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Music and Smiles: Development of Social Interactions in Children with Autism through Participation in a Community Music Group

Alexis Lyon California State University East Bay

With Special Thanks to my two supervisors for the continued support, the Multicultural Music Fellowship for the generous donation of harps, and the children who played all of the music! Music and Smiles: Development of Social Interactions in Children with Autism through Participation in a Community Music Group


Music springs forth from the universal human soul, inviting us to express ourselves and communicate. But music is obviously more than just a means of communication, playing music and listening to music are ways for people to engage with each other and to feel connected to one another. Community music is a specific type of a collaborative music making process, which seeks to engage participants in a freeing and joyful musical practice. I was interested in exploring how community music could be employed to help children with autism experience togetherness with their peers. My action research project used community music as a platform to build social bonds, in an elementary school setting between participating group members. “This is a population that experiences failure on a daily basis, your challenge is to not allow failure to happen again.” (K.E. personal communication). Children with autism often have difficulty creating and maintaining social relationships; still, many children with autism strongly desire social connections and social experiences. The challenge is to provide a context in which children with autism and their neurotypical peers can have enjoyable social experiences together. Children with autism often take part in many types of therapy from a very young age, such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Occupational Therapy (OT), and speech therapy. Although these therapies have generally shown to be beneficial to this population in increasing their communication skills and academic skills, extensive participation in these therapies does not leave much time for children to experience some of the simpler joys of childhood such as just being with friends and free-play. Additionally, most of these therapies operate from a deficit model, which means that these children are experiencing failure on a daily basis as they are engaged in “fixing their deficits.”

Part of my work was to come up with an intervention that did not add to this daily failure and the possible resulting stress; I am interested in finding ways to work with children with autism that are strengths-based and which are naturally enjoyable for children.

The psychology theorist, Leo Vygotsky, suggested that play is an important part of childhood development, which can lead to strong learning behavior and the ability to build strong connections and relationships with others (Kravtsov et al, 2010). Therefore, if opportunities for play and joy are provided, children may naturally engage and will develop positive skills as a result. As part of my work at this school and my future professional work, I would like to be able to create joyful and playful programs, which address the social and emotional needs of children. Can community music can be used as an effective and enjoyable platform to help increase the social initiations and social responses between children with autism and their neurotypical peers? Literature Review Music therapy and community music are related models which both use music for mental health purposes but they operate from different perspectives. Traditional music therapy is a branch of psychotherapy and takes a medical model approach to addressing the needs of participants (McFerran & Rickson, 2004).

In a school setting, traditional music therapy would likely be practiced in a small, pullout group and would include participants who have specific goals to be addressed through the therapy (McFerran & Rickson, 2004). There are different types of music therapy; it sometimes involves active client participation and sometimes is completely led by the therapist (i.e. the therapist plays music and the client listens). In schools, music therapy may often be adult-led or guided (McFerran & Rickson, 2004).

Community music emerged in the United Kingdom during the 1960s as part of a political movement, which aimed to foster togetherness and human connection through the arts (Higgins, 2008). Part of the community music ethos is that the music making of all people is important and valid; thus, music made by children is considered as valid as adult produced music (Higgins, 2008). Community music in schools takes an ecological approach to addressing participant needs and would generally take place in a mainstream classroom (McFerran & Rickson, 2004). The community music practitioner would seek to create a musical participation culture within a school in order to promote an emotionally healthy environment school-wide and create a strong interconnected community (McFerran & Rickson, 2004). Community music groups tend to place emphasis on improvisation and child-led music making (McFerran & Rickson, 2004). Research from the field of music therapy suggests that music can be a powerful tool in helping to increase the social responses and social initiative in children with autism. This positive foundational research from the music therapy field justifies further exploring the positive social connections that can be made when children with autism participate in music groups and music projects.

The following quantitative research studies exemplify some of the positive research conducted on the efficacy of using music therapy with children with autism: · Children with severe autism participated in a music therapy group with their parents and the children’s rates of social responses with their parents showed positive increases over time (Thompson, McFerran, & Gold, 2013). In a single subject study, a young girl with autism was shown to have more social responses and social initiations when participating in music sessions with her therapists than when participating in play therapy with the same therapists (Finnegan & Starr, 2010). · In a study comparing play therapy to music therapy for children with autism, children in the music therapy group were shown to have more social responses and initiations than did children in the play therapy group (Kim, Wigram, & Gold, 2009.)

While there has not been significant quantitative research on community music groups for children with autism, there are a few notable qualitative studies. In one study, parents of children who took part in a community music group in London were interviewed about their children’s experiences (Pavlicevic et al, 2014). The parents quite eloquently described how being part of a long-term community music group helped with their children’s communication needs, emotional expression, sense of belongingness, self-esteem, and independence (Pavlicevic et al, 2014). The “Music Play Project” is another notable community music group for children with autism, which aimed to put the joy of music making as the focus of the group and then explored the building of children’s social connections (Bakan, 2015). The group followed no pre-established genres and did not require children to learn specific pieces of music; instead, children were encouraged to express themselves through musical improvisation (Bakan, 2015). In order to explore the experiences of the children in the “Music Play Project,” Michael Bakan pulled from his ethnomusicology background to understand children’s musical experiences as they are, not as they could be. (Bakan, 2014).

From an ethnomusicological perspective, children with autism are music makers, participating and creating a culture of their own, rather than as music beneficiaries who are being “fixed” by the music (Bakan, 2014). Bakan used ethnographic techniques in his research such as interviewing the children about their musical experiences and participating respectfully in music making with them, thus the viewpoints and experiences of the children themselves are given center stage (Bakan, 2014). During an interview with the parent of a participate, the parent expressed that music provided her child with a strong means of communication and a creative outlet (Bakan, 2015). Another child used the music group to write a creative piece of musical theatre and used the musical platform and further interviews as venues to express her views on autism and to advocate for autism social justice (Bakan, 2015). This literature review helped shape my thinking about my action research project. My initial ideas reflected a music therapy viewpoint because I was specifically looking for music to change or “fix” something. However, over time, I came to see the community music model as a potentially more liberating model of music making in that it supposes that the creation of opportunities for joy and connection in a school setting might naturally increase children’s social connectivity with each other. Furthermore, from a community music point of view, enjoyable musical experiences are considered valuable in and of themselves, whether or not lasting change is created.