Dennie Palmer Wolf and Steven J. Holochwost, “Music and Juvenile Justice: A Dynamic Systems Perspective,” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 10, 2 (2016): 171-183.


This study investigated whether participation in an ensemble-based music education program was associated with evidence of internal strengths, changes in perceptions of peers or changes in behavior among youth involved in the juvenile justice. Participants were 54 adolescents (63% male), held in two secure detention facilities, who elected to take part in a two-week choral residency program. The study found high rates of attendance at residency sessions, completion of the program for school credit, engagement in musical activities outside of the residency sessions, significant reductions in observed antisocial behavior and staff-reported externalizing behaviors. Results also indicated that participants had more positive views of their self-esteem, engagement and mood when they were engaged in musical activities than when they were not. These findings are interpreted from a dynamic system perspective, with an emphasis on how the environmental context of each facility may have fostered or constrained the efficacy of the music program.

Key Findings:

  • Participants displayed a high level of engagement in the program through attendance, completion of the program for school credit and interaction with the project outside of scheduled hours.
  • Participants reported feeling more positively about their self-esteem, engagement or mood while making music than when not making music.
  • Participants demonstrated improved behavior, including significant reductions in both antisocial and externalizing behaviors while participating in the program.
  • The study found some differences in outcomes for each of the two facilities. While a reduction in externalizing behaviors was not contingent upon the facility, the reduction in antisocial behaviors was. Additional modeling results indicated that reductions in antisocial behaviors were concentrated at one facility, where participants’ perceptions of their peers were more positive following the program.

Implications of the Findings:

The study examines the impact of music on incarcerated youth, specifically exploring potential positive impacts on various personal and social measures associated with participation in ensemble musical activities by the study’s population.


The study monitored 54 youths involved in the juvenile justice system who were held at detention facilities and volunteered for a choral residency program advertised by facility staff. Participants were held in the detention centers while awaiting adjudication and had not yet been convicted of a crime. Of the 54 participants, 20 were female and 34 were male, and were between 14 and 17 years old. The distribution of participants by gender and age approximated the distribution of the population at each of the two facilities.

The choral residency program consisted of 12 two- to three-hour sessions held over the span of two weeks. During the program, participants rehearsed songs that emphasized the capacity for resilience and the possibility of social change, worked with a pair of teaching artists to write lyrics and music for their own original songs, and completed dress rehearsals and concert performances of their work. The program was led by the director of a local professional choir and was assisted by six senior members of the choir, who served as peer mentors and modeled engaged behaviors and positive social interactions. Participant attendance was tracked throughout the program, and measures of perceived social context and behavior were administered through pre- and post-intervention assignments. Researchers used a multilevel modeling approach to analyze data. Additionally, researchers observed and coded participant behavior.

Limitations of the Research:

  • The study did not include a control group, as it may have precluded conducting the study and would have countered principles of community-engaged research.
  • Alternative methods of randomization were not possible in the context of this study. In some cases, results differed between the two participating facilities.

Questions to Guide New Research:

At the time of its publication, this study claimed to be the first to focus on measuring the impact of ensemble music-making ― as opposed to a more general mixed-mode arts program ― changes in behavior and changes in the perception of social environment. Additionally, relatively little research had been conducted to examine the benefits of arts programs for youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

  • Future research may compare outcomes among programs that differ on salient characteristics, including disciplinary focus (music vs. visual arts) and individual as opposed to ensemble instruction.