Children who grow up in oral musical contexts such as the families of hereditary musical specialists commonly learn the body-language of music before they learn music itself. Throughout infancy and childhood they absorb the mannerisms of performance practice and the physical and social graces befitting of musicians. Learning music is accomplished largely by osmosis and imitation, often without a great deal of conscious intent. Children may develop an unselfconscious musical confidence born of inherited or deeply-nurtured authority.
From 2009 to 2012, the AHRC-funded Growing into Music project documented oral music acquisition and transmission, conducting a detailed exploration of the processes by which children in diverse cultures become musicians, beginning with passive exposure in infancy and culminating in adolescent participation in public performance. We are considering our findings in the context of the belief, widely-held in such cultures, that these learning processes are intrinsic to the strength and depth of these highly-specialised traditions, which in all cases are central expressions of regional or national identity.
We are a team of four ethnomusicologists, each of whom specialises in particular geographic areas and ethnicities, in India, Azerbaijan, Mali, Guinea, Cuba and Venezuela. Each of us also has qualifications and experience in other relevant disciplines including music education, performance, psychotherapy, popular music studies, music production, and broadcasting—perspectives which contribute to the comprehensiveness of our study. We observed and filmed the same children ‘growing into music’ over three years, making several fieldwork trips to each country.
The cultures we have focused on have been chosen because they all have strong, relatively intact, oral traditions. They present fascinating differences with regard to the centrality of hereditary transmission, their positions on the continuum between art and folk music, the relative proportions of active transmission and passive acquisition, the balance between memorisation and improvisation, and the degree of mediation by musical literacy, institutionalisation and globalisation.
During the course of the project we gave preliminary screenings and lectures in the UK, the US, and—most importantly—in the countries in which we are working. Perhaps Growing into Music’s most significant impact has been in fostering greater awareness of and interest in oral transmission in our countries of study.
The project also resulted in a follow-on project forging musical links between Mali and Cuba: see www.mali-cuba.com.