Dr Tenley martin: virtual harmonies

Dr Tenley Martin a senior lecturer in Music at Leeds Beckett University, Leeds School of Art takes us through her latest, community based research project ‘Virtual Harmonies’

Dr Tenley Martin

Senior Lecturer / Leeds School Of Arts

Dr Tenley Martin is a senior lecturer in Music, percussionist, and ethnomusicologist. Her research, which is ethnographic and practice-led, explores music globalisation, as well as music's effectiveness as a mechanism for individual and societal wellbeing.

Virtual Harmonies’  was funded by an internal small research grant and developed during lockdown inspired by discussions with my neighbour, Jenny, about the socio-cultural scenario in the city of Bradford (where she had recently moved). Bradford is a diverse city with significant cultural and religious divisions. It is possible for people to go a lot of their lives without significant interactions with those outside of these communities, which leads to mistrust further fuelled by divisive media narratives. Jenny works for an interfaith charity called Touchstone Bradford – an interfaith charity focused on bringing women from different faiths and cultures in Bradford together through short-term arts initiatives. Touchstone’s remit is to bridge these divisions at a grassroots level through their art-based projects. As part of my research into music as a tool for social cohesion, I teamed up with creative music workshop leader Emma Smith (freelance musician and Musicians Without Borders trainer) to produce a the ‘Virtual Harmonies’ workshop series focused on collaborative songwriting. The specific research aim of this project was to examine how tactics used in music social cohesion workshops could be converted effectively into a virtual format and, more broadly, effectiveness of music on building intercommunity links. This built on my previous researcher into music and migration which was recently published as a monograph Transnational Flamenco: Exchange and the Individual in British and Spanish Flamenco Culture.

The workshop series ran from mid-May to mid-June with 4 sessions plus a ‘viewing’ session for the final product. Prior to the start, each of the 14 attendees (none of whom with prior musical training) was sent a tuned chime bar, a permanent marker, a large piece of fabric, some thread, and some earphones. Attendees reported that this ‘welcome pack’ created a sense of belonging before the series started. As we had limited time in the workshop series, Emma decided on a theme for the participants to songwrite about. The theme was about swifts – remarkably resilient birds that spend most of their lives in the air and migrate from southern Africa to the U.K. every year – a path similar to those followed by African refugees. This resonated with the participants, many of whom (including myself) from immigrant backgrounds. Due to latency issues on Zoom, we built the track bit by bit, starting with a melody the participants created with the chime bars. They did this by dividing into small groups and then coming up with a melody using the notes from the chime bars. The melodies were then played to the whole group and woven together to form the melody for the whole song. Lyrics, rhythms, and movements were created in a similar fashion during the session and then the participants were asked to record their parts on their phones and send the recording to myself and Emma. Finally, participants were asked to create a backdrop with the other items in their ‘welcome pack’ focused along the theme of swifts, which can be seen at various points in the video.

Interviews and survey results have revealed that participants found the workshops to be empowering (as they did not know they had the capability to produce a musical product) and also felt positive connections with each other through this project (many of them have now connected on Facebook and plan to meet ‘in real life’ when restrictions allow). Having collated the research from this pilot project, I am currently developing a project with similar themes only working with asylum seeker and refugee choirs in Leeds and Bradford.


The Swift Touchstone workshop series