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Introduction Listeners in Music History: Studying the Evidence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 April 2020

Helen Barlow
The Open University Email:
Trevor Herbert
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This themed issue focuses on the study of listeners in history. The articles address the personal responses to music of ‘ordinary listeners’ – that is, people whose experiences of music are recorded in personal documents and third-party descriptions (as opposed, say, to music critics who wrote about music in order to influence the ideas and tastes of a public readership). This overview essay proposes that the testimony of ordinary listeners can cast new light on musical practices, the way music has been heard and its role in past societies. It points to a perceived gap in historical musicology, whereby the evidence left by listeners in the past has been the subject of little targeted research and has generally been relegated to a supporting role. The themed issue emerges from work conducted as part of the Listening Experience Database project, a research project set up to address that gap, and focuses on empirical historical research.

This overview essay discusses the types of evidence on which the articles are based and some of the issues and cautions they raise, and sets out to demonstrate the unique quality and value of the evidence through the exploration of five topics in the history of British music in the long nineteenth century. The approach they exemplify has potential to shed light on music as part of the experience of ordinary people, often in contexts and places that have not featured prominently either in nineteenth-century music history or in musicological study generally.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press, 2020

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The Listening Experience Database project has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), grants AH/J013986/1 and AH/N006720/1.


1 Myers, Kevin and Grosvenor, Ian, ‘Collaborative Research: History from Below’, in Connected Communities: Foundation Series, ed. Facer, K. and Dunleavy, K. (Bristol: University of Bristol/AHRC Connected Communities Programme: 2018): 1011Google Scholar. The essay describes the background of ‘history from below’ in the ‘New Left’ histories of the 1950s and 1960s, and indeed its much earlier antecedents.

2 Myers and Grosvenor, ‘Collaborative Research’, 14.

3 The database can be found at The proceedings of two LED conferences can similarly be found as open access publications at The project team has published several articles on the technical nature and challenges of the project, including Adamou, Alessandro, Barlow, Helen, Brown, Simon and d'Aquin, Mathieu, ‘The Listening Experience Database Project: Collating the Responses of the “Ordinary Listener” to Prompt New Insights into Musical Experience’, The International Journal of the Humanities: Annual Review, 13 (2015): 1732Google Scholar; and Adamou, Alessandro, Allocca, Carlo, Barlow, Helen, Brown, Simon and d'Aquin, Mathieu, ‘Crowdsourcing Linked Data on Listening Experiences Through Reuse and Enhancement of Library Data’, International Journal on Digital Libraries 20 (2019): 6179CrossRefGoogle Scholar,

4 Daniell, Alfred, ‘Some Remarks on Certain Vocal Traditions in Wales’, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (London, 1909): 2425Google Scholar. (accessed: 21 February 2019).

5 ‘The Experience of Mrs. CRANE, Wife of Mr. ROGER CRANE, of Preston in Lancashire’, Methodist Magazine, Jan.1, 1798–Dec.1821, vol. 21, 324–32.

6 We have deliberately included a range of examples in this introduction which do not appear in the articles that follow, in order to try to give some sense of the scope of the material gathered in the course of the research project.

7 See, for example, Clarke, Eric F., Ways of Listening: An Ecological Approach to the Perception of Musical Meaning (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Clarke, David and Clarke, Eric, eds, Music and Consciousness: Philosophical, Psychological and Cultural Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Samson, Jim, ‘Reception’, in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition (Macmillan, 2001), vol. 20, 908–11Google Scholar. As Samson puts it, in this regard, the ‘paradigmatic composer’ is Beethoven.

9 However, this ‘history from below’ approach is far from the only use to which LED data can be put, and its adaptability to various interdisciplinary purposes is a characteristic that the LED project has always emphasized.

10 Johnson, James, Listening in Paris: A Cultural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Bacht, Nikolaus, ‘Introduction’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135/Special Issue 1 (2010): 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 On the evidence of the latest major publication on listening, The Oxford Handbook of Music Listening in the 19th and 20th Centuries, ed. Christian Thorau and Hansjakob Ziemer (Oxford University Press, published online in 2018 and in print in 2019), it seems that studies of historical listeners based on the kinds of sources that constitute the focus of LED are still relatively rare outside the LED project.

13 A connection might be drawn between the concept of ‘ordinary theology’ and that of ‘ordinary listeners’, in so far as ‘ordinary’ Christians are those who do not have a professional or privileged engagement with theology, just as ordinary listeners do not have a professional or privileged engagement with music.

14 These ‘protocols for inclusion’ can be found at

15 David Vincent makes the point, for example, that during the nineteenth century, ‘autobiography’ was a genre ‘susceptible to appropriation by practitioners in other fields … [and particularly] attractive to … inexperienced … novelists who found in its structure an acceptable solution to the considerable technical difficulty of constructing a novel’. See Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography (London: Methuen, 1981): 2.

16 See, for instance, Marcus, Laura, Auto/biographical Discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Olney, James, Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)Google Scholar; Whyman, Susan E., The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers 1660–1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Smith, Sidonie and Watson, Julia, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, 2nd edition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)Google Scholar.

17 Given the affinities between the LED Project and history from below, it should be no surprise that many of the sources on which we have drawn, both in this issue and in the project more generally, are ones we owe to the work of history-from-below groups and scholars.

18 We are especially grateful to the Special Collections Librarian at Brunel, Katie Flanagan, for her interest in the project and her readiness to help us with accessing the collection. The content of the collection can be gauged from the three-volume annotated bibliography The Autobiography of the Working Class, ed. John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1984, 1987 and 1989).

19 Minnie Frisby, ‘Memories’, Brunel Library The Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, number 1:250, page I.1, (accessed 15 February 2019). By permission of Brunel University Library. ‘Oh! Susanna’, by Foster, dates from 1847; ‘Darling Nelly Gray’, by Hanby, dates from 1856. ‘Paddle Your Own Canoe’ is an English music-hall song from c. 1865 by Harry Clifton and Charles Coote.

20 Arthur Gill, ‘I Remember! Reminiscences of a Cobbler's Son’, Brunel University Library, Special Collections, number 1:268, pages 19–20, (accessed 15 February 2019). By permission of Brunel University Library.

21 Extracts were included by John Burnett in his collection Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820's to the 1920's (London: Allen Lane, 1974).

22 The LED project has avoided the temptation to solicit material through questionnaires or interviews. There are a number of reasons for this decision, including practical ones to do with the ethics of gathering and storing data from living subjects, and the amount of resource that this type of research activity would absorb, but also out of sympathy with a concern voiced in digital humanities circles, where it has been increasingly felt that digital humanities research was in danger of exhibiting a naïve tendency to concentrate on social scientific analysis of ‘big data’ (the search for patterns and trends, for example), at the expense of the traditional strengths of humanities scholarship, particularly the close reading of texts. Our primary interest has always been in facilitating and enhancing the types of research that characterize the humanities.

23 Thompson, Paul, The Voice of the Past: Oral History 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000): 46Google Scholar.

24 Raphael Samuel notes that the BBC was one of the ‘early conquests’ of the Oral History Society (founded in 1970–71), entering enthusiastically into broadcasting ‘the voice of the past’ from its sound archives. See Samuel, Raphael, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (London; New York: Verso, 2012): 191Google Scholar.

25 … a wrth gwrs fydda nain ‘n nghodi fi i fyny ag i lawr wrth ganu honna'n te – ‘gyrru, gyrru, gyrru i Gaer’. St Fagans National History Museum, oral history transcripts, Tape 69. Author's translation.

26 William Howard Russell, ‘Account of the Aftermath of the Battle of Alma’, The Times, 20 October 1854, (accessed 15 March, 2018).

27 See also, for example, Hayter, Tony, The Army and the Crowd in Mid-Georgian England (London: Macmillan, 1978)Google Scholar and Harrison, Mark, Crowds and History: Mass Phenomena in English Towns, 1790–1835 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)Google Scholar.

28 ‘Regimental Music at the Tower’, United Services Journal and Naval and Military Magazine, Part 2 (1829): 240, (accessed 19 March 2018).

29 Hallé, Marie and Hallé, Charles E, eds, Life and letters of Sir Charles Hallé; Being an Autobiography (1819–1860) (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1896): 143Google Scholar, (accessed 19 March 2018).

30 Freer, Walter, My Life and Memories (Glasgow: Civic Press, 1929): 3940Google Scholar, (accessed 19 March 2018).

31 ‘Evidence of Major Beresford of the 7th Surrey Volunteers’,in Charles Shaw-Lefevre Viscount Eversley, Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the Condition of the Volunteer Force in Great Britain. Command Papers; Reports of Commissioners, 1862 [3053] (1862): 655, (accessed 15 March 2018).

32 24 January 1883, in The Diary of Ada Jackson 1883 (Leicester, 1993): 18, (accessed 24 April 2018).

33 7 March 1883, in The Diary of Ada Jackson 1883, 30, (accessed 24 April 2018).

34 Easter Sunday, 25 Mar. 1883, The Diary of Ada Jackson 1883, 35, (accessed 24 April 2018).

35 Cook, Nicholas, ‘Methods for Analysing Recordings’, in The Cambridge Companion to Recorded Music, ed. Cook, Nicholas, Clarke, Eric, Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel and Rink, John (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2009): 221CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Once entered in the database, the material is structured according to objective labels including the type of source (diary, letter and so on), the date and place of origin, the gender of the subject, and whether the experience of listening described in the source was in a private or public space. A different set of categorizations can summarize the music heard by type. While the database has basic and advanced search tools, these features can be captured individually and quantitatively. A further set of factual information can be discerned analytically. Most records provide one or more of the following: objective information about repertoire and instrumentation and more detailed information about the circumstances in which the performance took place.

37 With that in mind, the type of source and the bibliographical or archival citation are captured in the database for every source, so that users may be alert to the possible wider implications – of the genre of the writing, for example – and may follow up the source so as to locate the extract in its broader context.

38 Frances von Bunsen, ‘Reminiscences Written by Baroness de Bunsen (nee Frances Waddington) in September 1874’, in National Library of Wales Journal, ed. Maxwell Fraser, 11/4 (1960): 327–8, (accessed 10 April 2018).

39 Letter from Mrs Sarah Jane Reeve to her granddaughter, 11 May 1865. From a private collection, with kind permission of Vivienne Duncan, (accessed 24 April 2018).

40 Florence Farmborough, War Recollections of 1915 (City of Alexandria, 2005): 11, (accessed 15 March 2018).

41 Blunden, Edmund, Undertones of War (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982): 146Google Scholar, (accessed 15 March 2018).

42 Col. Nicholson, Walter N., Behind the Lines (London: Jonathan Cape, 1939): 256Google Scholar, (accessed 19 July 2018).

43 For a much fuller discussion of this topic, see Helen Barlow, ‘“A Vital Necessity”: Musical Experiences in the Life Writing of British Military Personnel at the Western Front’, in A ‘Great Divide’ or a Longer Nineteenth Century?: Music, Britain, and the First World War, ed. Michelle Meinhart (Routledge: forthcoming).

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