Skip main navigation

Musical Experience: History of Listening in the 20th Century

In this article, we acknowledge the corporeality of musical experience and look at the history of listening in the 20th century.

The connection between music and body movement seems immediately obvious already in light of how musical sound is made. Body movements produce sounds on instruments, and very few musicians are able to play properly without a repertoire of other types of movements: the jazz pianist might keep time through foot tapping, while the classical clarinettist might embody the melodic phrases through phrasing “dips” in the head and shoulders.

Similar types of connections between sound and movement are also apparent in the perception of music. In dance music, for example, the body responds to specific features in the music – of choreographed classical ballet, stylized folk dance, and improvised club dance. But perceiver’s movements are not only restricted to dancers. As Simon Frith writes,

A good rock concert . . . is measured by the audience’s physical response, by how quickly people get out of their seats (1996:124).
In most popular music, jazz, and almost any folk music, connections between music and movement can be found in examples of foot tapping, head nodding, body swaying, clapping, singing along, dancing, or in various ways mimicking sound-producing actions (playing “air guitar”). However, there are large cultural differences in how such bodily involvement is regarded.
In the scholarly tradition focusing on Western “classical” music it has often been a focus on so-called “serious listening”. While the conductor may gesticulate exaggeratedly and the musicians certainly move while producing sound, the concert hall audiences are generally supposed to sit still and quiet. Patrick Shove and Bruno Repp describe the listening environment of the concert hall as:
A social proscription against overt movement by listeners has long been in effect (1995:64).
We may then ask, for how long?
The ideal of silent, attentive listening in concert halls is a social phenomenon that advanced only during the 19th century. Richard Sennet writes:
To sneer at people who showed their emotions at a play or concert became de rigueur by the mid-19th century. Restraint of emotion in the theater became a way for middle-class audiences to mark the line between themselves and the working class. A “respectable” audience by the 1850s was an audience that could control its feelings through silence; the old spontaneity was called “primitive.” The Beau Brummell ideal of restraint in bodily appearance was being matched by a new ideal of respectable noiselessness in public (1974:206).
While Sennet is mostly concerned with sociological causes for this shift, James Johnson views it in relation to the music that was introduced at the time, such as the works of Beethoven requiring more concentrated listening (Johnson 1995). Johnson, as well as Lydia Goehr (1992:191ff) disdains the 18th-century audience for being primarily occupied with social activities when attending concerts. William Weber in turn takes both to task for endorsing a specifically post-Romantic view of listening that is replete with distrust of
any fusion between music and mundane social activities which are felt to violate the integrity of musical experience (Weber 1997:681).
The idea of the musical work as a perfect, complete unity propagated in the same period. This fostered conventions such as:
  • always play complete symphonies, never parts
  • never applaud between parts/movements
  • never applaud until the last note is played
Susan McClary questions such conventions in music; the procedures that have “ossified into a formula that needs no further explanation” (2000:2–3). Strangely enough, even when music from before this 19th century turn of focus are performed, it is controlled by the same conventions. But is this appropriate?
After the première of his Symphony No. 31 (the “Paris” symphony) in 1778, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the following in a letter to his father:
Just in the middle of the first Allegro there was a passage which I felt sure must please. The audience were quite carried away – and there was a tremendous burst of applause. But as I knew, when I wrote it, what effect it would surely produce (quoted in Anderson 1966:558).
The passage Mozart refers to has two quite intense ascending pitch movements, each followed by a slower descending movement, and they probably inspired the applause, figuratively (and perhaps literally) “lifting” the audience. Mozart would almost certainly not have achieved the same overt response from his audience a century later. The noisier and rather unrestrained listening environment of the 18th century was maybe more receptive to music that invited corporeal involvement, for sure, influencing the composers at the time. And the absence of an immediate and satisfying response to the corporeal effects of music may have pushed subsequent generations of composers in other directions.
The shift to an ideal of silent, attentive listening during the 19th century is probably part of a complex train of events regarding new musical priorities. Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson point to Western philosophy’s dismissal of corporeality in musical experiences.
Music is understood by this tradition as being problematic in its capacity to affect us in ways which seem to bypass the acceptable channels of language, reason and contemplation. In particular, it is music’s apparent physicality, its status as a source of physical pleasure, which is problematic. By the same token, this tradition tends to demand of music that it – as far as possible – be meaningful, that even where it does not have words, it should offer itself up as an object of intellectual contemplation such as is likely to generate much meaningful discourse. Even those forms of modernist music which have aspired to pure abstraction (in particular the tradition of serial music), have been written with an emphasis on complexity and a deliberate intellectualism which foregrounds the music’s status as objects of rational contemplation rather than as a source of physical pleasure (1999:42–43).
Though the Western philosophical tradition obviously comprises a wide range of understandings and beliefs, Gilbert and Pearson raise a compelling point. Its emphasis on rational thought has probably encouraged composers, musicians, critics, and scholars to focus on intellectual approaches to music rather than corporeal ones.
The ultimate ascension of the intellectual approach to music listening – for example, the descriptions of listening types by Theodore Adorno (1968:15ff) – and its emphasis on the structure, development, and linearity of musical works are at least partially to blame for the Western scholarly disinterest in connections between music listening and body movements even in the twentieth century. Andrew Dell’Antonio observes that:
structural listening highlights an intellectual response to music to the almost total exclusion of human physical presence – whether that of the performer or that of the listener (2004:8).

But as we argue, even if we try to avoid the body in music, it is still there, and it still influences our experience of music.


© Hans T. Zeiner-Henriksen, University of Oslo
This article is from the free online

Music Moves: Why Does Music Make You Move?

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now