Share your Fieldwork

The primary aim of Outreach Ethnomusicology is to share fieldwork research. Below is a list of items that are included for view by members of the community. 

Some of these articles are official documents of research which have been submitted to university departments, so they are set "not viewable" by the public, only registered members of outreach can view them. But, we welcome all sorts of articles within the interests of ethnomusicology, so please get in touch on if you think you would like to contribute.

When we receive documents, we usually will have a full read through, and then reply with a formatted version for the internet, ready to publish. How much exposure or access you want for your work will depend on your own needs, and we will publish or unpublish anything upon request. 

Thank you,



Tracing Memory and Sound – Building Context With Recordings

Tracing Memory and Sound – Building Context With Recordings


Context is the circumstance in which an event occurs. Broader descriptions exist, but for my purposes, I would like to position this word within itself, and tell a story that will evoke stronger feelings and memories in this room today.

The story I have in mind brings me back to a time I remember when I was about 5 years old, growing up in the foothills of the Wicklow mountains. Present in the homestead was my grandfather talking to two friends who used to stop by to share the news of the day, to have a chat with no worry about the passing of time.  

Sitting in the living room and talking about various topics for hours, they would soon be involved with trading knowledge about families in the immediate area. This would involve starting out with neighbours down the road, who was related to who, where they came from, how they were doing, and the stories that had been connected to them, the conversation shifting from one family to the next like stepping stones across a river. This, they would continue until they’d end up talking of families who lived miles away, until the stories faded, each new story’s details becoming less easy to remember, as they reached families in locations farther and farther away.

This, in essence, was an exercise in tracing memory, making connections between separate pieces of information gathered over time, sometimes to reaffirm ideologies in life, or to use story to link the realities of what existed in their immediate surroundings. And it was most often an important part of a lengthy conversation in rural Ireland in the not so distant past.

For the purposes of my talk, I will reflect this idea of connection sharing, of tracing memory, and emphasise it’s importance in building context around fieldwork recordings. My topics will cover methods which enable us to share this “tracing”, or context building, in the digital age.

I will cover two aspects to further this discussion,

a)building context offline through the return, or what is called the “repatriation”, of sound objects. Firstly, a look at repatriation and what it means and

b)the dissemination of content online


Firstly, I would like to talk about repatriation, or returning of sound to the field:

The “repatriation” or “return” of recorded sound, as defined by Robert Lancefield,
refers to “any conveyance of copies of sound recordings made and deposited as scholarly
documents from archives to people who feel that the sound is part of their heritage.”

In one way, he suggests here that the recordings are in the hands of collectors, ie those who are not part of the same community that they had studied (where he mentions scholarly documents). Here the collector is "extracting" material from a culture, the material being separated from the original place of recording, and then "returned" to that specific community.

In essence, the material is separated from the memories that recalled it, and then returned to it’s place of origin.

Memory and Metadata

In the processing step of the information flow diagram presented today, adding metadata standards is a well known process to archivists which categorises and describes the details surrounding a song or tune, and sets up the material so that it may be easily retrieved. The archivist, collector or intended end user can then use a consistent framework to access this material. However, as the flow continues and the music is eventually repatriated or disseminated, further context or “tracing” can be built up around the material, which adds more connection to the sound objects in question.

When recordings are physically taken from the archive and given back, they are presented to the community with the intention of reinforcing connections, to support tracing in that culture. So what can people gain from the return or repatriation of songs and music in a community as opposed to providing access to them online or in the institution?

History, Memory and Music

Repatriation projects have been taking place with sound recordings for decades. Some have been quite successful in supporting and reaffirming cultural identity, creative expression, and community development. One such project highlights how connections of memory are linked through this process.

In the study of repatriated sound recordings in northeast Arnhem Land, Australia in 2003, ethnomusicologist Peter Toner defines responses that people in communities have upon hearing old recordings of those who they have a connection to, maybe a family member or a relation. In this case, these recordings were made by anthropologists between the 1920s right up to the 1980s, so there had been a considerable gap of at least thirty years before the music was to be repatriated to the community in which it was originally recorded.

Toner here describes responses that provide valuable insight into how a repatriation process can evoke thoughts and feelings among members of the community, and shape the recordings into more valuable material. As you can imagine, feelings that were witnessed here involved nostalgia, thoughts regarding change and continuity in the musical style (like comparing old and modern performances), movement with the music (through dancing), laughter, tears and memories around kinship. He brings to our attention other feelings that were brought up, such as memories about the singers, memories about the people who produced the recordings, the recording sessions themselves, and general thoughts about the musical past.

Toner’s study involved here a repatriation process that took recordings which had been in an archive for decades, dusted off the shelves, and physically transported back to a community where it was once recorded. In some cases of these reported repatriations, memory and recall had survived well in the minds of listeners since that record button had first brought an end to that experience of culture at that particular time in history, not very long before.

For us, reaching back for memory or traces in the mind pulls parts of the story together to recall and then create the event once again. How we access this memory depends on recalled sensations, until we build up a picture of how the event occurred.

How then, does memory relate to recordings which are fresh and returned only months after the fieldwork had been carried out? What types of feelings are evoked? What metadata or context can be gathered? How can this work to the fieldworker’s advantage?

Timing the return

When addressing metadata, institutions are increasingly adopting frameworks to reflect cultural values. As where good knowledge of language is required for good translation work, so too good knowledge of cultural values should be present in the creation of accurate context around the recordings of material being documented. Incomplete documentation from the start of the flow of fieldwork-collection can be problematic not only for indexing, but for an outsider’s correct understanding of a culture and the message that is being conveyed. This information can be greatly improved when we look at gathering local expertise, different interpretations of the sound objects, and further recollections from informants later on.

Timing an early return can work in favour of the fieldworker, as there is a good chance that the informant is still contactable, lives in the same community, often times not translocated. Additionally, issues with the fieldwork may be avoided while the intentions for release have been reflected upon over time.

Consequently, when repatriating these objects to communities and collect more context, we can increase the value of the materials for the local community, and also for the archive.

Disseminating Content Online

As described earlier in this panel, the dissemination of content refers to a kind of presentation of material which can happen in a number of different ways, one of them being to broadcast information to an online audience, to a number of communities who might connect to retrieve the information concerned. During the “information flow” which takes place, websites serving digital material are not only digital archives, but also act as references points, adding to this sense of “broadcasting”, as it is shared with more than one geographical location outside of the context in which they were recorded.

We see today, dissemination of mass amounts of data online, broadcast to multiple audiences, sometimes whether the information is intended to reach them or not. In a web 2.0 world, the ways in which we may reach the wider public, and connect communities who might be interested in sharing audio recordings with knowledge are becoming more commonplace in communities and institutions the world over.

Connecting to others online, referencing sources, linking between webpages and websites, all serve to promote the very foundation on which the internet is based – that of open access. If carefully managed, media can be extremely useful to both performers within their community, enthusiasts, the public and scholars. As collections online continue to grow, with greater available storage space possible, memory and metadata can provide strong links between people in various cultural groups.

One great example of the powerful exchange of information and knowledge is a very successful and richly populated website, entitled “thesession”, to be found at “[all the w’s]”. It provides musicians with the ability to document the music that they play in informal gatherings of music jams throughout the world. It is an example of how cultural materials such as tunes and songs can be presented and shared among public online for the greater good without the controlling impact of copyright or restricted access to interact.

The session started over a decade ago as a non-profit resource where Irish traditional music could be shared between musicians who attend informal pub sessions throughout the world. There has been invaluable service to performers since its inception.

Documentation occurs in many ways

 a) Commercial Recordings and variants in tune names

 b) ABC and staff notation

 c) Comments and differing versions of mostly traditional Irish dance music may be submitted by users and shared freely amongst the online community and made accessible to the world (you don’t have to login to view the information).

As a free guest user, when you search for a tune and click on the result, you are presented with all of the previously submitted information about the tune itself from members of the online community. Very often in the comments section there are other versions of the tune transcribed, sometimes up to four or five versions at a time. In this musical tradition, there is very often multiple names for the tunes that are presented. Here, the user can see different noted names from various sources for that same tune.

There is no great skill needed in submitting content, therefore it is user friendly for all who might be interested in contributing. The user base is of those who are not necessarily computer programmers or authoritative academics, but just performers of the music who want to share their experiences  with others.

With models of user driven websites such as thesession, the quality of content submitted can either be sometimes misleading, in that users may not always have an attention to detail. Bad transcription or poor documentation of recordings leaves the end user with incorrect information which can be noticeable by others, especially when they play the tune “wrong” in a session performance.

However, thesession can be an invaluable tool in aiding one to learn music in the tradition when used wisely. One only has to hear the name of a tune, check it out as a reference on the website to learn the “bones”, or the “gist” of the new piece, and then finish the learning while listening to commercial recordings by seasoned musicians, or by going out and enquiring about it at a session. In a similar fashion to this, the bones of a tune is learnt in a session by playing quietly and worked on until the piece has been completely picked up and improved upon, then shared with the next learner.

Similarly, notating song and sharing of knowledge online, can serve to foster a continuation of exchange, of adding meaning and joining connections between sound objects.

Projects such as the Song Collectors Collective now have the opportunity to continue the interest in collecting, to add value to what has been indexed, and to return valuable memories that can be connected, traced and shared by communities. As the digital age gives us opportunities and tools to achieve this, the work we do in the support of culture has potential in sharing these tools, and memories for years to come.