Elaine Moohan: Previous generations’ appreciation of music in their own words is key

Dr Elaine Moohan is Senior Lecturer in Music at The Open University and a co-investigator on the Listening Experience Database (LED) project.
Dr Elaine Moohan is Senior Lecturer in Music at The Open University and a co-investigator on the Listening Experience Database (LED) project.
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Whether you call yourself a music-lover or not, you will probably still remember the first album you bought or the first concert you went to. The AHRC-funded project, the Listening Experience Database, is investigating how people from previous generations felt and reacted when listening to music.

It asks whether there are notable differences across the country and across different social classes and communities. The focus is on collecting and analysing the writings of ordinary people, not professional critics, so items such as concert reviews in the press are not included.

How people listened to music in the past is part of a study

How people listened to music in the past is part of a study

Instead, the researchers are looking into the personal accounts of concert-goers, including those who listen to music on the radio or television, or even live streaming. All genres of music and writings from all historical periods are included.

Along the way, there have been some interesting discoveries.

One of the Glasgow families being researched is the Smiths of Jordanhill. Several family members display, through their diaries and letters, an aptitude for music and record their appreciation of listening to a performance. Others write of music as something that happens in the background, added to complete the description of a scene.

Mary Louisa Hamilton, who married into the extended Smith family, includes references to music in her travel journals in this way, even when she made a deliberate effort to go and hear music being played. During her journey along the Rhine, she wrote for 30th June 1879 ‘Went to hear the band playing, another shower of rain, saw illuminations in evening.’

Similarly Isabella Gore Booth (née Smith) refers to music in her diaries as a way to bring alive her experience of a scene. While in Brussels in September 1835 she wrote ‘As the moon rose beautifully from behind the dome [of the Church of St James] a band played in the square – altogether it was the most beautiful thing I ever heard or saw.’

Later in her journey, upon reaching the source of the Danube she records an event at the hotel: ‘The evening was very cold and comfortless but it was delightfully enlivened by some of the most magnificent music I ever heard … 50 men sang together in the most perfect harmony some pieces 
of Handel’s and Haydn in another room of the hotel sometimes their powerful voices swelled like a beautiful organ.’

That Isabella was able to identify the composers demonstrates her own musical knowledge, confirmed later when she records finding a piano at another stop in her journey and playing to the delight of others in the party. But it is her description of listening to the men singing at the hotel that is of most value to this research project.

Mary Louisa and Isabella could be described as society ladies, those able to travel and doubtless expected to foster an appreciation of music. But other stories are equally interesting.

For example, as a schoolgirl in Methil, Maud Cox described the local street scene on 11th November 1918: ‘When the war ended, everyone celebrated, we marched through the streets … singing ‘When the boys come marching home’ … we sang until we were hoarse.’ This too is a valuable contribution to the larger record of experiencing music.

The most fruitful materials for this type of research are personal accounts in diaries and letters. Many of these are in publically accessible archives and libraries – which don’t always include items written by people from all sections of society.

So, the project team is keen to involve members of the public in contributing to the database and making it as broad and useful as possible.

Scottish towns and cities have had flourishing concert lives since at least the late eighteenth century. People have had access to all sorts of music: ticketed concerts, church services, free concerts in public places, as well as private music-making at all kinds of social gatherings.

It is important that we hear the voices of those not already represented in the database and our public libraries and archives. Diaries and letters of family members from all social backgrounds will make a valuable addition.

Those interested in finding out more should visit http://led.kmi.open.ac.uk/.

Dr Elaine Moohan is Senior Lecturer in Music at The Open University and a co-investigator on the Listening Experience Database (LED) project.