Growing into Music: a multicultural study of musical enculturation in oral traditions

Award Holder

Dr Lucy Durán


Higher Education Institute

School of Oriental and African Studies


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 develop an unselfconscious musical confidence born of inherited or deeply-nurtured authority. Very little has been written about the processes of childhood music acquisition in the oral traditions of non-European cultures. The three-year AHRC-funded Growing into Music project arose in response to a pressing need to study these processes before they are overwhelmed by the institutionalisation of music-teaching and globalisation.

Since January 2009, we have been documenting 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/national identity.

We are a team of four ethnomusicologists, each of whom specialises in particular geographic areas and ethnic groups. Each of us also has qualifications and experience in other relevant disciplines including music education, cognitive psychology, psychotherapy, film-making, popular music studies, music production, andbroadcasting-perspectives which contribute to the comprehensiveness of our study. Two of us are also bimusical-adept performers in the musical traditions which we are studying.

We have been studying musical childhoods amongst: Mande jeli (griot) musicians of Mali and Guinea;  Langa and Manganiyar folk musicians of Rajasthan; hereditary accompanists in the art music tradition of North India; ashiq bards and classical mugam musicians of Azerbaijan;; rumba musicians of Western Cuba; and the musica llanera harp tradition of Venezuela, an oral tradition which both contrasts with and feeds into the more formal pedagogy of Venezuela's world-famous youth orchestras. We have been observing and filming the same children ‘growing into music' over two and a half years, making three fieldwork trips to each country.

These cultures 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 there have been many preliminary film-showings and lectures in the UK, in the US, and also in the countries in which we are working. Perhaps Growing into Music's most significant impact had been in promoting these endangered oral traditions in their own countries.

The project has also resulted in a follow-on project forging musical links between Mali and Cuba: see

As the project nears completion, we are now editing our final films which will be released as DVDs as well as in full high definition on our website We are also producing a scholarly volume which both addresses the project as a whole, taking a comparative approach in a co-written introductory chapter, and addressing the six cultures individually in chapters by each of the researchers.

See also:



Tar and kamancheh in Samaxa, Azerbaijan, September 2009Ashiq saz quartet in Gadabey, Azerbaijan, September 2009Accompanying dad: surna with bolobon, September 2009Tar player, Baku, Azerbaijan, September 2009A four-year-old mugham singer in Baku Azerbaijan, September 2009Central Music School, Baku, Azerbaijan, September 2009Ashiq brother and sister, Baku Feptember 2009Image: inthegarden.jpgKanun player in Baku, Azerbaijan, September 2009Image: dsc_7269.jpgBhopal, India: Sarwar Hussain and sons Aman and AyanPushkar Bhagwat, the hottest 4-year old tabla player in Varanasi on stageRudra Shankar Mishra kathak dance practice, Varanasi accompanied by father Mata Prasad and brother PritanImage: dsc05600.jpgImage: dsc06731.jpgImage: dsc05504.jpgImage: dsc02787.jpgImage: dsc05592.jpgRajasthan: Langa boys making musicRajasthan: Manganiyar boys making musicRajasthan: a budding kamaicha playerManganiyar boys singing in the desertHavana, Cuba, July 2009Havana, Cuba, 2009

Arts & Humanities Research Council: Each year the AHRC provides approximately £100 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from archaeology and English literature to design and dance. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,000 postgraduate awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. Arts and humanities researchers constitute nearly a quarter of all research-active staff in the higher education sector. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. See Arts & Humanities Research Council website.