by Author Nick Wilsdon

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Exchanging Notes

Young people from the Drumworks Exchanging Notes project performing outside.

Exchanging Notes was an innovative four year partnership project between music organisations and schools, funded by Youth Music. Delivery ended in 2018 and our research partner Birmingham City University have authored an extensive piece of academic research (linked below) that documents the findings of this piece of longitudinal work. This full research report is complementary to the concise summary report published on the Youth Music website.


The origins of Exchanging Notes go back to 2011, when Youth Music commissioned the Institute of Education to explore the way that music-making was conceptualised and delivered in 'non-formal' education settings – predominantly delivered by Charities in youth and community centres – within our funded portfolio. The resultant research ‘Communities of Music Education’ had several key findings:

  • Firstly, that ‘non-formal’ music delivery had a specific pedagogy which differed from its 'formal' counterpart 
  • Secondly, partnership working between different settings was observed to be a positive process for both practitioners and young people alike, but in spite of this there was a lack of joining up between the ‘formal’ and 'non-formal' provision. 
  • Thirdly, that this lack of joined up working between the 'formal' and 'non-formal' stemmed from a lack of shared understanding. In particular there was a lack of common understanding about ways of working and what constitutes ‘quality’. So, for example, the emphasis on engagement within non formal provision and the ability of young people to drive their own learning outside of the tightly-structured school environment.

In response to these findings, in 2014 Youth Music developed the Youth Music Quality Framework - a tool to help practitioners understand, measure and evaluate quality in their own work. At the same time, we invested in 10 projects through our Exchanging Notes programme of work to further explore what partnership working could look like between schools and specialist music education providers working young people who experienced barriers to participation. The programme set out to join up the 'formal' and 'non-formal' provision so that educators could learn from each other and embed good practice. It also aimed to join up young people's musical lives and improve the quality of their experiences. Finally, it aimed to test the hypothesis that sustained engagement with music - both in and out of school - could lead to improved educational attainment and broader developmental outcomes. 

The team at Birmingham City University adopted a mixed methods approach, and embedded evaluation activities as part of an ongoing action research cycle, disseminating emergent learning amongst the delivery teams at bi-annual national gatherings. This enhanced way of working had implications for not just the young people engaged, but the music-leaders, teachers, organisations and partners involved in this multi-agency programme of work. 

Headline Findings

  • Young people at risk of exclusion at the outset of the programme maintained high levels of attendance (>95%) throughout the programme. The programme helped some young people to re-enter mainstream education after having been excluded.
  • Two-thirds of the young musicians maintained or improved their attainment in English across the four years of Exchanging Notes and three-quarters of young musicians maintained or improved their attainment in Maths.
  • Exchanging Notes led to emotional, psychological and social wellbeing outcomes. The social outcomes were particularly marked - joining in with peers, making friends, developing teamwork and empathy.  This in turn helped to develop group identity, improving behaviour and motivation in the pursuit of high-quality musical outputs.
  • Teachers, music leaders and young musicians deconstructed their musical and educational identities, breaking out of old habits, being allowed to think differently and consider new possibilities.
  • There were many challenges faced in relation to partnership working, which proved to be a significant factor for the three projects that ended early.  In such instances, setting up a joint venture did not necessarily result in a partnership in its truest sense.
  • Multi-agency working was important. Many of the projects worked with young musicians who had a range of complex physical, cognitive, health, behavioural, and social care challenges. They therefore worked with a number of professionals from across many different fields beyond the music organisation and school. Interdisciplinary working and reflection was needed to ensure a joined up approach. 
  • The most effective projects included activities that encouraged participation, were musically relevant, extended knowledge, developed musical skills, addressed future needs, and engaged young musicians in ways appropriate to their developmental stages.
  • High quality partnership working led to the development of ethical and collaborative pedagogies in which teaching, learning, and musical activity were approached with humility. Ethical approaches required an understanding of the role of music in the lives of young people. In some instances the knowledge developed within the partnership extended to the wider school and music communities, and beyond. (Scroll down the page to see the partnership working model developed by the researchers....)
  • The Youth Music Quality Framework helped teachers and music leaders reflect on their work, and on young musicians’ progress. It fostered shared dialogues that enabled music leaders and teachers to focus on planning, and consider aspects of the music sessions.

Next Steps

Clearly, the ramifications from such an in depth piece of research are numerous and multifaceted, and it is hoped that the learning from this can be used to inform the development of future work both in and out of school. Amongst other things, there is a real opportunity to consider the findings from Exchanging Notes in the model music curriculum ('sequenced and structured template curriculum') being developed by DfE (2019). Needless to say, it will also be integrated into Youth Music's own work over the coming years.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on the research, whether it resonates with your experiences or not, and where you think music education for young people should be heading in future. 

Exchanging Notes was funded by Youth Music, supported through public funding from the National Lottery via Arts Council England.