Listening to music: a private or public activity?

Battle of Ideas festival 2013, Saturday 19 October, Barbican, London


ETA Hoffmann’s famous 1810 review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony declared instrumental music to be the highest of all art forms because it opened up to listeners the realm of the infinite, ‘a world that has nothing in common with the external world of the senses’. Precisely because of its independence from words, music could express that which lay beyond the grasp of conventional language and be interpreted by any one of us in a multitude of ways. In a celebrated passage in the novel Howards End, EM Forster captures a whole range of types of listener among six characters listening to Beethoven’s Fifth.  Responses ranged from the visceral (Mrs Munt tapping) to the technical (Tibby ‘versed in counterpoint’), from Helen ‘who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood’ to the nationalistic. What all listeners had in common was that they experience music in public, typically in a concert hall.

Today, however, music is a ubiquitous backdrop to everyday life, experienced in lifts, in TV jingles or on a multitude of radio stations. And who needs the concert hall when we access personal playlists in our own time and schedule? Even listening to music in public – on the street or on a train – can be an intensely private experience. Cultural attitudes have also changed. A new audiences initiative has declared ‘the most alienating of all classical music’s rituals is that concerts take place in concert halls’, which is all too much like a museum. What’s more, it’s suggested that in today’s visual culture, staring straight ahead at the musicians or closing your eyes and listening intently is not sufficient: a visual dimension is necessary to engage contemporary audiences.

Contemporary music ensembles are reminded that millions of people listen to music at festivals, nightclubs, discos and private parties, and expect a similarly immersive experience from concerts. But should all musical experiences really be the same, or is there something to be said for a degree of reverence in some circumstances? Does visual accompaniment distract us or help us concentrate on the layers and subtleties of music? Should we throw off the classical concert hall as a burden? How and where should we listen to music to really hear it?  Is really listening to music a public pursuit or a private passion?

Ivan Hewett

chief music critic, Daily Telegraph; professor, Royal College of Music; broadcaster; author, Music: healing the rift

Marshall Marcus
CEO, European Union Youth Orchestra; chair; Sistema Europe

Gabriella Swallow
cellist, broadcaster and arts commentator

Angus Kennedy

convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination