top of page


Identity is a complex topic. It has been researched and discussed on numerous accounts over the years. Within this project, I intend to focus on identity within a musical context and the impact personal identity and disability, has on the musicians that have participated alongside me in this project. Before I can discuss identity within a musical context, it is first important to define what is meant by identity and to highlight its stages as well as the role they play in the sense of self for someone with a disability. 


There are various concepts to identity, with the two main concepts including personal and social identity. Within this project I have focussed on the individual; or personal identity (sometimes also referred to as self-identity), of the artists participating in Much Taboo About Nothing, and its role in defining who they are. Psychologist William James (1890) distinguished self identity as two components, the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’. James identified four aspects of the ‘me’ which are; ‘(a) the material self, (b) the social self, (c) the spiritual self, and (d) the pure ego’ (James, 1950, p. 292). Macdonald, Hargreaves and Miell, (2002) summarise the distinction between the two concepts as; ‘the ‘Me’ is that part of our identity which can be observed and known, whilst the ’I’ is that part that is able to reflect on the ‘me’, i.e. which has subjectivity and is the knower.’  These four concepts led the foundations for what personal identity is described as today.


Personal Identity refers to the self-categories that define an individual as a unique person and their individual differences from others (James, 1950). Personal identity develops throughout a person’s life, as Rigler, Rutherford and Quinn, (2015) state; ‘our self-perception is shaped greatly by the stories people have told us as we are growing up’ (p.15), so starting at birth, the experiences and memories we have can influence our future perception of ourselves. 


Psychologist Erik Erikson describes personality development in eight stages. He contends that during a person’s lifetime a human being goes through eight development phases. These are ‘Trust vs mistrust’, ‘Autonomy vs Shame/Doubt’, ‘Initiative vs Guilt’, Industry vs. Inferiority’, ‘Identity vs. Role Confusion’, ‘Intimacy vs. Isolation’,’ Generatively vs. Stagnation’ and ‘Integrity vs Despair’.(Erikson, 1994). See figure 1. 









Figure 1: Erikson’s stages of personality development 

Stage five, ‘identity vs role confusion’, usually develops during adolescence, and is where a person begins to develop a sense of self. This stage is said to be reached when a young person begins to develop a sense of self through experiencing different role behaviours and activities. This allowing for a strong sense of identity. If this experience is not supported, it is likely that they will end up in what Erikson states as ‘role confusion’ (1994}. This is when a person does not know exactly who they are, or what they intend to do throughout their future and may feel insecure and not have a stable job or career.


James Marcia developed identity theory further by describing identity in four different statuses depending on the situations individuals are presented with throughout their life. Marcia (1966) states ‘the criteria used to establish identity status consisted of two variables, crisis and commitment, applied to occupational choice, religion and political ideology’(p.551). Crisis later became known as exploration which refers to, ‘some period of re-thinking, sorting through, and trying out various roles and life plans’ (Kroger & Marcia, 2011, p.33). Commitment is referred to as ‘the degree of personal investment the individual exhibits’ (Marcia, 1966, p.551). Each variable is measured as being either high or low. See figure 2: 























                                                Figure 2: Marcia’s four statuses


High exploration and commitment levels  - ‘Identity Achievement'. In this status, individuals have experienced a ‘decision-making period and are pursuing a self-chosen occupation and ideological goals’ (Marcia, 1980, p.161). They have made their own decisions and commitments and have reached this status by experiencing different activities, and aspects of particular identities, resulting in their own choices. 


High commitment level but a low exploration level - ‘Foreclosure’ status. Commitments have been made, but not by the individual. The decisions have been chosen by someone else and they go along with it, ‘they show little or no evidence of ‘crisis’’ (Marcia, 1980, p.161). 


Low commitment level but high exploration level -‘Moratorium’ status. They are said to be in an ‘identity crisis’ (Marcia, 1980, p.161). They struggle to find their identity, and are unsure of what decisions to make by exhibiting the ‘appearance of an active struggle to make commitments’ (Marcia, 1966, p.552). They explore many different things in an attempt to discover their identity. In this status, adolescents need the most support and guidance.


Low commitment and low exploration levels -‘Identity Diffusion’.They lack any attempt at finding an occupation or activity to engage with and ‘may be considered either carefree or careless, charming or psychopathic, independent or schizoid’ (Marcia, 1980, p.161)  


With relation to disability identity, Gibson (2005) designed the Disability Identity Development Model, which is made up of three stages describing how disability identity can be formed: 


  •  Stage one: Passive Awareness starts during the first part of life. There are no role models of disability and people with disabilities shy away from attention and others with disabilities. 

  • Stage two: Realisation usually occurs in adolescence. People begin to see their disability, start to self-hate, and question “why me?”.  They become concerned with their appearance and how others perceive them.  

  • Stage three: Acceptance, where the focus shifts from ‘being different’ in a negative light, to embracing themselves. They begin to see themselves as equal, and incorporate others with disabilities into their lives. They may also get involved in disability advocacy and integrate into the able-bodied world more. 


Music and Identity:


Taking into account the models described above about the stage of identity an adolescent is typically in, as well as those described in the forming of disability identity, Macdonald, Hargreaves and Miell, (2002, p. 1) suggest that ‘music can be used increasingly as a means by which we formulate and express our individual identities’. They describe in their book Musical Identities, two concepts around music and identity; ‘identities in music’ (IIM) and ‘music in identities’ (MII). 


IIM looks at how people define themselves as musicians or in some cases not musicians, and how specific influencers, for example family and school, impact on developing a person’s identity. MII looks at how we use music as a resource to develop individual identities. 


Research by Lamont (2002) states that before children’s musical identity began to form they needed to develop their own identity, two terms used for this include self-understanding – ‘’how we understand and define ourselves as individuals’, and self-other understanding – ‘ how we understand, define and relate to others’ (p. 41). Both these concepts seem to develop in children in parallel. In the Western world, children’s identity development has a greater impact around aged 4 to 5 as they begin to come into contact with other children at school, whereas prior to this their identity is formed predominantly based around their family.


Lamont states that ‘children should only be able to develop a specific identity as a musician at the stage when they can master the idea of a differentiated identity (around 7 years old)’ (p. 43). Throughout childhood, being a member of music groups will help build  their musical identity and as they get older and experience different attitudes and feelings towards music, their identity will shift and develop.   


Lamont’s (2002) research describes three categories to define children’s identity as musicians during school life, predominantly those aged 5 – 16. 


  1. Non-musicians; they did not play musical instruments or have music lessons

  2. Playing musicians; they did not have lessons but did play instruments

  3. Trained musicians; they had music lessons and played instruments. 

Although these descriptors do not define the differences precisely, for example, ‘if the children’s responses were based on what they actually did, they should all have said they played musical instruments’ (Lamont, 2002, p.47), it separates how children perceive and describe their experiences throughout childhood and early adolescence. As children got older, the percentage of those describing themselves as trained musicians dropped. By the time children choose their GCSE options the ‘’professional’ world of music seems to be dominating over the ‘inclusive’ elements of school music’ (Bray, 2002) and so the percentage of pupils taking music is low, albeit stable.   


Borthwick and Davidson (2002), found that ‘children’s musical identities are influenced by a combination of relational factors, connected with how their parents regard them in their role of musician’ (p. 76). Parents’ experiences and beliefs have played a role in subsequent generations experiences and value of music. 


Following on from children’s identity definition based on their personal opinions, beliefs and experiences, Tarrant, North and Hargreaves, (2002) looked at how Social Identity Theory impacted on young people’s identity. Social Identity Theory (Tajfel, 1981) looks at how an individual senses who they are within a group. One definition of social identity theory is ‘the part of the individuals’ self-concept which derives from their membership of a social group together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership’ (Tajfel, 2010, p. 2). A person may behave differently, depending on which social group they are part of, such as supporting a football team or neighbourhood they live in. 


Within a musical context, especially during adolescence, people develop their musical identity based on their social identity as well as their personal identity; ‘young people’s musical behaviour is guided not only by individual identity needs, but also by group identity needs’ (Tarrant et al, 2002, p. 146) and the social pressure that may develop within different settings, such as school and peer pressure to want to fit in. 


The development of musical identity has benefits on, and can lead to emotional growth and personal fulfilment. Psychologist Vygotsky (1980) views ‘learning as a profoundly social process, emphasises dialogue and the varied roles that language plays in instruction and in mediated cognitive growth’ (p, 131). This language and dialogue, can be both verbal as well as musical, leading to gaining knowledge and new social experiences, especially cultural experiences. Vygotsky focused on the link between culture and education and emphasises ‘the unique qualities of our species, how as human beings we actively realise and change ourselves in the varied contexts of culture and history’ (p,132), and can then act upon them accordingly.  As our experiences change, so to does our knowledge and transformation of meaning, leading to further development and learning. 

All these elements mentioned above; identity in music, music in identity, personal and social identity all contribute to how we develop ourselves. As Vygotsky, (1980) believes, we are social beings, participation in cultural activity provides a means of knowledge construction and these social activities can help to build our identity.

bottom of page