Music Makes My Heart Happy

In the field of ethnomusicology, interviews are a critical part of researching a new musical culture. It allows for the “outsider” to understand (or try to understand) the “insider’s” perspective of his or her own musical culture. This poses some problems when the “outsider” is not proficient enough in the appropriate language. While my three-month intensive language study of Bahasa Indonesia was enormously important and helpful in my current research, I have faced a few dilemmas in working with children. Conducting informal interviews with adults is also still a challenge, and I am not quite fluent enough to record and transcribe word-for-word, but I am able to take down comprehensive notes and some short quotations from conversations I have had. The Indonesian adults I have spoken to are also very sympathetic to my lack of fluency, and are very helpful in trying to explain what they mean, answering vocabulary questions, or even trying to stretch back to their own English lessons from high school.

When I began my research at SDKE Mangunan, I wanted to have discussions with the children and maybe even conduct short interviews with them about their music, Indonesia’s music, Javanese culture, and all things related. However, there are many moments when I simply do not understand what the children are saying to me. It is no fault of their own, and I do not think them inarticulate, but they truly speak a different Bahasa Indonesia, one that is more informal, more innate, and sometimes sprinkled with Javanese. But the outsider endures and must always find a solution! So I decided to conduct a series of surveys and discussions in which the children would write down their responses. This would allow me to later look up words I did not know off the top of my head and translate at my own pace. [Readers, I should warn you this is a data-heavy blog entry.]

The first day for both group’s workshops, I had each child write his or her name, age, what they like about music, and what they like about Indonesia. We then went around and each child gave their answers. I smiled with encouragement even when I did not quite understand, but was later able to decipher their responses. Some of their comments included that Indonesia has a lot of culture, seen through art, dance, and music (multiple children commented on the rhythm of Indonesian music). The regional cultures of Indonesia are also unique. One girl, aged eight, responded, “I like art culture and Indonesian culture because it can [be given] to other generations.” And while many children scribbled to write that music is good, one eleven-year-old boy answered, “music makes my heart happy.”

Within the next few meetings, I chose to have group discussions about music. I wanted to understand what the children heard and saw and how they perceived their own musical culture. I wrote on separate sheets of paper topic headings, and had the children come up to the board and write down their own answers. After two workshops with each group I came home with a mile of subjects to explore in journal articles, music books, and dictionaries. To briefly summarize, under the heading, “Where do you listen to music?” children wrote: at home, school, church , and concerts; on the road, bus, and in cars; and on television, the radio, cellphones, and computers. To “Where do you play music?” children responded: at home, school, church, the mosque, the park; in the rice field and village; and on stage, the bus, and the street. When asked, “With whom do you play music?” children answered: family (specifically mother, father, siblings, and cousins), friends, music teachers, neighbors, and people who sell bakso (a meatball soup, often sold on the street at warungs). Finally, the question, “Where do you learn music?” yielded the responses: at home, school, church, the mosque, in the garden/terrace/yard of a house, and on the street.

To continue, I wrote up twenty-three questions for the children to answer individually and anonymously. The questions were split up into three sections to be handed out over a three-week period. The surveys were answered normally by twenty-four students per week (more or less depending on attendance, though statistics I will later detail may vary due to children answering with multiple responses or not answering pertinently).I wanted to see how their answers compared to those written as a group, as well as to see responses untainted by the eyes of young peers. This is where the language barrier proved most problematic; if a child misunderstood a question, he or she would answer as they saw fit. I was unable to clarify their responses or ask follow-up questions as I would in an interview. Occasionally I would notice children not quite answering appropriately, and would try to rephrase the question in a clearer way. Pak Ndaru, Mangunan’s music teacher, was immensely helpful in helping me translate the questions beforehand, as well as helping children who did not understand during the workshops.

For example, I posed the questions: “Do you like to listen to traditional music or modern music more?” and “Do you like to play traditional or modern music more?” Many responses where, “Yes,” or “Because it’s good.” While a number of the answers were statistically unsuccessful, many children wrote articulate and insightful thoughts. Some explained they enjoyed listening to traditional music because it was “interesting” and appreciated the rhythm; one pointed out liking traditional music because it is about love. One child wrote that “modern and traditional are equally good.” The following comments did not specify as to whether they were in regards to traditional or modern music, but nonetheless prove the power of music and children’s appreciation for their musical culture: “Music is so passionate and songs are beautiful” and “It’s like heaven [listening to music].” One child commented that he or she finds comfort in music when bored or stressed. Another responded with an Indonesian word that can be translated three ways: “Music can comfort/cheer-up/entertain people.” Children often described music as a hobby, while two specific children went so far as to consider the professional potential of music, responding, “I want to become a musician and a singer,” and “I like it because you can be famous.”

In trying to determine if one could call Javanese children’s culture a musical one, I thought it important to ask if it is common for family members to play music (and what kind), as well as how children learn to play music. While six students said no one in their family played music, sixteen said they did; these members played gamelan and keroncong (traditional Javanese musics), guitar and piano (normally considered “Western” instruments), as well as drums, galon (water gallon) and the tin can (both considered and played as percussion instruments as taught in Mangunan’s music classes). One child answered only that he or she had a friend that played an instrument. The survey also detailed various learning techniques the children use to learn an instrument. Children explained that they learn with or by imitating a music teacher. Some went on to explain they learn through experimentation (as encouraged by Mangunan), “learning together,” and playing either alone or in groups, some with an emphasis on “concentration. “

In an effort to further explore how the children perceive their own Javanese culture, I asked a few relevant questions. In comparing the island of Java to the rest of Indonesia (a country made up of over seventeen thousand islands), ten children claimed Java is the same as the rest of the nation. Eleven children believe it to be different, citing different ethnic tribes, language, houses, religion, origins, and culture as defining examples of Javanese distinction. As one student beautifully put it, Indonesia is “different because of language and customs, [but the] same because it is one nation.” As religion is a very important part of Indonesian life (all citizens are required to declare membership to one of six religions recognized by the government), I asked if there was a link between the two. Most children believed religion is important for music, explaining one can worship or pray with songs (“There is music in religion”). The two religions distinguished in the responses were Christianity and Islam, and one child asserted “there is music and songs in every religion.”

As the emphasis of the mtvU Fulbright Award is based around “the global power of music” and creating an exchange of dialogue, the survey asked, “If you could talk to American children, what would you tell them about yourself?” Children answered that they would talk about everyday life, Indonesia, “just chat,” or ask “Do you speak English?” A few children wrote they would talk about music (asking, “Do you like music?” and “Do you want to sing with me?”). It is interesting to note that no children mentioned anything specific about themselves, but rather wrote questions that would initiate a dialogue with these hypothetical American children; this may have been a simple translation error on my part, but the children’s answers to the following question lead me to believe this was their innate response, to avoid drawing attention to their individual character.

The next question was, “What would you tell American children about Indonesia?” Each answer exhibited a national pride in a variety of modes. Culture was a strong response, with a clear underlying consciousness of Indonesia’s pluralist society: Indonesia “has many different cultures” and “kinds of regional songs,” as well as “a lot of music and dance” and “musical instruments.” Other comments the children shared included, “Indonesia is rich in nature” and “beautiful.” One wrote that he or she would have told American children “about the past.”

When I created these survey questions, I had been in Indonesia for three months and was aware of Javanese shyness. My project encourages children’s creative self-expression, and thus wanted to ask questions that may hint at future difficulties in promoting individual musical efforts. I first asked, “What is the best way to express yourself?” Two children answered with words, three with their actions, seven with pictures, and eight said they best expressed themselves with music. Four mentioned other modes of expression, including making something else, playing games, and one “studying, listening, and thinking.” As the program I am creating is based around writing music, I asked, “What will you write your songs about?” Children answered with a variety of topics, including life, friendship, Indonesia, love, nature, happiness, stories, and family. As there is often a distinction between the veneration of American individuality versus Indonesian communal effort, I asked if each child would rather write songs alone or with other children. One child answered both, while ten answered they would prefer writing songs alone; one response explained the child was “more comfortable” working alone. Fourteen children held that they would more enjoy writing with other children; one child specified “I am happier together,” and one said he or she would write songs both with children “and the community.” Finally, the last question was, “How do you feel when you play music?” While one student wrote “embarrassed,” twenty children simply wrote, “happy.” Two students articulated they felt “fortunate” when they play music.

While some of my discussion topics and survey questions only received basic answers (yes, no, happy), many opened up the musical culture of Yogya’s children in a way that allowed me to work within my own language barriers. The children were more than helpful to me, though I made sure to spend most of our workshop time by playing music (I also brought cookies to reward them for their participation, this is an eating culture after all). While it may seem like an overwhelming amount of superficial information when simply listed out as data, these responses taken directly from the children will be worth their weight in gold as I further research. I anticipate their responses to be echoed within their musical participation and song creation. It also has helped me to understand how they approach creating music in our workshops, and I have been able to adapt our meetings based on social trends of the children. We have begun writing songs, and I am very excited to take this information and understand how these short responses are a true reflection of what draws the children to inspire their musical expression.

5 thoughts on “Music Makes My Heart Happy

  1. It’s fascinating to learn about your work with the Indonesian children and how similar they really are to my own American children, when it comes to love of music. I hope your work can help strengthen the perception of the value of music for those who may still have negative ideas about music.


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