Introduction - Listeners in music history: studying the evidence

Barlow, Helen and Herbert, Trevor (2020). Introduction - Listeners in music history: studying the evidence. Nineteenth-Century Music Review, 17(3) pp. 343–357.



This themed issue of Nineteenth-Century Music Review 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.

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