In the field of ethnomusicology, the study of children’s music has long been overlooked which leads to a lack of understanding of the complex contexts of children’s musical worlds. Therefore it is imperative that we explore the historical and current frameworks for research with and about children and young people in the field of ethnomusicology. This paper examines current trends in the study of children’s musical cultures in the field by drawing on interdisciplinary approaches to the study of children and childhood. By exploring the ways in which researchers relate to the study of children and childhood, how technology frames research with children and young people, and how applied outcomes impact the study of children’s cultures, this paper argues that the study of children’s musical cultures must examine the context of their musical lives, both in relation to adult culture and beyond through collaborative and interactive field research. Through a brief overview of ethical considerations for research with children and young people, this paper presents several case studies of approaches to the ethnomusicological study of children’s musical cultures and the potential impact this field of research has in and beyond the fields of ethnomusicology and music education.
The study of the musical cultures of children and youth is an emergent and vibrant area of exploration in ethnomusicology today. The recent publication of The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Musical Cultures (Campbell and Wiggins, 2013) underscores the importance of this growing area of specialization in the field of ethnomusicology. The study of children’s musical cultures in the field of ethnomusicology was first highlighted by John Blacking’s study of Venda children’s songs (Blacking 1967), and since then there has been limited research published that focuses solely on a comprehensive study of children’s musical cultures within specific contexts.1 This is not to discount research on children’s music, primarily in the arena of music education, which has been substantial, but rather to highlight a need for continuing research on a global scale that provides a platform for recognizing the role of children and youth in the creation and sustainment of diverse musical cultures.
There is no universal musical culture of childhood and even within communities, children’s musical cultures are diverse and often rapidly shifting. Current changes in the field of ethnomusicology provide a more nuanced view of the musical cultures of childhood, acknowledging a need to understand the ways in which children around the world engage with music, learn music, share music, adapt musical forms, and contribute to the culture of music within specific contexts. Understanding the context and meaning of music in children’s lives impacts the ways in which we view children and youth as active participants in our musical worlds and the ways in which childhood is both shaped by music and how it shapes the musical context of communities.
In the growing field of childhood and youth studies there is recognition that children’s perspectives have long been overlooked in research with and about children and youth (Alderson and Morrow 2001; Davis 2007; Grieg et al. 2007; Hirschfeld 2002; James 2007; James, Jenks, and Prout 1998; James and Prout 1990; Jenks 1996; Mayall 2002; Montgomery and Woodhead 2003; Prout 2005; Schwartzman 2001; Smith 2010; Tisdall, Davis, and Gallagher 2009). This interdisciplinary field suggests that research about children’s cultures needs to be centered on the opinions, ideas and firsthand knowledge of children and youth within a given culture and not reliant solely on adult interpretations of what it means to be a child in a specific context. It is perhaps not difficult to see why scholars have been reliant on adult perspectives of childhood: because adults have been children at one point in their lives they perceive that they can speak for children; engaging children in the research process is often difficult (or perceived as difficult); and the research process with children and young people is fraught with ethical concerns. In addition, university Human Ethics Boards, Institutional Review Boards, or the likes consider research with children high risk and this type of research requires a unique skill set that is rarely taught in research skills and methodologies courses at universities. As such, the emerging field of childhood and youth studies is challenging historic notions of what it means to be a child by examining childhood as a social construction and valuing children’s voices in the research process.
By engaging with theories and methodologies central to the field of childhood studies, we, as ethnomusicologists, may contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of music in the lives of children and young people that centers the experiences of children as the basis for study. In so doing, research with children and youth has the potential to have applied impact, which may include: long-term musical sustainment; musical revival; policies surrounding music and heritage; and wellbeing factors that are linked to musical arts and cultural practice. It is this aspect of research with children and youth, applied outcomes, that is most relevant to current movements in the field of ethnomusicology. Frameworks for ethnomusicological research with children and young people that links positive community outcomes with an engagement in the research process have the potential for sustainable outcomes that support musical teaching and learning.
In this paper, I present the current practice in the ethnomusicological study of children’s musical cultures and the inherent interdisciplinarity that underscores research with children in its broadest conception. Through examples of my current ethnomusicological research projects with children and young people and through the work of others in the field, I explore ethics, methodologies and implications of conducting research about and within children’s musical cultures and how the field has been shaped since John Blacking’s historic study of Venda children’s songs. In addition, I look to the future of this growing field of study with the recognition that the field of childhood and youth studies will likely shape the general approach to research with children and young people across most academic disciplines (in a way similar to how the fields of Women’s Studies, Gender Studies and Queer Studies have impacted approaches to the study of music–see Coppock 2011).
To discuss trends in the field of children’s music in ethnomusicology I draw on my own current research with children and young people in Venda communities in South Africa, refugee youth in Western Australia, and children and young people in Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. I address three primary issues: relational (what is the relationship between children and the researcher, and between children and those they engage in the research goals); technological (how do children access technology and what kinds of skill building are required for their participation in research); and applied (how can research be utilized by children, communities and academia to benefit and sustain musical practices within given contexts). For the basis of this paper I refer to children in the generalized terminology adopted by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC 1989) as any person under the age of 18, recognizing that this limit is rarely a factor in research projects because childhood, youth and adulthood are rarely measured solely by biological age in most contexts.
Children and young people and their musical cultures cannot be divorced from overarching musical systems in their lives, but it is the relationship to and between these musical systems that shapes the culture of music in children’s communities and provides comprehensive insight into musical cultures. Although there is no one universal musical culture of childhood, examining children’s music provides a means to access shared musical experiences that are created, sustained and perpetuated, and sometimes expected, within a culture of childhood in a global sense.
Conducting Research with Children
Within the scope of ethnomusicological research of children’s musical cultures, there has been little discussion of the vested interest children, as primary stakeholders in their musical cultures, have in the documentation, sustainment, and perpetuation of their musical communities. Moreover, a movement to engage children in the research process raises issues of intellectual property, accessibility and ownership. With most children eager to engage with technology, in terms of video and audio recording, photography, and music editing, it is not typically problematic to engage children in the physical practice of collecting and, to some extent, analyzing musical materials. But as ethnomusicologists conducting field research with children and young people in diverse communities it is essential to explore what it means to conduct research about children’s musical cultures whilst we are documenting and participating in children’s musical cultures.
In terms of children’s musical cultures, engagement with materials and systems that support the sustainment of musical enculturation is often central to becoming musical. Engaging children in the research process can provide a platform to explore best practices for the sustainability of musical materials in specific contexts. Outcomes of this process may include the creation of collections that hold future meaning for children and those adults who are engaged in teaching and learning practices.
There is a growing movement among activists and academics to encourage children to “become active partners and participants in research conducted about them and among them” (Montgomery 2009, 47). Recognizing that the culture of childhood can be examined from their unique viewpoint engages children in the research process, the methodological and theoretical foci of research can benefit children, their local communities, researchers, and the international academic community at large and beyond. Scholars in Childhood and Youth studies support the need for engaging children and young people as active participants in the research process as a means to investigate and research the context of children’s perspectives on the research questions (Alderson and Morrow 2011; Bluebond-Langner 2007; Christensen and James 2000; Davis 2007; Grieg 2007; James 2007; Kehily 2009; Mayall 2002; Montgomery and Woodhead 2003; Prout 2005; Tisdall et al. 2009). This question of engagement in the research process leads to issues that have been raised such as: Can there truly be a study of childhood (Hardman 1973)? Why do anthropologists not like studying childhood (Hirshfeld 2002)? And what does research with children look like when compared to research with adults (Punch 2002)? These questions all form the basis of an ethnomusicological study of children’s musical cultures because music transcends boundaries of age and as such it is sometimes difficult to determine what constitutes a study of children’s musical culture. However, this is a question that ethnomusicologists have begun to examine in depth through questioning the role of music in children’s lives and rejecting the notion that children are simply musical tabula rasa, but rather children are active participants in shaping musical communities that are both separate and intertwined with adult musical contexts.
Punch (2007) outlines the ways in which research with children is different than research: children are more vulnerable to power differences; most situations privilege adult power over that of children; children require a more conscious use of language; adults often lack skills to build rapport with children; adults often believe they understand children because they have gone through childhood (326-327). Punch also underscores that the researcher must not create a dynamic of adult versus child, but recognize that the culture of childhood is inherently diverse and must be recognized as such in order to understand the complexity of relationships between and amongst both children and adults (338). These frameworks for research with children provide a means to understand music in their lives while recognizing how the research trajectory might be impacted by our roles as adults, and as such, outsiders to the worlds of childhood.
Research Relationships With and Among Children’s Communities
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC 1989) ratified by almost all countries in the world (except notably the United States of America) ascertains that children and young people must be involved in decisions that affect them. Whilst the UNCRC has been criticized heavily for its Western notions and ideals of childhood, it does provide a framework for research with children. The UNCRC does often contradict Human Subjects Review Boards or Institutional Review Boards (IRB) that oversee academic research involving human subjects. Research with children is almost always considered high risk and requires parental consent (with the consent of the children involved in the research project almost never required). As such, in alignment with the UNCRC and a movement within academia for a rights based approach to research with children, our responsibilities begin with research conception and design and before the research on the ground begins. IRB and human subjects boards must be aware of the potential impact of research with children and young people that outweighs the potential high risks outlined in their procedures. Although the risk benefit scale must always be applied, and perhaps more rigorously in research with minors, children’s own rights must also be valued through a process that ensures that they are informed of the research process and involved in outcomes that affect their lives. In my own research projects I create consent forms for both parents and children as a means to provide a space for children to consent to research and as a means to demonstrate their power in the research process.
Engaging in research and documentation in ethnomusicology poses several important questions (many of which Human Ethics Review Boards have yet to catch up) such as: What is our responsibility as ethnomusicologists to communities in terms of representation? How can we use research for more meritorious purposes such as social intervention and ethical responsibility? What are the collaborative and reflexive processes that can be used in the production of ethnographic knowledge? And what are the ethics of research in terms of access, ownership, and responsibility? In terms of children, these questions become even more significant as children stand to benefit both immediate skill building and future engagement with a collection that documents their musical lives and upbringings. By providing children with the tools to represent their own musical lives, the goal is to present a more holistic view of children’s musical worlds and to move away from the historical “othering” of children and their musical cultures.
These questions all center on relationships in the field, between ourselves as researchers and children as subjects and participants, and on relationships among children within the context of the research agenda. For instance, in a long-term research project with Venda children’s communities in South Africa, I have engaged children as researchers, that is, providing the platform for children to use questions and technology to interview other children, record children’s musical performances (both spontaneous and planned), and transcribe and interpret those recordings. I also provide time for children to come back and review recordings and photographs in order to contribute metadata and thoughts on what is represented in their work. I am often with the children when they make these recordings but I am sometimes not there, or otherwise engaged, which provides children with the power to make research decisions based on how they conceive of the research questions (Emberly 2009, 2013; Emberly and Davidson 2011).
In many instances I have asked children what music means in their lives and as such, I have often found children asking each other this question in turn in front of the video camera, lines of children patiently waiting to speak into the camera on their turn. Therefore, the relationship between the children, who may or may not know each other dependent upon context, is formed through the research questions about music. This process asks children to evaluate their relationship to me (which is inherently based on power because of my outsider status on many levels) and to see themselves in the role of authority on their own lives. I have often come around the corner to children holding my notebook, furiously writing notes down on what the other children are saying and commenting on their answers (see Figure 1). By providing support for engaging children in the research process, not only as informants and participants, but as leaders. I have attempted to shift the research agenda to a stage of collaboration where success is defined by children taking leadership roles in the research process. Because my research in this area has been long-term, I have cultivated a position in which I am not expected to act like a “typical” adult, meaning that I can play games, sit on the ground with young children, sing children’s songs, and take the least adult role possible in situations (keeping in mind that true participation-observation in children’s culture can almost never really be achieved given that one can never really participate as a child and that as an adult one has certain roles in terms of ethics and safety with children).
Figure 1. Young children in Tshakhuma village, Limpopo, South Africa collecting research data on musical traditions in Venda children’s lives.
Through my research on children’s music in Venda communities over the course of several years, children have become vested in the research process and in “doing” the research themselves. Children no longer need me to run the camera, to ask the questions, or sometimes, to even be present. Rather, a fundamental process of my research has become allowing children to dictate the research agenda, to film events they deem important, to ask the questions they are interested in asking each other and to tell me all about it from their own perspectives. By asking children to document and analyze the role of music in their own lives, the children have become an integral and central part of the project—as filmmakers, collaborators, and investigators (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Young film maker recording Venda musical traditions.
This is not to indicate that this type of research is without its own set of complications. For instance, to work within the frameworks of Human Ethics Review boards at different universities, I have had to modify aspects of the research methodologies to ensure ethics and issues of consent are always met. Children are typically not allowed to take research equipment home unless I have met with their families to ensure that there is consent for all who may or may not be recorded. I discuss issues of consent with children and young people involved in the project and have endeavored to integrate them into as much as the research process as possible. This goal is not always easily met with limited access to participants when I am not in the field and changes in participants from project to project. In addition, projects tend to become larger when working in the field with children and young people as more people become interested in participating and exclusion from the research project is not possible when dealing with children. As a researcher who works primarily with young children (under the age of 16), I would find it unethical to exclude any child who wants to participate because this creates imbalances in communities and therefore I aim to include anyone who wants to participate no matter when they come to me to indicate their interest. This process can sometimes be slow and tedious as consent is of the highest importance for Human Ethics Review boards but is difficult when working with large groups of children and young people.
One of the most difficult complications to overcome in research with children and young people is the gap between the way the research is defined and the way in which the research is interpreted and framed. This is a complex space between engaging children in the process, from conception to implementation, and the academic outcomes. Although I endeavor to include the perspective of children in my research outcomes (including data they collect), inevitably this gap is present in interpretation. Even with materials being reviewed with the children involved in the research process, the complexity is difficult to overcome completely (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Young people helping to translate and interpret research data on Venda children’s music.
The Role of Technology in Ethnomusicological Research with Children and Youth
Technology is one means employed in research with children and youth that provides access to documenting children’s musical lives, so researchers can understand how music is used in everyday lives and how music and technology often intersect in musical experiences for children and young people today. Using technology such as video ethnography and file sharing through mobile phones is important as it: (a) allows children who may not be literate or comfortable with the written word to access the final product; (b) allows comparison with, and access to children at linguistically and culturally different sites; (c) has the capacity to create a sense of agency among communities that may not have opportunities to work with such technologies; and (d) provides a vibrant, malleable, creative form for children to experiment, demonstrate artistry, and express individuality.2
In a research project with young people from refugee backgrounds in Western Australia we provided iPads to several young people in the period of one year as a way to understand the myriad ways in which music is present in their lives. The youth recorded video diaries, composed and recorded music they performed, recorded and photographed examples of music in their lives and shared and linked their musical experiences together through social networking and cloud services. The outcome of this project is a CD that is being produced of the songs that were primarily composed on iPads. For example, in the song attached (Audio Example 1), one participant composed a song about her experiences as a young child in a refugee camp. The song was recorded at a professional studio, which provided the opportunity to work with musicians and engineers to see the process of song writing through from conception to production. Although this project began as a way to examine how music shapes refugee children’s experiences in Australia, it quickly became apparent that the youth involved in the project were more interested in the compositional process than looking at what kinds of music they consumed (which was one of the primary research questions in the project). Access to technology that was available outside of time with the research team provided a means to engage in composition. Through composition it became apparent that the research should be shifted to highlight the ways in which the young people used music as a means to speak to their experiences and therefore a way to share these experiences with others.
Audio Example 1. Help Me, a song reflecting experiences as a young child in a refugee camp.
As with all projects I have worked on with children and young people, issues of consent, privacy, and ethics are central to the creation and implementation of the research project. In this particular project ethical issues were significant due to the backgrounds of the children and the use of terminology such as refugee and immigrant. Working with children and young people in Australia in this context meant that we had to be sensitive about ascribing meaning to words such as refugee, especially given the political climate that does not always support refugees and newcomers to Australia. In addition, using technology meant that children and young people might record sensitive information about their backgrounds and status in Australia. We worked with families, community organizations, and the children and young people to be clear at all stages of the project in terms of project goals and any outcomes such as the publication of a CD of music that identifies them as refugees.
As with almost all of my research projects with children and young people, technology and access to technology is a means to build skills and provide outcomes for those involved in the research process. These outcomes are not confined to materials that will be housed in archives (although some of the materials do contribute to a collection of children’s music) but rather the outcomes are malleable and dependent upon children’s interests, access to technology, and skills learned through the research process. Skill building is multifunctional in that it allows children access to research processes and also provides a means for children to adapt and shift the research trajectory based on their skills and their desires to build a skill base with equipment designed to engage with musical outcomes (recording, documenting and creating). Access to such technologies does not have to be introduced by the researcher (and often children have access to technologies we use in research), but being aware of the ways in which children and youth are already skilled in fields of technology provides a means to further outcomes on understanding the complexity of children’s musical worlds and the intersections this often has with technology (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. Young children taking photographs in Tshakhuma village, Limpopo, South Africa. This was not the first time these children were taking photos but the first time they were working with DSLR cameras.
Applied Outcomes and Wellbeing Factors in Ethnomusicological Research with Children
Historically the study of music and childhood has focused on concrete outcomes such as education, teaching and learning, and the intergenerational sustainability of musical practice. Within current research practices in the field of ethnomusicology there is continued discussion of applied methodologies and outcomes that provide a positive impact on communities engaged in the research process. These research projects are typically collaborative and conceived in ways that benefit both the researcher and the communities involved. In ethnomusicological research with children, applied outcomes are almost always present, as engaging children in the research (whether through technology or through collaboration in research design and implementation or both) ensures that children and young people benefit from the research process. The applied outcomes often result in the sharing of research materials (such as recordings, photographs, and written work) and sometimes beyond, through the production of materials (such as the creation of a produced CD or collaborative writing and presentation). In my own work I have focused on recordings as a means for children to be engaged on many levels, from conception (what should be recorded), to production (filming, directing, composing) to distribution (sharing, producing, performing, disseminating).
In addition to applied outcomes that focus predominantly on tangible outcomes, the relationships between music, health, and wellbeing provide an intersection for exploring wellbeing as a holistic concept for applied outcomes. Music and wellbeing is a field that is incredibly complex when it comes to the lives of children and young people and has the potential for collaborative research that reaches across academic disciplines and has outcomes that are equally diverse for children and young people. According to MacDonald and others (2012), “music factors into wellbeing because music is: engaging, distracting, physical, ambiguous, communicative, social, and it affects behaviors and identities that reflects the World Health Organization’s (WHO) mandate for health that is not the absence of disease but rather a state of complete mental, physical and social well-being” (1-10). As such, music and ethnomusicological research has the potential to positively impact children’s lives in both measurable and immeasurable ways.
In a current research project, which has recently been funded through the Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage program, the research goals were conceptualized through collaboration with Aboriginal community members and stakeholders in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The project was also conceived to build on a preceding project aimed at sustainability (Treloyn 2009; Treloyn and Emberly 2013) and in collaboration with various researchers and disciplines. In addition, working in collaboration with a local language center that focuses on language skill retention and development in children and young people, our project is based on the development of music-based teaching and learning strategies that emphasize the value of local teaching practices and priorities, with a view to increase support for the teaching/learning aspirations and practices of Aboriginal teachers/practitioners and improve learning experiences and outcomes for remote Aboriginal children and young people. The research team includes community members, teachers, children and young people, language resource center staff and a team of researchers from cross-disciplinary backgrounds and institutions across Australia. The research team aims to meet the goals of the project through the identification and analysis of public musical performance genres that can support the maintenance and sustainment of critically endangered cultural practices and knowledge.
Children and young people in many communities throughout the world often face incongruities between teaching and learning in the school classroom and teaching and learning within community contexts. The project in Western Australia aims to explore how music might bridge learning gaps in these particular contexts to support applied outcomes for children and young people that center on wellbeing on social, physical, cultural, and emotional levels. The outcomes of this project cross all areas of discussion in this paper, from relational, to technological, to applied. Obtaining funding for applied research projects has been difficult in the field of ethnomusicology, but as our field becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, applied outcomes that have measurable positive affect on communities are becoming increasingly important in holistic approaches to research.
Different musical skills, research methodologies, and research goals can be utilized to address the needs and priorities of children in all research that involves children and young people in the process of learning about music in context. Music, as an integral part of children and young people’s communities, has the potential to profoundly impact the lives of children and young people. Music provides a means for social inclusion and flexibility and allows children and young people to engage on both an individual and communal level, interlinking and adapting linguistic, social, and psychological skills through musical engagement. It is this aspect that is applicable across the academic divide and one that ethnomusicology in particular has the potential to address in terms of wellbeing impact in children’s lives.
Using an applied approach in the research process when working with children and young people also has the potential to create difficult complications. It is challenging to maintain long-term research goals with funding issues and employment issues at the local level for academic researchers. Many of the goals we create in research projects that address wellbeing and applied outcomes require long-term commitment that is not easily sustained. When we provide equipment to children and young people as a part of the research process which then goes away, we compromise the impact our research has on their communities. In addition, wellbeing goals are not always accomplished and as such, children and young people can feel abandoned when the research project ends and the outcomes are unfinished. Sometimes, the parents and caregivers also become reliant on research project goals; ending projects can be difficult for participants, their families, and the researcher.
Thinking about goals of sustainability in terms of project outcomes is of utmost importance in research projects that have the potential to impact the lives of children and young people. Long-term commitment is often central to supporting applied and wellbeing outcomes through ethnomusicological research. The fields of childhood studies and ethnomusicology have the means to examine significant questions in the lives of children and youth. They also have the means to provide concrete outcomes that positively impact the lives of children and youth through policy development and program implementations within communities. However, understanding that these goals are not always attainable is important when creating and funding new research projects with children and young people.
The study of children’s musical worlds enables us to gain insight into who they are musically and how children express agency. What is markedly absent from John Blacking’s study of Venda children’s songs is the perspective and voices of Venda children themselves. Although the field of ethnomusicology has shifted dramatically since Blacking’s time, his work provides a framework for understanding how childhood has shifted and the ways in which research methodologies and outcomes have adapted to changing environments. At present, working with Venda communities provides the opportunity to reflect on the recordings and documentation in the Blacking collection; his work has provided insight into a musical time and place that has changed dramatically for the current lives of children and young people in Venda communities.
Research with children and young people also presents a unique set of ethical concerns and complexities that must be addressed before research commences. What happens to the research data, where materials are stored, and how children can maintain access is central. In addition, research outcomes that support applied and wellbeing goals must consider how such goals are met as those involved in the project also have vested interest in long-term commitment. While Human Ethics Review boards are hesitant to support research with children and young people that operates outside of traditional frameworks, it is the best interest of the children and young people involved in the project that must set the precedent for how we conduct research in this field.
Children and young people have distinct ideas about what their musical worlds are. One way to gain insight into these musical worlds is through research, access to technology, and by allowing children to have power in representing their own musical communities, learning processes, and ideas. Giving children a choice in how they participate offers the possibility for comprehensive insight into their musical worlds because it challenges the typical relationship between adult and child, and researcher and musician, breaking down some of the power dynamics and barriers. Looking towards the future in the field of ethnomusicology suggests that the field of childhood and youth studies will contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the role of music in children’s lives and the ways in which we, as researchers, teachers and academics, can contribute to wellbeing and applied outcomes that serve to connect children and young people within and beyond their own communities.
1For example (amongst others) see: Addo (1995), Baily (1990), Blacking (1964, 1967, 1969, 1990), Boynton (2006), Campbell (1995, 2002, 2010), Emberly (2004, 2009, 2011), Flohr (2005), Gaunt (2011), Green (2011), Harwood (1987), Hopkin (1984), Johnston (1987), Kaddouri (1980), Kartomi (1980, 1991, 2001), Kwami (1998), Marsh (2001, 2008), May (1963), McPherson (2006, 2012), Minks (2002), Myers (1990), Ntsihlele (2003), Opie & Opie (1967, 1969), Riddell (1990), Roehmann & Wilson (1990), Sutton-Smith (1972)Waterman (1990).
2For a discussion of the use of video in ethnography see Thomson (2008).
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