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How music and sound can help advance the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

What roles can music and sound play in driving and enabling sustainable development in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond?

The arts and culture are not explicitly represented in the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), a global agenda set by the United Nations. However, local, national, and international stakeholders have increasingly recognised the importance of arts and culture in achieving them. Research suggests that music, for example, has an important role to play in driving and enabling sustainable development.

And yet, music and sound have only been minimally featured in policy action to achieve the SDGs. How can music and sound help advance the SDGs? What value might come from more deeply integrating music and sound into sustainable development efforts? In recent research, we turned to three cultural initiatives in our region, the Asia-Pacific, to explore these questions.

If the SDGs are to be realised by 2030, as the UN hopes, the global community will need to pull out all stops. This means exploring less established, more unconventional ways to advance sustainable development, such as through music and sound.

Catherine Grant

Promoting health, equality, and resilience through music

In 2020, on the island of Sumba in Indonesia, local non-government organisation Sumba Integrated Development launched its project Revitalizing Traditional Marapu Cultural Assets. At the heart of the project were the traditional musical and other cultural expressions of the Marapu people, the local adherents of the Indigenous Marapu religion. 

In recent years, the unique cultural practices associated with the Marapu religion have been in decline. Rapid conversion of Marapu adherents to Christianity, combined with unfavourable government policies and social stigmatisation of Marapu adherents, have meant that Marapu people in East Sumba have faced serious social as well as cultural challenges.

In supporting Marapu communities to document, revitalise, and celebrate their traditional cultural practices, SID’s project has had clear cultural sustainability outcomes. But raising the profile of Marapu cultural expressions has advanced sustainable development goals too, especially in the areas of health and wellbeing (SDG 3), social equality (SDG10), and sustainable communities (SDG11).

During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, inspired by the project’s workshops and performances, Marapu artists (like Ata Ratu) began to use traditional song forms to disseminate culturally appropriate health information to their communities. These widely shared videos encouraged Marapu (and other) people to engage in healthy practices, to remain socially connected even at a distance, and to stay strong through the challenges of the pandemic.

Video Summary: Through song, Marapu singer Ata Ratu shares a health and wellbeing message with her people

Marapu people have also drawn on the project outcomes to successfully advocate for greater local government support for traditional Marapu culture, and the project recordings and other materials are being integrated into school curricula across East Sumba. In these ways, this project continues to support development efforts by advancing equality for Marapu people in wider Sumbanese society.

Sustaining life below water through sound

An initiative that uses sound in sustainable development is the Australian project River Listening. By generating hydrophone (underwater) audio recordings, its researchers can detect the presence (or absence) of certain species. In this way, they can gauge the health of rivers non-invasively, through sound, and take steps to improve it.

River Listening also engages local communities in freshwater conservation efforts. For example, communities are supported to create local augmented reality ‘sound walks’. Using a mobile phone app, listeners can walk along a river while hearing its underwater soundscapes. They can also listen to local voices recount stories about life above and below the water. By experiencing and using sound creatively, communities come to understand and appreciate their local river systems in new ways.

River Listening engages with climate action (SDG 13), by drawing attention to the effect of the climate crisis on biodiversity decline in river ecosystems. It promotes sustainable communities (SDG 11), by encouraging communities to share local resources and knowledge, and to develop sustainable environmental practices. And in inspiring people to learn about, and care for, underwater life, it supports and sustains life below water (SDG 14).

Video Summary: The university research project “River Listening” has combined art and science in assessing the ecological health of the River Thames

Advancing climate action through traditional culture

Our final example blurs the boundaries between music and sound. On the island of Espiritu Santo in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu, the people of Leweton village are using their traditional cultural practice Ëtëtungor “Vanuatu Women’s Water Music”—to agitate for stronger and fairer climate action.

In the practice of Ëtëtung, a group of women and girls stand waist-deep in coastal shallows, creeks, or waterholes, and slap the water’s surface in different ways, creating a surprising array of sounds. These sounds reflect those in the natural environment—the call of a certain species of fish or bird, or the sound of rain on rock. As the climate crisis makes its effects felt, the changing sounds of the local environment are reflected in the sounds of Ëtëtung.

Ëtëtung being a distinctive and attractive cultural practice, the people of Leweton are regularly invited to perform at festivals, summits, and symposia, in Vanuatu and abroad. These invitations offer an opportunity to participate in important policy and scholarly discussions on water management, environmental care, and the climate crisis (SDG 13). In this way, the people of Leweton are drawing regional and international attention to the effects of climate change on their small-island Indigenous community.

Video Summary: Official trailer for the film ‘Vanuatu Women’s Water Music’, featuring the girls and women of Leweton village

By generating income through cultural tourism, Ëtëtung is also boosting economic prospects for the villagers (SDG 8). In turn, economic strength increases the community’s resilience to external shocks (SDG 11), such as the tropical cyclones that frequently affect the nation. By affording a way for girls and women to participate in the economic life of their community, Ëtëtung is also locally advancing gender equality (SDG 5).

Conclusions

These examples from Australia, Indonesia, and Vanuatu suggest that music and sound have diverse roles to play in sustainable development efforts. From health and wellbeing to climate action, from improving social equality to conserving life underwater, cultural initiatives involving music and sound can support meaningful progress towards the UN’s SDGs. Further cases around the world are backing these findings.

Music and sound can convey knowledge about sustainable development in unconventional ways, and can bolster action on the SDGs. As local communities, societies, governments, NGOs, and international bodies like UNESCO ramp up efforts to achieve the SDGs by 2030, we suggest that these stakeholders further integrate music and sound into their efforts, supporting such initiatives through funding and resources, and working together to maximize their benefit to sustainable development. The payoffs may be high. 

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Journal reference

Grant, C., Bartleet, B. L., Barclay, L., Lamont, J., & Sur, S. (2022). Integrating music and sound into efforts to advance the sustainable development goals in the Asia-Pacific: case studies from Indonesia, Vanuatu and Australia. International Journal of Cultural Policy28(4), 499-512. https://doi.org/10.1080/10286632.2021.1971206

Catherine Grant is a music researcher, lecturer, and author focusing on cultural endangerment and sustainability at the Creative Arts Research Institute and Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, Australia.

Brydie-Leigh Bartleet is a community music specialist and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the Creative Arts Research Institute and Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, Australia.

Leah Barclay is a sound artist, designer, and researcher working at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. She undertakes socially oriented projects at the intersection of art, science, and technology.

Joseph Lamont is an Australian producer, composer, and film documenter who works on cultural maintenance and revitalization initiatives in Sumba, Indonesia.

Sandy Sur is a ni-Vanuatu founder of the Leweton Cultural Experience in Luganville, Vanuatu, and leads community-based creative projects with cultural and environmental outcomes.