Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-cf9d5c678-9z9qw Total loading time: 0.206 Render date: 2021-08-04T19:35:39.414Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

Music, Politics, and History: An Introduction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 April 2021


Music has been steadily rising up the historical agenda, a product of the emergence of sound studies, the history of the senses, and a mood of interdisciplinary curiosity. This introductory article offers a critical review of how the relationship between music and politics has featured in extant historical writing, from classic works of political history to the most recent scholarship. It begins by evaluating different approaches that historians have taken to music, summarizes the important shifts in method that have recently taken place, and advocates for a performance-centered, contextualized framework that is attentive to the distinctive features of music as a medium. The second half examines avenues for future research into the historical connections between music and politics, focusing on four thematic areas—the body, emotions, space, and memory—and closes with some overarching reflections on music's use as a tool of power, as well as a challenge to it. Although for reasons of cohesion, this short article focuses primarily on scholarship on Britain and Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, its discussion of theory and methods is intended to be applicable to the study of music and political culture across a broad range of periods and geographies.

Special Forum: Music and Politics in Britain, c.1780-1850
Copyright © The North American Conference on British Studies, 2021

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Martineau, Harriet, The History of England during the Thirty Years’ Peace, 1816–1846, vol. 2, 1830–1846 (London, 1850), 58Google Scholar.

2 For example, see Macaulay, Thomas Babington, The History of England, 4 vols. (London, 1967), 2:214Google Scholar; Carlyle, Thomas, The French Revolution: A History, ed. Sorensen, David R. and Kinser, Brent E. (Oxford, 2019), 442–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 See, to name just a few recent books on music and politics by historians of Britain and its empire, Marsh, Chris, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2010)Google Scholar; Korczynski, Marek, Pickering, Michael, and Robertson, Emma, Rhythms of Labour: Music at Work in Britain (Cambridge, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Chikowero, Mhoze, African Music, Power, and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe (Bloomington, 2015)Google Scholar; Jensen, Oskar Cox, Napoleon and British Song, 1797–1822 (Basingstoke, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bowan, Kate and Pickering, Paul A., Sounds of Liberty: Music, Radicalism and Reform in the Anglophone World, 1790–1914 (Manchester, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Worley, Matthew, No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976–1984 (Cambridge, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963; repr. London, 1980), chap. 9 (esp. 323), chap. 14 (esp. 583–84).

5 James Vernon, Politics and the People: A Study in English Political Culture, c. 1815–1867 (Cambridge, 1993), 131. Patrick Joyce drew very similar conclusions in his Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class, 1848–1914 (Cambridge, 1991), 221.

6 Ballads feature frequently in, for example, Anna Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (Berkeley, 1995); and Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837 (New Haven, 1992).

7 For a recent discussion of contemporary song culture, see Cox Jensen, Napoleon, chap. 1, and more extensively, Oskar Cox Jensen, The Ballad-Singer in Georgian and Victorian London (Cambridge, 2021), throughout.

8 Vernon, Politics, 117.

9 E. P. Thompson, “‘Rough Music’: Le Charivari Anglais,” Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations 27, no. 2 (1972): 285–312. A revised version was published as chapter 8 in E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common (Pontypool, 1991).

10 Nicholas Rogers, Crowds, Culture, and Politics in Georgian Britain (Oxford, 1998); Kathleen Wilson, The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture and Imperialism in England, 1715–1785 (Cambridge, 1995); James Epstein, Radical Expression: Political Language, Ritual, and Symbol in England, 1790–1850 (1994; repr. London, 2014).

11 James Epstein, In Practice: Studies in the Language and Culture of Popular Politics in Modern Britain (Stanford, 2003), 10.

12 Epstein, Radical Expression, chap. 3, at 98–100.

13 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973); Clifford Geertz, “Art as a Cultural System,” Modern Language Notes 91, no. 6 (1976): 1473–99.

14 Peter Burke, “Performing History: The Importance of Occasions,” Rethinking History 9, no. 1 (2005): 35–52.

15 For example, see Lawrence Kramer, Music as Cultural Practice, 1800–1900 (Berkeley, 1990), esp. xii; Nicholas Cook, “Music as Performance,” in The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, ed. Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton, 2nd ed. (New York, 2012), 184–94.

16 Laura Mason, Singing the French Revolution: Popular Culture and Politics, 1787–1799 (Ithaca, 1996), 3.

17 Mason, Singing the French Revolution, chap. 2.

18 Korczynski, Pickering, and Robertson, Rhythms of Labour, 11.

19 Bowan and Pickering, Sounds of Liberty, 23.

20 Bowan and Pickering, 17.

21 Bowan and Pickering, 40–41.

22 For a recent demonstration of the importance of considering words and music together, see Richard Parfitt, “‘Oh What Matter When for Erin Dear We Fall?’: Music and Irish Nationalism, 1848–1913,” Irish Studies Review 23, no. 4 (2015): 483–84; Felicity Nussbaum, “‘Mungo Here, Mungo There’: Charles Dibdin and Racial Performance,” in Charles Dibdin and Late Georgian Culture, ed. Oskar Cox Jensen, David Kennerley, and Ian Newman (Oxford, 2018), 33–35.

23 Cox Jensen, Napoleon, 2.

24 For example, see the transcript of a roundtable discussion at the Victorian Soundscapes colloquium in Leeds in 2007, published as Stephen Banfield et al., “Roundtable: Victorian Soundscapes and the Potential for Interdisciplinary Exchange,” in Victorian Soundscapes Revisited, ed. Martin Hewitt and Rachel Cowgill (Leeds, 2007), 9–35, esp. 33–35. It is worth noting that the question of aesthetics is equally divisive within musicology as it is in musicology's relations with history.

25 Bowan and Pickering, Sounds of Liberty, esp. 38–39.

26 The archetypal example is the influential pronouncement of Jacques Attali in the opening chapter of Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, 1985), throughout and esp. 3–6.

27 Matthew McCormack discusses this in the British context in “Rethinking ‘Loyalty’ in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 35, no. 3 (2012): 407–21.

28 F. Gunther Eyck, The Voice of Nations: European National Anthems and Their Authors (Westport, 1995); Marc Ferris, Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem (Baltimore, 2014).

29 Martineau, History of England, 59.

30 Some recent examples include Katie Barclay, “Sounds of Sedition: Music and Emotion in Ireland, 1780–1845,” Cultural History 3, no. 1 (2014): 54–80; Joanna Innes, “Happiness Contested: Happiness and Politics in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries,” in Suffering and Happiness in England 1550–1850: Narratives and Representations, ed. Michael J. Braddick and Joanna Innes (Oxford, 2017), 87–110; Mark Philp, “Nervous Laughter and the Invasion of Britain, 1797–1805,” in The Power of Laughter and Satire in Early Modern Britain: Political and Religious Culture, 1500–1820, ed. Mark Knights and Adam Morton (Martlesham, 2017), 173–89.

31 For a recent discussion of the spatial turn and its impact on political history, see Katrina Navickas, Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789–1848 (Manchester, 2016), esp. 13–19.

32 For recent work on music and territoriality, see Parfitt, “Music and Irish Nationalism,” 480–94; Barclay, Katie, “Singing, Performance, and Lower-Class Masculinity in the Dublin Magistrates’ Court, 1820–1850,” Journal of Social History 47, no. 3 (2014): 746–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and several of the essays collected in Daniel Bender, Duane J. Corpis, and Daniel J. Walkowitz, eds., “Sound Politics: Critically Listening to the Past,” Radical History Review, no. 121 (2015), esp. Lilian Radovac, “Muting Dissent: New York City's Sound Device Ordinance and the Liberalization of the Public Sphere,” 32–50; Roshanak Kheshti, “On the Threshold of the Political: The Sonic Performativity of Rooftop Chanting in Iran,” 51–70; Nicholas Terpstra, “Sex and the Sacred: Negotiating Spatial and Sensory Boundaries in Renaissance Florence,” 71–90; and Jennifer Stoever, “‘Just Be Quiet Pu-leeze’: The New York Amsterdam News Fights the Postwar ‘Campaign against Noise,’” 145–68.

33 For example, see Grant, M. J. and Papaeti, Anna, eds., “Music and Torture / Music and Punishment,” special issue, The World of Music, n.s., 2, no. 1 (2013)Google Scholar; Hill, Ian E. J., “Not Quite Bleeding from the Ears: Amplifying Sonic Torture,” Western Journal of Communication 76, no. 3 (2012): 217–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Martineau, History of England, 58.

35 For example, see Bowan and Pickering, Sounds of Liberty; Korczynski, Pickering, and Robertson, Rhythms of Labour.

36 Musicologists have considered such problems extensively in recent decades; an effective summary can be found in Georgina Born, “Music and the Social,” in Clayton, Herbert, and Middleton, Cultural Study of Music, 261–74.

37 Martineau, History of England, 58.

38 Martineau, 58.

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Music, Politics, and History: An Introduction
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Music, Politics, and History: An Introduction
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Music, Politics, and History: An Introduction
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *