to Indigenous concepts of community, and by extension community music. In other words, music-making here cannot be understood independently from its relationship to people and places. Liz Mackinlay (a long-standing researcher in the community) explains the importance of these connections: “Everybody relates to each other as family, but that family relationship is inherently linked to country and where people live is about country. People are really strong about keeping these relationships to country in place, but those relationships aren’t divorced from family. So I think that’s partly what community is about here; country and family. Music is one of those very powerful and potent ways that those two things come together” (personal interview, 25 April 2008). The strong connections between “traditional” and “contemporary” ways of making music, singing and dancing were observed through the women’s culture and the recontextualisation of traditional cultural messages through popular music in the four local bands. From an educational perspective, many identified the important role that music could play in connecting young people with their culture, and the potential of school-community collaborations to facilitate this was being explored. It was also observed that somewhat controversial external forces, most recently a local mine’s community benefits trust, have the potential to positively impact upon the provision of music and the arts in the community.

Inala, Queensland

The lnala case study demonstrated how a community-driven program, strongly supported by a local council, can be used to engage young Indigenous people in an urban context, and allow them to feel a sense of pride about their cultural identity. As observed in the case of Stylin’ UP, in order to engender this strong sense of community ownership and engagement, a rigorous community consultation process is needed. By and large, this consultation process is highly successful, but is not without its challenges in terms of intergenerational and intercultural interactions. There is a complex balancing act to meet the needs of council. community and schools in the organisation of the workshops and event day. This model heavily relies on sensitive and high quality organisers, negotiators and facilitators who are able to run the skills development workshops, liaise with schools and work closely with the local community to address such issues. It is important to choose a musical genre that engages its target group, in this case hip hop and R ‘n’ B. The case study also uncovered compelling evidence to show how such genres can create a sense of cultural identity. community, and empowerment amongst Indigenous youth. As Chelsea Bond (Community Crew member) says, “Stylin’ UP is our corroboree for today and that’s what I think has pulled people in over the years and attracted people to it. It has imagined us very differently to how we’re frequently talked about” (personal interview, 16 June 2008).

The Sound Links nation-wide survey was designed to validate the aforementioned case study findings and benchmark them against national impressions and perceptions. The survey was developed in consultation with the partner organisations and distributed online to music educators, community music facilitators and practitioners, music therapists and arts administrators. Over 200 people responded, representing every state and territory.

The results revealed a number of significant trends, particularly in terms of success factors. learning and teaching models and school-community collaborations. While a wide range of practitioners working across many different styles and cultural traditions responded to the survey, school teachers made up the highest proportion of respondents (60.3%) and a large proportion of those respondents were involved in choral music (48.6%) at the time of responding.

The Sound Links survey identified critical success factors in Australian community music, the top five being:

  1. Inspiring leadership from an individual (64.7%)
  2. Careful planning (62.8%)
  3. Location, venue and facilities (62.2%)
  4. Support from the broader community (61.5%); and
  5. Choice of repertoire/style/genre (59.6%).

These success factors were all highly evident in the case studies.

In terms of learning and teaching in community settings, survey respondents noted the prevalence of one-way instructional teaching and peer or collaborative learning. Many of the responses touched on the need for the musical director/conductor to be flexible, responsive to participants’ needs, and to acknowledge differing skill levels. A focus on the process, the enjoyment of learning and the social factors of playing music together were also noted. The most striking response: 74.3% of respondents believe the connections between the schools and community music are not reaching their full potential. This illustrates the importance of finding positive models for how these connections can be initiated and developed more effectively.

The research team was impressed with the loose but often very effective organisational structures found through the six case studies and nation-wide survey. These structures have evolved in most cases as the result of a bottom-up process, highly adaptable to change, challenges and new opportunities, and often led by a single visionary individual. Related to this is the array of approaches to learning and teaching that were encountered, ranging from the informal to highly formalised, and in most cases with considerable sensitivity to context and fitness for purpose. The potential of music education in schools for creating synergies with this powerful and self-energising force is great and far from being fulfilled.

Given the fact that each of the six case studies was selected to represent a very different set of circumstances and environment, many of the characteristics of the community music activities observed were unique to their specific participants, facilitators, sites, contexts, aims, and infrastructure. However, there were also strongly shared underlying characteristics between the activities. These were identified under nine key domains, shown in Figure 1. The most important characteristics of almost any community music project can be described under these headings.

The identification and exploration of these nine domains also allowed the research team to juxtapose six widely different practices through a single methodology. and may well constitute the most significant outcome of Sound Links. This nine-domain framework has achieved this without forcing diverse practices into a single definition or by establishing value judgements, but rather by creating a practice-based, demonstrably successful instrument to describe and gauge community music activities in and between settings.


The Sound Links report outlines a number of concrete recommendations based on the nine domains identified and designed to create a sustainable environment for community music to flourish in Australia now and into the future. The most significant recommendation on a national scale was to initiate a community music network in Australia. Wasting no time, Music. Play for Life acted upon this recommendation. Meanwhile, the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University is investigating how it can integrate community music training into its undergraduate and postgraduate offerings. The research team hopes that these initiatives, and the implementation of the other recommendations outlined in the report, will ensure a sustained and growing engagement with the vibrant realities of community music in Australia in the years to come.

The Book

The book Sound Links: Community Music in Australia can be ordered in hard copy from the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre for $39.95 (incl. postage). Email to place an order. Free downloadable copies are available from the MCA website.


Brydie-Leigh Bartleet. First published in Music Forum, Vol. 15, No. 4, August-October 2009. Entered on Knowledge Base 16 October 2013.

Dr Brydie-Leigh Bartleet is a Senior Lecturer at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. She is Deputy Director of the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, convenor of the Music and Communities Strand and convenor of the Bachelor of Music Honours Program. Her current research includes an Australia Research Council funded project Captive Audiences (2012-2013), which explores performing arts rehabilitation programs in prisons. Prior to this she worked on the Australia Research Council funded project Sound Links (2007-2008), which was one of the largest studies into community music in Australia. She is also Project Leader of an Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching funded project Enhancing Indigenous Content in Performing Arts Curricula Through Service Learning with Indigenous Communities (2011-2013), which focuses on community service learning with universities and Indigenous communities. Recently she was awarded a Visiting Fellowship from the University of Cambridge to work on a new Commonwealth intercultural arts project in 2013. In recent years she has secured over half a million dollars worth of competitive grants, and has over 90 publications on topics such as community music, intercultural arts projects, service learning, conducting practice and music autoethnography. Dr Bartleet also serves on a range of international and national boards, including the International Society for Music Education’s Community Music Activities Commission, the Board of the Music Council of Australia (MCA), the editorial board for the International Journal of Music Education — Practice and the International Journal of Community Music, and the Asia Pacific Community Music Network to mention a few. As a community music facilitator Dr Bartleet has conducted bands, orchestras, choirs, and jazz ensembles from Australia, Thailand, Singapore and Taiwan.

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