The resulting data were analysed through a combination of geometric analysis of participant ‘self-signification’ data in Layer 1 alongside thematic analysis of participant narratives and focus group data in Layers 1, 2 and 3. The layers produced rich data, which we were able to cross-reference in the development/validation of our findings.

Geometric analysis of distributed data generation and interpretation

Within the Sensemaker® Analyst software, all of the signifying marks made by respondents within each triangular signifier set during the process of self-signification (above) appear within a single triangle or ‘fitness landscape’ (Snowden 2011, p. 226), thus affording a basic comparison of responses across ‘three filters or scales, each representing the strength or weakness of one of the labels’ (Snowden 2011, p. 231). If one assumes that each axis of the triangle represents a scale of 0-100, then any mark placed within it will be plotted with reference to these three axes, as shown in Fig. 2:

Fig. 2

Distribution of data across three axes within a triangle.

For example, a mark placed at the very apex of the b axis would return a result of (a = 0, b = 100, c = 0) and the same would be true of the other two axes. A mark placed exactly in the centre of the triangle would return a result of (a = 33.3, b = 33.3, c = 33.3), suggesting an equal emphasis between dimensions. A mark placed elsewhere in the triangle is effectively emphasising either one, or two of the dimensions over the other/s. The closer to the apex of an axis, the higher the corresponding % along each axis, and the more that axis might be said to be emphasised over the other/s.

A more random distribution of marks would be expected to be evenly distributed across the different dimensions of the triangle, without observable ‘clustering’. Hence, the first basic analysis is to visually observe patterns in the distribution of marks within each fitness landscape, especially where individual marks ‘cluster’ around a particular part of the triangle. In the geometric analysis which follows, it is assumed that any mark that returns a percentage score of 34 or more against any given axis is effectively emphasising it over at least one of the other axes. This does not therefore attempt to directly measure the strength of feeling with which a mark might have been placed against a particular dimension; however, it provides initial insight into the data from where to explore a more detailed thematic comparison of responses.

One of the advantages of using Sensemaker® is that a basic visual analysis of the fitness landscapes arising from the process of self-signification reveals patterns of signification, which appear to be less stable, and hence less worthy of further investigation. Of the six sets of signifier, three (Engagement, Environment, Transformation) produced fitness landscapes with more even patterns of signification, i.e., with responses more evenly spread across the three dimensions. Accordingly, these were excluded from further geometric analysis. The remaining three (Belonging, Experience, Value) revealed more visually observable patterns/clusters of data, which warranted further investigation.

Belonging (Triad 1: My People, Me, My Place)

Figure 3 shows how respondents interpreted their experience against the three complementary dimensions of:

  • Social/My People (I feel a sense of brother/sisterhood with others in the group);

  • Personal/Me (I have a stronger sense of who I am);

  • Situational/My Place (I experience a stronger connection to the world around me)

Fig. 3

Responses for Triad 1: Belonging.

A comparison was made between the Fellowship singers (n = 75) and the non-Fellowship singers (n = 85), and similar patterns of signification were found:

The number and percentage of responses rated 34% or above against each dimension:

  • My People (social)

  • Me (personal)

  • My Place (situational)

The importance of the social dimension (My People) was similar across both groups, while My Place was emphasised more by the Fellowship participants. This confirms somewhat our expectation that the Fellowship singers would emphasise a ‘sense of place’ more strongly in their interpretation of their experience. However, while they do emphasise such an effect, it was not at the expense of the social impact of the experience.

Experience (Triad 2: Physical, Spiritual, Mental) (n = 161)

Respondents interpreted their experience against three complementary dimensions of:

  • Physical

  • Spiritual (lifts me out of my everyday experience)

  • Psychological (improves my mental wellbeing)

  • Spiritual/Psychological combined

Figure 4 shows that, again, respondents involved in the ‘Fellowship’ project (n = 77) interpreted their experience in a similar distribution to the non-fellowship data set, with an overall emphasis towards spiritual and psychological over physical. There is some indication of Fellowship participants placing more importance on the physical challenges of hiking, but without diminishing the psychological/spiritual aspect of their experience as we had expected it might. One Fellowship participant commented, ‘even though my feet were aching and my knees had had enough I didn’t want the day to end’ (SM-80)Footnote 7.

Fig. 4

Responses for Triad 2: Experience.

Value (Triad 4: Aesthetic, Paramusical, Participatory) (n = 160)

Respondents interpreted their experience against three complementary dimensions of:

  • Aesthetic (making a good sound for others to listen to)

  • Paramusical (more than just the music)

  • Participatory (having fun making music together)

A high proportion of Fellowship participants emphasised the Paramusical in their interpretation, but, as Fig. 5 shows, very few highlighted Aesthetic over the other dimensions. This contrasts with non-Fellowship responses, which show a more even distribution of emphasis to include the Aesthetic dimension.

Fig. 5

Responses for Triad 4: Value.

Summary of geometric analysis of distributed data generation/interpretation

In summary, the geometric analysis of the self-signification data of layer 1 suggests that:

  • The social dimension (My People) of group singing is more significant in participants’ interpretation than that of the personal (Me) or the situational (My Place), and this appears to be invariant across ‘normal’ conditions (non-Fellowship data set) and the conditions of an outdoor singing project (Fellowship data set);

  • The spiritual/psychological dimensions of group singing are interpreted by participants as more significant than benefits to their physical health, and this appears to be maintained even when the activity involves high levels of physical exertion, i.e., mountain hiking;

  • Participants interpret paramusical outcomes and participation as more important than aesthetic concerns, although this interpretation is only apparent in the Fellowship data set.

Thematic analysis of distributed data generation and interpretation

To complement the geometric analysis of participants’ self-signification, the narrative data collected through the Sensemaker® process provide a broad overview of the ways in which respondents subjectively interpret their experience, and hence point toward characteristics of the experience, which might be more collectively held. To save space, most of the stories themselves are not included herein, but links to the stories are provided as footnotes. Respondents’ micro-narratives were initially coded against the pre-determined categories contained within each fitness landscape. In this initial coding, particular words/terms/sentence meanings were assigned a certain code, with some flexibility in assignation owing to the richness of the narrative data. Subsequent analysis of the data within Nvivo software organised it into dependent sub-themes. Figure 6 provides an overview of how their micro-narratives were coded across these sub-categories:

Fig. 6

Layer 1 coding density summary: Fellowship.

For comparison purposes, an overview of the coding density of non-Fellowship comments is also summarised in Fig. 7.

Fig. 7

Layer 1 coding density summary: non-Fellowship.

The numbers of responses coded against different sub-categories is summarised as follows, with non-Fellowship responses include for comparison (Table 1):

Table 1 Layer 1 thematic categorisation.

In general, the main themes to emerge from the thematic categorisation of narrative data were to do with social and personal benefits, spiritual/transcendental aspects, and enjoyment, corroborating the findings of the geometric analysis, which highlighted social impact alongside spiritual, mental and paramusical outcomes. This also partially validates the findings of a previous study (Skingley and Bungay 2010), which found similar themes of enjoyment and increased social interaction, as well as a similar de-emphasis of benefits to physical health, and a dissimilar emphasis on improved mental health and cognitive benefits. For the Fellowship participants, there is also a particular emphasis on a ‘sense of place’ in their narratives, and a de-emphasis on ‘presentational performance’, further corroborating the results of the geometric analysis.

A range of participant responses are outlined in the following sections, which help to illuminate these themes, with particular attention paid to the various correspondences between the geometric and thematic analyses.

Belonging (Triad 1)

Participant narratives emphasised the affordances of group singing to promote social cohesion and bonds of trust and attachment between people, with one Fellowship participant commenting ‘The sense of camaraderie amongst the group became very strong through our experience today and I feel that I have made friends on a much deeper level’. (SM-75).Footnote 8 This aligns with the narratives reflecting regular singing in community choirs as reported by non-fellowship participants, such as ‘being part of a singing group is like being part of a special gang or clan. You enjoy seeing each other and spending time together. Each meeting brings you closer’ (SM-27).

Experience (Triad 2)

Fellowship participants communicated the strength of their experiences as something potent, which had a strongly positive spiritual and psychological dimension to it, ‘an experience, which will stay with me forever’(SM-26).Footnote 9 Another commented:

‘together with your singing companions your voices soar and are heard—you become part of a magical beast that is ‘Song’. You feel intoxicated almost, with the good feelings which are running through you. You want everyone to share in your happiness and to feel—if only for a moment—what you are feeling’. (SM-161)

Despite the physical strength and stamina required to participate in the Fellowship project, the stories of Fellowship participants also emphasised the spiritual and mental dimensions of the activity, and how singing together provided a means of structuring and organising their emotional responses to the activity: ‘As I struggle to find meaning to my life following the death of my [spouse] the chance to sing with the Fellowship has given me purpose. For that I am forever grateful’. (SM-145)Footnote 10

Value (Triad 4)

Fellowship participants’ stories emphasised both the aesthetic and participatory dimensions of their experiences: ‘it doesn’t matter if you’re good at sight reading or learn by ear, loud or quiet, high or low—everyone has something to contribute and can all come together to create a meaning and beauty that is far, far greater than the sum of its parts’. (SM-38)Footnote 11 Non-Fellowship participants emphasised similar issues, with one commenting, ‘the surging harmonies that very large choirs can produce are sometimes almost too much to bear. It is at moments like this that I feel a visceral connection with every other singer in the hall’. (SM-61)

The stories of Fellowship participants highlighted the many ‘paramusical’ benefits of group singing, with one summarising their perception of the benefits: ‘Increased confidence compassion and joy are obvious benefits to such events as this one but the most profound must be the sense of connection I alluded to earlier. To know our place in this world and smile at it’. (SM-94)

Discussion of analysis of distributed data generation/interpretation

From this initial geometric and thematic analysis, a number of key themes begin to emerge, pertinent to an understanding of how group singing might support the emergence and development of a ‘healthy public’. While group singing may contribute to individual health and wellbeing, the primary benefit participants across both groups identified is the way that it brings them to a closer, more profound, connection with others. For the Fellowship participants in particular, while a sense of ‘place’, and a shared purpose certainly made an important contribution to the overall beneficial effects of singing together, the common thread in their narratives about group singing remained the sense of connection they felt with their fellow singers. One might therefore infer the experience of group singing as a form of ‘communitas’ (DeNora 2000, p. 149) or ‘collective joy’ (Turner 2012) invoking aspects of ‘deep social mind’ (Whiten 2007; Cozolino 2014) and mutual subjectification (Biesta 2017), driven by the power of social ‘appearance’ (Arendt 1977; Camlin 2018), i.e. ‘showing up’ for each other.

The phenomenon of ‘entrainment’ (Clayton 2012) may help to explain why music is particularly effective at building social bonds in this way. One possible interpretation of the ‘beam’ pattern of signification in the ‘fitness landscape’ of Triad 4: Value (Fig. 5) is that it illustrates a creative tension between the aesthetic and participatory musical dimensions of group singing, which appears to support the emergence of paramusical outcomes, i.e., that paramusical outcomes are enhanced when both aesthetic (performing ‘works’) and participatory (performing ‘relationships’) dimensions are engaged. Of particular interest is the difference between the significant emphasis placed on paramusical outcomes in the geometric analysis, when compared with a relative absence of discussion of such outcomes in participant narratives. Possible explanations for this might be to do with inconsistencies in coding, or with participants finding it harder to articulate these outcomes, a theme which is amplified in the results of the subsequent layer.

Thematic analysis of ‘Theming’ workshop

In the ‘theming’ workshop, a number of key themes were developed with participants through discussion of the data, emphasising a complex entanglement of contributory factors underpinning their experiences. At the end of the 3-h workshop, they co-created a list of themes reflecting their discussions, which generally validated the findings of the geometric analysis, and centred around themes of communitas; physical exertion; having fun and sounding good; a sense of place; transcendence through relationship.


Participants talked about the sense of a ‘shared goal’ (TW-5Footnote 12) as well as ‘strength and unity in adversity’ (TW-7). The theme of connectivity and togetherness was emphasised: ‘what comes through when you look at a lot of these [data], is that sense of connection between people’ (TW-6). Another participant suggested that, ‘the fellowship is more of a collective experience rather than an individual experience.’ (TW-4) This led to discussions on some of the complex ways in which the social, musical and geographical dimensions of experience inter-relate.Footnote 13

Physical exertion

There was general consensus that the reason the physical demands of the activity were de-emphasised in people’s stories, and in the geometric data were to do with the physical exertion involved in the project being ‘the price that’s been paid forward for the experience’ (TW-7). In other words, although the activity involved physical exertion, this was not experienced as distressing, because of the payoff of the other benefits arising.

Having fun and sounding good

The importance of fun and enjoyment was emphasised, and this sense of fun appeared to explain why respondents’ awareness may have been less on the physical demands of the activity as well. This led into a protracted discussion about the aesthetic and participatory dimensions of music represented in Triad 4, and why the paramusical benefits seemed to be important, as a means of uniting these dimensions: ‘you want to make it sound good for everybody else, so that everyone’s enjoying them[selves] off that experience. However, also because of the beauty around you as well’ (TW-5).Footnote 14 Striking a balance between these complementary musical dimensions of aesthetic qualities and fun activities seems to be important. As one participant expressed it, ‘it’s about making a good sound for people to listen to without losing the ‘I’m singing for fun’’ (TW-4).

Sense of place

This complex entanglement of the aesthetic, the participatory and the paramusical also extended into the role the landscape itself played in the experience, and the connection participants felt ‘to the mountains, to the hills and to nature’ (TW-2). One participant commented, ‘somehow it was the mountains that were reverberating with us, if you see what I mean, rather than an audience’ (TW-2). This idea, of the location and the musical activity as complementary resources, that facilitated social connection in a complex way was echoed in comments about ‘the way that the land is used to help people connect with each other’ (TW-1), with another participant suggesting ‘the National Trust is a conservation charity that looks after special places. However, not just because they’re nice. As they’re important for kind of what makes us human’ (TW-6). This ‘culturally enactive’ (Cross and Woodruff 2009) dimension of the project’s meaning—singing in fellowship as an act of commemoration of the sacrifice of the lives of previous generations who had also found fellowship in the land itself—was an important artistic feature of the project, and conditioned the meaning that participants made of their experiences.

Transcendence through relationship

The importance of the idea of ‘relationship’ implicit within the act of group singing began to crystallise within this discussion, although it was not easy for participants to articulate. As the discussion evolved, the complexity of the subject began to slowly emerge, especially in relation to the ‘strongest’, most transcendental experiences. One of the workshop participants reflected, ‘we talked a lot about the feeling, about how sometimes—well, certainly for me, the stronger the feeling and the sensation was about that connection, the less able I was to articulate it in the stories’ (TW-10), and one participant asking, ‘so what is it that we haven’t got the language for, but feel?’ (TW-5)

Discussion of thematic analysis of ‘Theming’ workshop

Taking this theme of elusiveness further, if one accepts the idea of music as a ‘polyvalent’ system, perhaps the more these different valences are activated, the harder it becomes to articulate. The language of the participants point to this elusive complexity; at one point one of them describes it as, ‘that thing that everybody knows but nobody knows’ (TW-4), and elsewhere in the discussion another talks about, ‘this unnameable something that we name by what it is not rather than what it is.’ (TW-5).

Rather than rejecting this kind of talk about music’s slippery meaning as being too nebulous to be useful to our discussions, one should perhaps recognise that the ‘simultaneous multiplicity of meaning’ (Bowman 2004, p. 30), which underpins the participants’ intuitive responses is perhaps one of music’s defining characteristics, and needs embracing:

‘to the extent it refuses to reduce plurality and diversity to attributes of some unified entity, polysemy is inherently ambiguous: and yet, polysemic constellations of meaning are no less vivid, rich, or potent for being multifaceted’ (Bowman 2004, p. 30)

Indeed, the way that participants talk about their experience perhaps points to ‘pre-linguistic’ mechanisms, which go beyond the capacity of language to fully articulate, where the music itself is a form of communication that language cannot be a substitute for. Pavlicevic (2013b) refers to these kinds of transcendental experiences as ‘magic moments’ where ‘the group is in peak flow,’ and the ‘social-musical improvisation [seems] to be known within and between all minds and bodies as one, complex, phenomenon’ (p. 102). Elsewhere she suggests these moments occur when ‘identities are dissolved (or shared) in the interests of being people together in music in this place and in this time’ (Pavlicevic 2013a, p. 196). These descriptions of group singing as a transcendental, spiritual experience are not uncommon in participants’ narratives about their experience (Clift and Hancox 2001; Dingle et al. 2013). It is perhaps these moments of ‘peak flow’, which contain the most significance for participants, where their experience of ‘self-other merging’ (Tarr et al. 2014) and interpersonal ‘resonance’ (Lewis et al. 2001; Siegel 2011) are strongest. As one respondent put it, ‘singing with others takes me out of myself into another space. I felt my precious sense of self drifting away on a wave of harmony’ (SM-91).

Thematic analysis of unstructured interview

The purpose of this unstructured interview with two participants from professional therapeutic backgrounds was to consider some of these more ‘elusive’ sentiments, which had arisen in the Layer 2 focus group discussion in more detail. During the interview, the participants were invited to reflect on their first hand experience of interpersonal ‘attunement’—a recognised theme within psychotherapeutic contexts—in both professional therapeutic and group singing contexts.

The ‘therapeutic alliance’ between therapist and client—where the therapist ‘voluntarily [enters] into a kinship relationship with the patient’ (Clarkson 1992, p. 294) lies at the heart of therapeutic work. For the therapist, this includes managing the powerful phenomena of both transference—‘the process by which a patient displaces onto [his] analyst feelings, ideas, etc., which derive from previous figures in [his] life’ (Rycroft 1995, p. 168)—and countertransference, ‘the analyst’s transference on [his] patient’ (p. 25). The power of the therapeutic alliance lies in navigating these relational complexities: ‘resonance requires that we remain differentiated—that we know who we are—while also becoming linked’ (Siegel 2011).


For both of the therapists interviewed—sensitised to such matters of energetic ‘transfer’—group singing provides a way to experience others without being drawn into a more overtly ‘therapeutic’ mindset or psychologically intimate encounter. Therapist 2 (T2) suggested that the singing group was somewhere where, ‘we don’t get hit by those waves of transference that can pull you all over the place and make you feel clearly off.’ Asked explicitly to reflect on any similarities and differences in experience of relationships in both singing and their therapy work, T2 reflected, ‘I think it’s probably the same process. However, the amount that I open up [and] utilise that process [in group singing] is controlled by me.’ Group singing therefore offers a different kind of relationship to that experienced in everyday life, as T1 elaborated:

‘I suspect that the deep interaction which occurs when groups sing together has always provided a safe way to bond emotionally and socially with our community, offering respite from the more complex interactions we negotiate in our close relationships and work life.’

Safe danger

This led into a discussion of how the activity of group singing might provide a ‘protective frame’ (Apter 2007, pp. 50–53) around the experience of relationship, which one of the interviewees characterised as ‘safe danger’:

‘I think that when we’re singing together, we are in a safe state. You can be with other people, and [they’re] not a threat. There is something very intense about some of the experience. But it’s not stressful. It’s not unsafe. It feels very safe’ (T1).Footnote 15

The idea of ‘safe danger’ may sound similar to Higgins’ idea of ‘safety-without-safety’, a feature of improvisational music workshop practice where, ‘boundaries are marked to provide enough structural energy for the session to begin, but care is then taken to ensure that not too many restraints are employed that might delimit the flow or the becoming of any music-making’ (Higgins 2008, p. 331). However, in these group singing activities, it is a psychological safety—rather than, or as well as musical safety—which is emphasised, where people are afforded the opportunity to experience the healing potential of feeling connected with others (von Lob et al. 2010, p. 49), but without the deep intensity of intimacy becoming overwhelming.

While the small sample size (n = 2) of the therapist interview makes it too small to be generalisable, the idea that group singing provides an opportunity for participants to rehearse and perform ‘healthy relationships’ under the conditions of ‘safe danger’ is worth testing in future research, and could potentially enhance existing knowledge about group singing and emotion regulation (Dingle et al. 2017).

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