Songwriting is a poetic response to the world. As such – and as music – it can give voice to thoughts that are difficult to express through conventional testimony. Song is not autobiography; it is persona, and can provide a theatrical way of structuring narrative that obscures or complicates the songwriter’s identity (Bradley: 300). Songwriting in marginalised communities can, therefore, be a particularly useful way of exploring social issues as it provides an oblique way of approaching a story, and provides a shield behind which difficult and challenging ideas can be tackled.

This paper will consider the possibilities for songwriting in community settings as a form of research into social issues. In doing so it will draw on a number of sessions and workshops that the author has worked on, as a songwriter or facilitator . These sessions have taken place in criminal justice settings, with refugees and recent migrants, and with Indigenous communities, both in Australia and in the UK. These sessions have produced striking and original ways of looking at important social issues. For instance, songs written in these sessions have considered the historic issue of forced adoption of Aboriginal people in Australia (known as the ‘Stolen Generations’), and around conflicted feelings about home amongst people in criminal justice settings. Songs from marginalised communities are a form of social inquiry in themselves (Urie et al), but also through commercial recordings have the potential to provide marginalised, or silenced voices, with a wider audience.

This paper will also consider the possibilities for songwriting to be a form of practice-led research more broadly.


Adam Bradley, The Poetry of Pop, Harvard University Press, Yale, 2017

Alison Urie et al, ‘Reintegration, Hospitality and Hostility  Song-writing and Song-sharing in Criminal Justice’ Journal of Extreme Anthropology, 3:1, 2019, 77-110


Toby Martin is Lecturer in Contemporary Music at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney, and visiting research fellow at the University of Huddersfield. He is a historian of popular music, as well as a songwriter, musician and practice-led researcher. He has published in the areas of country music in Australia, Aboriginal popular music, and music and colonial tourism, including the monograph Yodelling Boundary Riders: Country Music in Australia since the 1920s. His practice-led research looks at cross-cultural collaboration and lyric writing, evident on the album Songs From Northam Avenue.  He also plays in the rock band Youth Group, who have released five albums and won an ARIA.


  1. Hi Toby, this was a great and inspiring presentation – strong work! Very helpful for me as I have just started a practice-led Phd in creative arts (writing a rock opera!) at LaTrobe, and your excellent synthesis and take on what ‘research’ means in popular music production will be a great help. Thanks and all the very best, Nicole

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