This study sought to investigate adolescents’ lived experiences of religious music in three Australian Catholic schools. Specifically, this study explores how religious music is used within Catholic schools and examines how religious music experiences in Catholic schools shape adolescents’ religious and musical identities.
As a practising music teacher in a Catholic school, the motivation to undertake this study emerged as I witnessed adolescents’ engagement with religious music on a regular basis. I was intrigued to ascertain the ways in which their engagement with religious music was supporting or shaping their identity work.
Existing literature revealed the ways in which music in the everyday life of adolescents influences their identity work. However a significant gap existed concerning the ways in which religious music may influence or inform adolescents’ identity work. Religious music is a vital part of Catholic schools’ identity, whereby students become religious observants to this important tradition. Australian Catholic schools were chosen as sites for this study as these schools provide a unique social context with specific cultural values and a contextualised exposure to music participation. At a time of transition to adulthood, schooling experiences play a significant role in shaping adolescents’ beliefs, values, and life journeys. Religion is a core part of Catholic schools’ philosophy, guiding daily school experiences and fostering positive life values. Furthermore, Catholic schools comprise the largest proportion of non-government schools in Australia, with approximately 1 in 5 Australian school students enrolled in Catholic Education (Australian Bureau of Statistics (A.B.S.), 2013; Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, 2014).
Music consumes much of adolescents’ everyday lives (Bennett, 2001; Hargreaves, Hargreaves & North, 2012; Sloboda & O’Neill, 2001) and has become a central part of their personal and social worlds. Frith (2007) articulated the ways in which music functions as a soundtrack to adolescents’ lives, and Barna (2001) emphasised how music can be considered as a life philosophy for adolescents. Music is used as a resource to make sense of lifeworlds and as a tool for world-building (DeNora, 2000, 2003). Literature also describes the active role music plays in the construction of an individual’s identity (DeNora, 2000). Music can be used as a social dialogue, to express personal meanings, and has the ability to influence behaviour. D. H. Hargreaves and Hargreaves (1967) and Hargreaves and North (1997) argue that social interaction, social institutions, and our social environment shape musical identities. Consideration of those interactions, institutions, and environments unique to Catholic school settings underpins this study.
A qualitative research design was chosen to gain a deep and rich insight into the meanings, beliefs, and values adolescents hold about religious music experiences. Using an interpretivist paradigm suggests that adolescents’ lifeworlds are central to the research process, and acknowledges the subjective position of adolescents’ experiences. The study’s educational environment consisted of three Australian Catholic schools: one all-girls, one all-boys, and one co-educational. Data was generated over one school term, using a case study design. Data methods included individual interviews, group interviews, and observation. These methods enabled adolescents to share their views, beliefs, and experiences, illuminating their rich and complex identity work. Through narrative inquiry, I created an authentic and detailed account (Kroon, 2009) of each participant’s experiences, in order to examine the phenomenon of adolescents’ religious and musical identities, and how these identities are shaped by religious music. The narratives were then analysed to draw key themes, as well as similarities to and differences from the literature, to determine the various ways in which adolescents’ identity work is shaped by religious music experience in these settings.
The findings suggest that religious music is an important part of adolescents’ schooling, regardless of religious affiliation. Religious music supported the participants’ identity work in various ways, including developing a sense of collective identity, and belonging to a community with positive life values. Religious music emerged as having a powerful impact on many adolescents’ identity work; it helped them engage, reflect, draw meanings, and relate to various aspects of their lives beyond school. A common theme emerged about how religious music helped adolescents to develop a sense of spirituality and religious respect. However, the participants clarified that religious music should be sensitive to the needs of the church and connect to liturgical action in order to fully support their religious identities. In fact, in religious settings, the participants preferred sacred music to secular or contemporary religious music. The participants appreciated the religious teachings and Catholic spirituality of the school, however were challenged to uphold religious morals and values in a secular society. An unexpected finding was that adolescents’ religious experiences were shaped by the spaces in which religious rituals were taking place, impacting upon participants’ religious and spiritual identity work. The findings heightened the importance of religious music to various aspects of adolescents’ identity work. Recommendations suggest educators, the Catholic Church, and music researchers enter into further dialogue to consider and re-evaluate the ways in which religious music is used in Catholic schools.