Applications and implications of digital audio databases for the field of ethnomusicology
First Monday

Applications and implications of digital audio databases for the field of ethnomusicology: A discussion of the CNRS - Musee de l'Homme sound archives by Stephanie Khoury and Josephine Simonnot

The online Web-based platform for the French CNRS — Musée de l’Homme audio archives offers access to about 28,000 published and unpublished recordings of music from all over the world. Implemented as an archive database, it represents a collaborative tool for the production of knowledge and its dissemination. This paper introduces these digital audio archives, while dealing with issues around the online display of the recordings and their utility in contemporary academia, as well as the intellectual property rights and ethical issues raised by their availability on the Web to a broad audience.


I. From wax cylinders to digital audio sounds: The CNRS — Musée de l’Homme audio archives
II. The Telemeta platform architecture: A collaborative platform for digitized sounds
III. Online audio database: Ethics and intellectual property rights (IPR)
IV. Digital audio sounds as vehicles of knowledge




In this contemporary technological era, the amount of data available online is vast and constantly increasing, while the range of information displayed grows wider. Online music distribution, both as audio and video files, has generated a new way of relating to music, easing its mass consumption, while providing virtual stores and libraries for music-production companies and organizations of all kinds. If this is particularly striking in the entertainment music industry, a professional use of the music in the humanities and social sciences has led some institutions, such as the French Ministry of Culture and Communications, to rethink the management and display of scientific audio data. For 15 years, French archivists working with audio materials have embraced the benefits of government-funded digitization for the conservation of documents recorded on now obsolete formats. The impalpable nature of digital data, and the quality and ease of duplication, produces a feeling of permanence.

Music archive databases are increasingly present on the Web and numerous European institutions display the audio files of their recordings’ collections, such as the French National Library [1], the British Library [2], the Royal Museum for Central Africa (Belgium) [3] and the European Digital Library, Europeana [4]. These databases can be focused on one specific geographical area, on a population, on the data recorded during events linked to this institution, and so on. In the field of ethnomusicology, the audio recordings are generally of traditional and new musics from all parts of the world and cover a wide array of environments (ritual, popular, urban, etc.). Their display on the Internet has raised numerous issues linked to the specific nature of the documents and to the role and purpose of scientific music databases. A key question is: how does the online availability of music archives change the way we relate to audio documents in terms of both scientific research and amateur interest? What does the particular structure of this digital audio endeavor, with its government sponsorship, illuminate in the debates about the politics of ownership of music and open access? Furthermore, as ethnomusicological archives gather musical artifacts of various populations and groups’ cultural heritages, how do institutions approach the question of ethical management and the communities’ ability to access their own musical patrimony?

Addressing these questions helps to identify how the open-source online streaming display of music recordings belonging to scientific archives is positioned within the spectrum of Web-distributed music. It also sheds light on how such archives may impact the way we think about Web-based music distribution. In this paper, we aim to discuss such applications and implications of ethnomusicological audio databases through the example of the CNRS — Musée de l’Homme sound archives. Since 2011, this institution’s archives have been available through a Web-based platform, representing a model for online collaborative databases dealing with audio recordings. Today, 48,000 audio items from 5,800 collections of the Research Center for Ethnomusicology (CREM), attached to the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), are catalogued online on the CNRS — Musée de l’Homme archives’ database. As of September 2014, more than 28,000 sound files have been uploaded, among which about 12,000 are open to the public. With an average of 2,500 different visitors consulting the platform each month, this database and its management serves as a substantial case to study.

To address these points, we first introduce the nature of the music and audio documents that constitute the CNRS — Musée de l’Homme’s archives. This allows us to discuss how the concerns raised by such audio files shaped the methods implemented to process the sounds and the contextual metadata within a single, collaborative computer platform. We then look at questions related to intellectual property rights and the implicit ethics of the online diffusion of music archives in the context of the digital humanities. Finally, we discuss how this database has been adapted both to enhance archive-based research and to make music available to a broader audience. Organizing the paper in this way enables reflection on the legal and ethical custodianship of others’ cultural patrimony as well as the rights to diffuse such heritage. This in turn allows for an interrogation of how the intentionality of the distributor and its sponsors shapes the way such music is accessible online, and what opportunities its availability provides to the public.



I. From wax cylinders to digital audio sounds: The CNRS — Musée de l’Homme audio archives

The CNRS — Musée de l’Homme music archives represent one of the largest ethnomusicology archives in Europe and stand among the few that provide online access to the audio documents as well as detailed metadata. The establishment of these archives’ collections represents a process initiated in the 1930s to collect, organize and archive published and unpublished audio recordings ranging from the 1900s through to today, by scholars attached to government-sponsored institutions. The implementation of an online sound archives database is the latest step taken in an almost century-long process of audio document diffusion and progressive adaptation to new technologies.

I.1. Historical constitution of the archives

Since the late nineteenth century and the invention of the first recorders, music recordings and transcriptions, their classification and their preservation have been central to the field of ethnomusicology and continue to shape our knowledge of the musical Man [5]. The discipline emerged from a field called “comparative musicology” that welcomed the audio document as a way to fix and reproduce music. Back then, the importance of keeping the sound object as a document in and of itself was not uniformly recognized. It was sometimes used solely to support the writing of musical transcriptions for researchers to work with, and the recordings would be discarded afterwards. The depositing and preservation of audio sounds over the years at academic institutions and museums thus reflects concerns about their potential uses. These have evolved over time, as they are subject to the different kinds of political or moral imperatives that can impact on the management and display of the archives, from individual depositors’ specific restrictions to governmental stipulations for access.

A Phonothèque (sound library) was created by the French historian and musicologist André Schaeffner in 1932, at the Département d’Ethnologie Musicale (Musical Ethnology Department) of the Musée d’ethnographie du Trocadero (Ethnography Museum of the Trocadero) in Paris. He was then returning from the “Dakar-Djibouti” expedition (1931), a large-scale ethnographic field trip sponsored by Marcel Griaule that involved crossing the African continent on the sub-Saharan belt. Aware that collecting instruments was not enough to gain some understanding of musical practices, he had audio recordings of numerous performances from Senegal, Mali, Cameroon and Ethiopia engraved on wax cylinders. The Phonothèque was thus sheltering these precious audio materials and was associated with the organology section of the department, which contained a significant musical instruments collection (these instruments are now located at the Quai Branly Museum [6] in Paris).

In the years following Schaeffner’s first deposit, hundreds of audio recordings were added to the collection, including other explorative missions in North Africa, one of which was conducted with Griaule (1935), and others involving Germaine Tillon and Thérèse Rivière (1936) [7]. Numerous published records were also collected, from domestic and foreign labels such as Victor, Zonophone, His Master’s Voice, Brunswick, Columbia, Parlophon, Odéon, Polydor, Pathé or Gramofono, as well as records produced at the Colonial Exhibit held in Paris in 1931.

As the Ethnography museum turned into the newly build Musée de l’Homme in 1937, it was only after World War II that the next big ethnographic expedition crossed the central part of the African continent, and brought musical archives recorded by Gilbert Rouget (Gérard, 2012). In the meantime, the publication of edited 78 rpm records [8] started under the label “Musée de l’Homme” (Figure 1).


78 rpm recording of Romanian music
Figure 1: 78 rpm recording of Romanian music recorded by Brailoiu (Photo by Jean-Marc Fontaine, 2009).


Early on, when technology allowed it, institutions released their collections of fieldwork recordings to the public. From 1954 onwards, about a hundred recordings were published as both 33 and 45 rpm records by editors like Vogue Contrepoint and Boîte A Musique as well as different scientific institutions such as the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.), the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (Senegal) and others [9]. In Paris, the museum’s collections were later renamed and became the CNRS — Musée de l’Homme archives, and, between 1988 and 2001, 37 CDs were published under the label Chant du Monde. These included selections of musical recordings focused on one culture or area, and compilations of various samples of music gathered around a shared topic, such as “Voices of the world” and “Musical instruments of the world” [10], pointing to the educational uses of the audio materials.

The department turned into the Laboratoire d’ethnomusicologie (Laboratory for ethnomusicology [11]) of CNRS in 1968, which 40 years later moved with a part of its associated audio archives to the Université de Paris X — Nanterre (now Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre), where it was renamed the Research Center for Ethnomusicology (CREM). In 2009, the audiotapes were transferred to the National Library, where they can be preserved in air-conditioned stacks and where they are in the process of being digitized. From the creation of the Phonothèque onwards, the collections of unpublished audio materials have been in constant growth, today reaching a rate of about 30 collections deposited annually, which represent between 500 and 1,000 audio items referenced. Therefore, since the 1930s, thousands of deposited raw recordings and hundreds of collected published records have been kept in their original format at the museum.

In ethnomusicology, the nature of audio-visual materials used in the field raises special issues of preservation and accessibility. While digital formats are readable and duplicable, obsolete analog formats are no more permanent than a fragile ribbon of tape, and the equipment required to read them are disappearing at an increasing rate. Stored in dark spaces in the museum until recently, the collected recordings were deteriorating due to the passage of time, the fragility of the recording materials used (wax cylinders, celluloid records, magnetic tapes), and the conditions of preservation then available. A rather small amount of rusted boxes (Figure 2), melted tapes and shellac discs that time had glued together, and moreover the loss of the highest-pitched sounds recorded on the tapes, led the CREM to implement a unified strategy to efficiently preserve, organize and classify all these documents.


Traces of rust on an analog audiotape
Figure 2: Traces of rust on an analog audiotape from the Musée de l’Homme (Photo by Jean-Marc Fontaine, 2009).


I.2. The digital leap into online display of music

Since 2000, the Laboratoire d’ethnomusicologie (now CREM) developed and applied an on-going program for the systematic digitization of archives. Priority was given to old recordings (tapes copied from cylinders [12] and direct cut discs) from iconic missions dating from the first half of the twentieth century. In order to carry out digitization and the associated documentation work on such a large scale, archivists saw the need to create a single tool to enable both listening and the filling in of metadata in collaboration with collectors (if still living). Moreover, organizing the digitalized archives into a standardized database fulfills a request from the French Ministry of Culture and the CNRS, which is attached to the French Ministry of Research and Higher Education. They support and fund the digitization of these audio documents and research projects attached to them with the condition that they be made available to the public.

New audio materials constantly enrich the database and, from 2006 onwards, its researchers and engineers have engaged in a reflective process on the use and aims of these archives. Since 2011, the CREM uses the Telemeta platform architecture to organize, catalogue and display these archives on a Web server at

The CREM’s initiative to implement its own database fits into the context of contemporary technologies applied to online music distribution. The availability of audio archive databases is a growing tool on the Web, and major institutions acknowledge the necessity of informing the scientific community as well as the broader public of what they have in their collections. This effort can be operationalized as a catalogue, through which the references and information about audio documents can be easily accessed. Though useful, this still does not convey the dynamic nature of audiovisual materials, which often require the action of going to the physical location of these archives. In such cases, consulting the audio archives is restricted to those who can go where the sound is, which can easily turn into an expensive and time-consuming enterprise. In contrast, online availability facilitates access to the audio document in a practical way and embraces a philosophy of knowledge sharing.



II. The Telemeta platform architecture: A collaborative platform for digitized sounds

2.1. From real to virtual spaces

Shifting from sound embedded in objects (e.g., tapes, discs) to digitized sound allowed for a complete reorganization of the conception of the archives’ catalogues. That is, it allowed for a transition from a closed-access system to one that is more open, enhancing collaboration, and changing the way people can reach musical patrimonies, including their own. To facilitate the online availability of the archive, engineers from the CREM, the Laboratory for Musical Acoustic (LAM) [13] and Web developers from the Parisson Company [14] worked together for seven years on a content management system (CMS), leading to the implementation of the Telemeta [15] architecture to support the audio archives database. This platform, written in Python and Javascript languages, is open-source software that allows for the management of large audio databases and the easy indexing of sound files (Figure 3). As such, it is free and can be downloaded and set up online, contingent on institutions and individuals having sufficient server space and knowledge of the coding languages. Nonetheless, the organizations that use the Telemeta platform often need assistance to install it correctly and apply some modifications to the metadata model. For example, the CREM and the LAM have an agreement with Parisson to ensure Telemeta can suit all the needs of the LAM’s archive model and team workflow.


Screenshot of the Musee de l'Homme audio archives database home page
Figure 3: Screenshot of the Musée de l’Homme audio archives’ database home page.


At the CREM, two full-time engineers with an ethnomusicology background manage the archives and its database, along with part-time employees or students who help to enter the metadata. The schedule for the digitization of the audio materials depends on government funds and is made by the French National Library (BnF) or by independent contractors.

II.1. Applications for archiving audio sounds, related media and metadata

The sound archives’ metadata are structured on a MySQL database, which organizes the catalogue in four levels: Archive Series, Corpus, Collection, and Item. The Item is the minimal unit, the individual sound file with its own set of information. Numerous items are gathered in a collection, which is the main level of entry into the database. Each Collection embeds an ensemble of sound items that share a common contextual feature. It can appear as a published or unpublished set of music recordings from a field study conducted at a particular place at a particular period of time, or illustrating a shared event. Collections deposited by an individual collector or institution are organized into separated Corpuses, each one in reference to theme, such as an ethnic group, a geographic area, or a set of fieldwork trips. These corpuses are gathered into Series that are named in reference to the collector or the organization that made or deposited the audio archives. Detailed profiles are provided for the latter two levels of the catalogue, introducing the work of the collector or institution with, when available, attached documents, embedded short audiovisual materials and numerous hypertext links to relevant Web pages (Figure 4).


series page of Mireille Heiffer
Figure 4: The series’ page of Mireille Heiffer, a renowned ethnomusicologist working on Tibetan music (


This platform offers different paths to access a sound item: the user may search for music from a particular country or ethnic group, a collector, a type of instrument played on the recording, a title, the recording catalogue number, the year of recording or of publication, and so on. Each sound recording gets its own page on the platform containing audio and written metadata. Numerous text panels are dedicated to listing all the information we know about the recording in fields, such as the date and place of the recording, its context, the original material it was recorded on, the various instruments or voices heard as well as remarks containing a wide range of elements available, from contextual description or content translation to musical analysis. Archivists work using commonly accepted norms, such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 639) for languages. The names of geographical locations are standardized using the integration of GeoEthno [16] and GeoNames [17] thesauruses, allowing Telemeta to manage the historicity of the location’s terminologies (linking Benin to its former appellation of Dahomey, for example).

The sound is available for listening in a compressed format, but also to be visualized via a dynamic audio player using TimeSide audio analysis and a visualization framework [18]. This provides a signal processing tool for the display and streaming of audio sound on the Web. Various graphical representations can be chosen, such as the waveform, the spectral analysis (spectrograms logarithmic and analogical), and the pitch level (aubio). These are commonly used to spot speech or music sections and to navigate inside the recording.

The home page keeps track of the amount of documents digitized, offers a random selection of recordings leading directly to the audio document’s page, and brings the user into the collections.

II.2. The collaborative documentation of the archives

Online availability has changed the way traditional music is studied and shared in an academic context. Seeger’s work has discussed the scientific and ethical benefits of working on and with audio archives as well as how such materials are a valuable part of the study of music (see particularly Seeger, 2002; 2004). Moreover, archives can be used to gain a better understanding of notions such as collective memory and cultural identity attached to musical practices, in both the homeland and in diasporic communities (Brinkhurst, 2012). As applied ethnomusicology, the digitization and increased availability of musical recordings allowed for new forms of interaction with the communities from whom the musical patrimony emanates. A special issue of Ethnomusicology Forum (Landau and Topp Fargion, 2012) discusses such recent applications of music archives, through case studies of ethnomusicologists reaching back to the communities to return their musical archives. Nonetheless, it is often returned on storage devices and deposited in local institutions (Niles, 2012) or universities (Kahunde, 2012). Not available online, the sounds are locally accessible at specific sites. The Australian Ara Irititja multimedia database [19] of the oral and art patrimony of different Aboriginal groups shows an attempt to directly reach artists, local specialists and people through the circulation, within the concerned communities, of the database as a computer program (De Largy Healy, 2011). The originality and benefit of the latter project is to introduce a collaborative interaction between researchers and people around their artistic practices.

Following a similar model, the CNRS — Musée de l’Homme sound archives are embedded into an interactive platform system that allows the implementation of a collaborative database. Nonetheless, it is not wide open to outside contributions, and only individually authorized people can edit the metadata contents. These are researchers, archivists and people with specified knowledge. They can add historical, contextual or analytical comments to the available metadata. They can also add to the audio recording in terms of time-embedded markers and associated comments, thus contributing to the knowledge displayed according to each one’s own expertise (Figure 5). These annotations are available from the sound archive item Web page and are indexed through the database. Every contributor has the ethical obligation to state his or her name and date before entering information that comes in addition rather than in replacement of previous data. Contributors are also encouraged to provide references (publications, people). Yet the monitoring of the veracity of information entered by users on other’s recordings generates challenges. If it is currently based on the trust that authorized contributors’ additions are driven by the honest willingness to contribute to the sharing and expansion of knowledge, we have to face the fact that there are limits to this and reflect on how to evaluate what is added.


Screenshot of the spectral view of a song from an Opera of Beijing performance
Figure 5: Screenshot of the spectral view of a song from an Opera of Beijing performance, with markers and corresponding comments (on the right (


A RSS (Rich Site Summary) flux automatically sends out modifications and additions to users who subscribe to it. As anyone authorized to modify or enlarge the metadata on the database has to sign in, and as all actions are recorded, it is easily possible for anyone to follow all changes made through the RSS. Full copies of the content of the database are kept on the servers of the University where the CREM is located, and also backed up on a weekly basis on the CNRS Great Research Infrastructure for Digital Humanities, Huma-Num [20], along with other scientific content as diverse as nuclear or astronomical data. In case of accidental or deliberate damage to metadata or sound files, the data can be restored. Such long-term preservation of the archives on a server is also a strong argument to encourage depositors to work on the documentation related to their recordings. In this way, the archive exists as an open-source program, but one highly regulated in structure when compared to other online file-sharing mechanisms.



III. Online audio database: Ethics and intellectual property rights (IPR)

Numerous online digital sound libraries, including the CNRS — Musée de l’Homme archive, allow for the online streaming of a part of their sound recordings. The access to the catalogue and to many audio recordings is free. Nonetheless, all is not open access. Restrictive options allow for control over the distribution of the audio documents, and login-controlled access profiles are set. Through such decisions, only parts of the world’s intangible cultural heritage are virtually available to any Web users. Once the decision to put the archives online was made, numerous questions related to both the regulations associated with intellectual property and the sensitivity of some recordings emerged.

III.1. Intellectual property and public domain

Recordings of traditional music, storytelling and mythological narratives that are made as part of a scientific research work are different from music recordings produced in a commercial music industry. Transmitted from one generation to the other, most of these oral productions have no identifiable author. Most of the recordings in the archives, particularly among the oldest ones, do not make mention of performers’ names, as the protocol to collect music did not request them to do so. Therefore, in this context, recordings are rather associated with the collector. In such cases, and according to the legal system as applied in France, the person producing the recording is not the sole owner of the sound document. It officially belongs to the performers, even if unknown, and to the institution that financed the fieldwork during which these recordings were made. For the CNRS — Musée de l’Homme archives, the audio content belongs to both the CNRS and the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN), and so to the Ministry of Research and Higher Education, and, therefore, to the state.

Intellectual property’s related rights legally apply to performers as well as to the collectors who produce the recordings and the institutions for which they did so. This status gives the producer rights over the recording as an edited object, while performers remain the owners of the music contained in that recording for a period of 50 years following the recording date [21]. After such time passes, the recording enters the public domain. The rule adopted is therefore that of a sliding date. All the collections recorded before 1964, for example, are publicly available in 2014, unless specific ethical issues prevent the display of the recording (e.g., a series of recordings containing secret ritual ceremonies from Australian native Aboriginals is not available for online listening due to the nature of their content). The authorized audio documents are to be listened to online only, and no tool to download the audio file is made available to visitors on the platform.

Since 2014, the CREM, which manages these audio archives, has adopted the Europeana model concerning rights related to sounds and databases. Europeana is a project of the European Commission and a consortium of digital libraries, which aims to provide access to Europe’s sound and musical heritage [22]. Licenses and permissions are drawn from models available on the Web site of Creative Commons [23]. The main guidelines of the statements are that all metadata will be licensed under the public domain (CC0) and the institutions aim to use the rights statements of public domain CC-BY and CC-BY-SA as much as possible. The tagline of the CREM is aligned with the Europeana project, which is: “public domain is the rule, copyright is the exception”.

Open access does not apply exclusively to recordings that are old enough, as audio documents recently deposited can be made available for listening when the collector agrees. Thus, more recent collections can also be fully accessed. This represents an opportunity for researchers to save and secure the archiving of their own collections. In addition, today’s collectors and depositors are increasingly confident and aware about the benefits of Web sharing.

On the one hand, in France, intellectual property is considered as perpetual and inalienable. It is attached to the artists and the collector so no one else is allowed to claim ownership over a recording or to have any commercial use of it, even if the data is published online. On the other hand, online accessibility allows sharing and interactions with other specialists as well as with the recordings’ performers. On the matter of knowledge circulation, this reflects a switch from retention to display.

For example, Dana Rappoport, ethnomusicologist at the CNRS, has provided access to all her recordings of vocal music made in East Indonesia (1992–2012), which represent about 1,100 audio items [24], with the agreement of people she worked with locally. In doing so, she expresses her and the local communities’ wish to preserve and share this vanishing patrimony, in order to keep their intangible heritage alive (Figure 6).


Singer listening to a recording of her own performance in Flores, Indonesia
Figure 6: Singer listening to a recording of her own performance in Flores, Indonesia (Photo by Luc Rivière, 2010).


Moreover, the CREM committee has recently decided to give full access to all the records published by the Musée de l’Homme [25], and all of them are already online. As the editor (Chant du Monde/Harmonia Mundi) ceased distribution of these CDs some 14 years ago, and as most of the records are no longer commercially available, the archives’ platform is for many the only way to access these recordings.

Thus, each collection has a level of access, specified on each sound item’s page, which states whether its access is full, or restricted to the available metadata with or without the sound, according to the intellectual property rights and the depositor’s wishes.

III.2. Ethics and patrimony

The recording of traditional music from various places in the world during the early twentieth century was often linked to colonialism. Yet, the motive of pioneer ethnomusicologists such as Rouget was to promote a better understanding and respect of other cultures, while bringing to light musical practices and complex musical systems that were unknown to Westerners until then. Another objective was to preserve objects and sounds that were threatened with disappearance for future generations to see and learn about them.

Since the 1980s, there has been a movement among ethnomusicologists and their home institutions to promote the ethical “repatriation” of the recordings to the communities who performed in them. However, the fragility of materials used for audio recordings made this difficult. Moreover, considering the wide geographical range of places referenced in the archives, and the unknown location of people who would be interested in accessing them, online distribution appears as the most adapted solution to safely achieving this goal. As digital humanities gain attention and occupy an increasingly wider place in the way we access academic information, and as the Internet becomes increasingly accessible throughout the world, providing online access to these archives enables such materials to contribute to scientific research at the same time that it allows people access to their own patrimony.

Online availability through the scientifically managed non-profit database of the CNRS — Musée de l’Homme sound archives is a form of return to communities of their own cultural heritage. Theoretically, specific online access can be provided to local institutions through IP addresses at their demand, to allow broader reach of audio materials. As off-line access is not a possibility, if Internet access is not ensured, hard copies can be made at the CREM and transferred back to the communities through the intermediary of a researcher or representative.

Music is an intangible patrimony, and as such it needs to be both protected and made available. Yet two challenges arise. One is related to the sounds’ availability, as many parts of the world represented in ethnomusicology collections do not have easy access to a Web connection. The other issue regards the handling of the sound itself, as we are well aware that the online display of music may lead to illegal audio captures, as well as the potential mercantile reuse of the original and unique artistic expressions displayed through the archives. Such an ethical issue is illustrated by the famous sample of a Solomon Islands’ lullaby that Hugo Zemp, a CNRS ethnomusicologist from the Department of Ethnomusicology at the Musée de l’Homme, recorded in 1969. The group Deep Forest appropriated the music and remixed it for one of their most famous songs, released in 1992 (Feld, 2000). While at the time of this incident, the sound was published in high definition and was easy to re-use, today the music of the archive is shared only in compressed audio formats, with higher quality formats remaining in storage at the CREM.

Today, many researchers wish to deposit their personal archives of the music and audiovisual material they have collected throughout their career in order to first keep a trace of these often unpublished materials, but also to make it available to the people to which it belongs within the population where these researchers conducted fieldwork. This is not without its challenges, particularly related to the unique nature of ethnomusicological materials. What is the ethical position of the researcher when displaying the audio duplicate of secret religious ceremonies or highly emotional moments? Does the content of the recording in any way threaten the integrity of the people recorded? Would the free listening of some recordings create trouble of any kind for the performers and their communities? In many cases, the access has to be restricted in order to protect the ethical rights of the event or the person(s) recorded. The decision whether any given piece should be accessible and at what level is up to the collector who should act in accordance with the wishes of the recorded people and to his or her knowledge of the culture represented.

III.3. Various levels of access for a variety of actors

Different profiles were created to moderate access to audio contents, in respect of the intellectual property rights and related rights; in agreement with special restrictions or authorizations of collectors; and according to the archivists’ aims and the scientific purposes of the sound archives database. Such management leads to different applications of the archives content, each determined in accordance to the uses and inputs expected. Therefore, through the Telemeta platform, the CNRS — Musée de l’Homme sound archives can be approached as a visitor, a researcher or as an archivist. People with an Administrator profile can access every element on the database, download files and assign a selection of authorized actions to each user profile.

Visitors have access to all the metadata, which is the written catalogue of all the content of the database. In addition, they can listen to all recordings that belong to the public domain, an amount that grows every year, to all recordings published by the CNRS — Musée de l’Homme, and to all recordings made less than 50 years ago that the collector and the musicians/singers agreed to put online. For these audio files, any visitor can listen and visualize the recording as well as share it through its Web address or by exporting its audio player into external Web pages such as blogs through an i-frame html link. Bloggers share recordings from the database in that way. As the audio player remains linked to the database, the monthly statistics of its consultation show which recordings are shared on which blog or Web site, allowing the administrators to keep track of the online circulation of the audio files. Designed for listening and sharing music, the visitor profile does not allow downloading or editing.

The next level of access is called the “researcher profile” and has additional prerogatives. Not only can this profile access additional audio archives for which public access is restricted, but they also have the ability to edit the metadata and to annotate the audio files. In so doing, this profile fits the collaborative dimension of the database. Developed to have its own space on the platform, a researcher profile can choose the language in which the platform is displayed (thus far, French, English, Chinese or German). The researcher profile also includes the possibility to create personal lists in which the user can save his or her own selections of sound items or of collections from the database. Such an option is particularly helpful for organizing playlists for conferences or courses, to arrange a template for the publication of one’s own recordings, to gather different music the user wishes to use in his or her own research.

Archivists are attributed an eponymous profile, which allows them to reorganize the catalogue, in gathering collections into corpuses and series, to expand it, as well as to integrate new written and audio documentation. They are also in charge of the database thesauruses and their modifications, while maintaining an on-going reflection on questions of terminology and classifications in connection with other national archives, embedding the work made on the Telemeta platform for sound archives into a larger consortium of documentation databases.

With specific authorization, people involved in a particular research project can share data and notes online, thus allowing them to collaborate and to optimize the enrichment of the metadata. To facilitate such aims, the platform permits the exporting of metadata of series, items, or collections. It also allows for the uploading and downloading of recordings as compressed (MP3, OGG) or not compressed formats (WAV, FLAC).

The usage options of the different profiles are regularly reassessed in accordance with users’ experiences, and the information from individual users who get directly in contact with the database administrators. Complementarily, usage is also evaluated through a qualitative survey and the detailed reports on the statistics of users, including the URL addresses of Web sites that embed links to the platform. The combination of these modes of evaluation provides the administrators with information regarding the way users connect and interact with the database, as well as bringing to light new individual approaches. This points to relevant issues and needs that developers, engineers and archivists work to regularly address. Due to such interaction, the database is thus in constant evolution.

The online distribution of digital archives is framed by a variety of ethical standards, from the legal terms of intellectual property rights and related rights to a more abstract sense of moral sensibilities brought by individual researchers and others depositing music. Though far from the principles of open sharing defined by more consumer-based online music exchanges like Napster, the archive is offering its own sense of free access, but in a way that speaks to a different set of priorities and needs.



IV. Digital audio sounds as vehicles of knowledge

The CNRS — Musée de l’Homme platform, through the CREM, has motivated researchers to use audio files within the frame of their own research, while specialized blogs refer to some specific archives to illustrate related topics. As the uses of the archive ended up being both much broader and more specialized than expected, improvements are being integrated to the platform, and a project for the development of music analysis and indexation tools was launched in 2013, in order to expand the database’s archival and research possibilities. Following the evolving trajectory of the online archive, we find that it is possible to conceptualize new ways of constructing and sharing knowledge in an age of digital humanities. This last section examines the multiple applications of online music sharing of scientific archives such as this one.

IV.1. Management

As digital humanities are at the forefront of new developments in research, the implementation of the Telemeta platform for the music archives of the Musée de l’Homme appeared as an original way to relate to sound archives. Soon after its release, two other platforms using the Telemeta framework were implemented to host research projects linked to the CNRS and for which people needed to manage their own collections of digital audio documents. One is the Laboratory for Musical Acoustics (LAM, UPMC/CNRS) [26], using the platform to organize sounds from musical instruments of all kinds considered separately and out of context in order to study their acoustic properties and characteristics. Another one, with the same objective of constituting an audio database of digitized sound, is called Scaled Acoustic Biodiversity (Sabiod) [27], a consortium of research departments involved in the interdisciplinary project who use the program framework to gather audio signals of marine animals on their own platform.

Although the overall architecture remains the same, numerous elements were adapted to the specificities of each set of archives and the specific needs of the archivists in charge of it, such as the nature of the metadata or the preset representation of the audio sound. In these cases, the aim is to support the collective and collaborative work of research teams as well as individual researchers. As for the Musée de l’Homme sound archives, the interactivity with the platform is protected by login, and some audio recordings are not open access.

These two examples illustrate a new relation of researchers to sound archives and how such tools make them more accessible and user-friendly. Beyond uses within research departments or centers, such online representation equips individual platforms to contribute to broader archival projects centralizing them into large audio databases. The Europeana Sound project [28] is an illustration of this. Launched in 2014 and sponsored by the European Commission, this project will give online access to a critical mass of audiovisual digital objects. In the upcoming three years, over a million high quality sound recordings will be available via Europeana, from classical and folk music to environmental sounds of the natural world, as well as oral histories. Together, these collections reflect the diverse cultures, histories, languages and creativity of the peoples of Europe over the past 130 years. The project, coordinated by the British Library in London, brings together 24 organizations (among which national libraries, archive and research centers and universities) from 12 European countries. These types of endeavors, on such a large scale, illustrate an important new trend in state-sponsored open source file-sharing, wherein an increasing number of digital databases become available, all of which adhere to a donor-stipulated policy (governments in this case) of sharing knowledge and making sure it is available to all.

IV.2. Usages and users

During the few years since the Telemeta platform has been operative, academic and public uses of the knowledge available on the database have arisen. Beyond the scope of ethnomusicology, researchers such as anthropologists, linguists, acousticians and musicians find elements to integrate in their own work.

For archivists, the adoption of the Dublin Core format for the metadata allows the content of the database to fit the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH). Information stored on the database can thus be harvested and referenced on web search engines and platforms dedicated to the digital humanities. This helps archivists to organize the metadata and to diffuse it.

Emerging researchers and students conduct research primarily based on the music archives, considering the collections of languages and musical practices in diachronic perspectives. Ethnomusicologists have used the archives to compare former and current expressions of particular musical genres, repertoires, pieces, or categories of instruments (Khoury, 2004; Lacombe, 2013).

Linguists have integrated recordings from the database into their analysis of regional accents, cultural contacts among neighboring populations, and the historical study of languages, including some that are not spoken anymore. Publications in both soft and hard formats, whether books or articles, and even museum exhibits can include audio illustrations in reference to specific recordings or collections archived on the database through the embedment of a URL link or a QR code (see Gérard, 2012).

Numerous unanticipated uses of the platform have emerged since its online launching. They relate to the diffusion of knowledge, whether through direct teaching in a scholarly setting or through online specialized blogging. University professors from North America and Europe, as well as school teachers, use online streaming of music from the CNRS — Musée de l’Homme database to illustrate points raised in class and to get students to practices music analysis and transcriptions. Scientific blogs such as the Jabal al-Lught: Climbing the mountain of languages, set up by Dr. Lameen Souag, a CNRS researcher in North African languages presents his works, including some in-depth analysis of a recorded narrative from the Musée de l’Homme’s database [29].

As the open-access policy applies to a large amount of recordings and as the metadata are integrally accessible, the archive platform makes musical knowledge accessible outside of the academic range, leading people highly specialized and passionate about a domain to expand their knowledge and share it (see for example the blog dedicated to 78 rpm recordings, Ceints de Bakelite [30]). Figure 7 summarizes the interactions of users with the platform according to their use of its content.


Diagram of accesses by users and usages
Figure 7: Diagram of accesses by users and usages.


IV.3. New perspectives: Audio database as support and object of research

This new way of dissemination also generates innovative and ambitious research programs at the forefront of new technologies in the digital audio field. Since 2013, new analytical tools are being developed through a French national project in which different departments of the CNRS specialized on computer engineering, speech and music information retrieval (MIR), acoustics and anthropology work together. The objective is to answer and to predict the platform users’ needs and consequently to implement modifications and new options on the Telemeta framework.

To be effective and in keeping with the development of audio technologies, new tools are expected to broaden the scope of research activities. The reflection of tools and practices in which engineers and researchers are collectively engaging on the use of the sound archives database has led them to propose a set of tools for automatic indexing. Field recordings contain speech, singing voice, instrumental music, technical noises, natural sounds, and all forms of concomitance of these different sound events. The automatic indexation of audio recordings directly from the audio signal itself aims to improve the access to anthropological archives by distinguishing automatically between types of sounds.

Through the DIADEMS project (Description, Indexation, Access to Ethnomusicological and Sound Documents) [31], tools are implemented to develop advanced classification, segmentation and similarity analysis methods, thus helping in the management of large amounts of digital audio documents. This allows for the automatic detection of audio events such as speech-music segmentation, speech recognition, as well as detection of polyphony, tone, rhythm, and melodic patterns, as well as musical instrument families.

This example shows how the collaborative nature of this online sharing mechanism prevents obsolescence of the tool in a way that would not be possible with analog machines. The maintenance of an open source tool (which every developer could improve) has engendered an ongoing dialogue between users and administrators that pushes the tool to evolve in an effort to stay relevant and maximize applicability for an ever-broadening range of users.




The digitization of music and its publication online has led to the consumption and exchange of music on a massive scale never before imagined. In the case of scientific music archives, this bears major implications for the performers who were recorded, the scholars who did the collecting, and the institutions backing them. In this paper, we have addressed some of the ways this online tool effects changes in ethics and concepts of ownership of and access to what was heretofore the exclusive realm of the academy or the elite.

Unlike many of the contemporary mechanisms for open sharing of music, Napster being the pioneer of such a movement, the online scientific archive does not signify a change in power over distribution. Governments have always sponsored and still fund academic institutions and museums who collect audio documents through the work of their affiliated researchers, thus maintaining a linear path of ownership and control over the production and dissemination of such knowledge. Importantly, this also means that, at this point, there are no legal disputes about the fact that the archives are accessible online, since their dissemination fits within the relevant legal requirements.

Yet, to keep up with the movement of the digital humanities, and in light of a changing set of ethical standards increasingly driven by a diverse range of constituents, including the performers and their communities exercising their rights over their own cultural patrimony, institutions have had to embrace the concept of open sharing, in a non-commercial environment. Though this increased openness primarily targets the scientific community, there is also a strong argument supporting the idea of the repatriation of cultural patrimonies to the peoples whose sounds were recorded and documented. At the same time, non-academic professionals, artists, and other parties have showed growing interest in using the archives for their own purposes, a development the archive administrators welcome. For all these reasons, scientific archives have had to adapt their tools to be more inclusive of a broader range of users, including those who belong to the general public.

Nevertheless, further research is needed to assess the extent to which communities whose cultural patrimony the archive represents are indeed accessing the audio documents of their heritage. End of article


About the authors

Stéphanie Khoury has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology with a concentration in ethnomusicology specialized on continental Southeast Asia performing arts and music. She is currently a research engineer at the CNRS on the DIADEMS Project.
E-mail: stephanie [dot] khoury [at] mae [dot] u-paris10 [dot] fr

Joséphine Simonnot is a research engineer at the CNRS, the head of the audiovisual section of the CREM, the head of project for the Telemeta platform and a CNRS representative in the Europeana Sounds Project.
E-mail: josephine [dot] simonnot [at] mae [dot] u-paris10 [dot] fr



This work is partly supported by a grant from the French National Research Agency (ANR) with reference ANR-12-CORD-0022.




2. This database of the British Library Sound program includes language and music recordings, classical Western music as well as world and traditional audio files from series attached to indentified collectors. It is available at

3. Through the Digitization of the Ethnomusicological Sound Archive of the Royal Museum for Central Africa Project (DEKKMMA), the sound archive of the department of Ethnomusicology of the museum, located at Tervuren (Belgium) lists recording references from numerous countries in Africa. It is available at

4. The Europeana Sound Library project is supported by the European Commission:

5. Formulation in reference to Blacking, 1973.

6. The instruments’ catalogue can be reached at

7. See to access to the recordings made during these ethnographic expeditions.




11. See Rouget, 2004.

12. About 600 cylinders from the archives were sent to Syracuse University in 1973 in order to be copied on tapes as some were breaking or in bad condition.






18. For more details, see Fillon, et al.,, 2014.



21. WIPO, 2012, p. 19.













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Editorial history

Received 9 September 2014; accepted 10 September 2014.

Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Applications and implications of digital audio databases for the field of ethnomusicology: A discussion of the CNRS — Musée de l’Homme sound archives
by Stéphanie Khoury and Joséphine Simonnot.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 10 - 6 October 2014

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