Making music inside the prison walls:How, why, for whom and under which circumstances does this work?

with No Comments

How often does music play a role in your everyday life? Whether it is about you singing along to the radio, the song that played during the first dance with your partner, or maybe you daydream about playing on the stage of a big festival. Music is all around us. But have you ever considered the role of music behind prison walls?

Silke Marynissen is a PhD researcher at the research group Participation and Learning in Detention (PALD) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium). Her research focuses on participatory music programs in prison. Those programs are formally organized, occur in group, and involve participants making music themselves – for instance a hip-hop workshop, a music group, or a choir. Despite the growing research interest in music programs in prison, there is limited research on how, why, for whom and under which circumstances music programs in prison work. Silke aims to respond to this gap by examining the outcomes for incarcerated participants, as well as the contextual factors and mechanisms that trigger these outcomes. Her research is funded by the Flemish Research Foundation (FWO).

Silke’s PhD research combines four types of data collection. First, she looks at the previous research in a realist synthesis. Second, she interviews music program developers and academics who study music programs in prison. Third, she conducts participant observations of music programs in Belgium and the UK. At last, she uses the Most Significant Change technique, a monitoring and evaluation method, that collects change stories of participants (more information on the most significant change technique can be found in the user’s guide by Davies & Dart (2005).

Preliminary findings from Silke’s PhD show that participation in music programs helps participants in facilitating self-development (e.g., people become more confident, they develop skills), managing and expressing emotions (e.g., coping with emotions, providing uplifting emotions), facilitating connections (e.g., connection through music, creating togetherness and belonging), and in providing respite (e.g., absorbing, distracting). Achieving these outcomes require that the right circumstances need to be met, meaning that contextual factors and underlying mechanisms influence how these outcomes come to play.

In her research, Silke discovered different underlying mechanisms. One important mechanism is the approach applied by the music facilitator. Often, they treat participants as human beings. They apply a participant-centered approach and a managing approach. The approach applied by the music facilitator is crucial in the creation of a safe space, which can be seen as a second mechanism. This safe space is perceived as contrasting to the prison environment. In addition, Silke divides context into micro-, exo-, and macro-level. On micro-level, she found that both characteristics of the participants (e.g., participants’ (a)motivation, participant’s musical background) and the music facilitator (e.g., facilitators’ motivation, facilitators’ professional background) play an important role. On exo-level, different aspects related to the prison environment influence music programs, for instance the security measures or the limited music infrastructure in prison. On macro-level, the amount of political and financial support affects the sustainability of music programs in prison.

Silke’s research provide knowledge into how, why, for whom and under which circumstances music programs in prison work. This offers valuable insights for policy makers, practitioners and researchers dedicated to enhance music making for people in prison.

Want to know more about Silke’s PhD research?
Go to
or send her an email