Still, silent listening in India: the meanings of embodied listening practices

Chloë Alaghband-Zadeh

Chloë Alaghband-Zadeh is a Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. Her research is on North Indian classical music, which she studies through a combination of ethnography and music analysis. She received her PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London (2013), for a dissertation on the semi-classical genre ṭhumrī. She is currently working on a project on expert listening and connoisseurship in North Indian classical music.


With this chapter, I explore the social meanings of embodied ways of listening to North Indian classical music. I focus especially on still, silent listening, a mode of listening that has been neglected in scholarship in this context. This scholarly neglect reflects the fact that most North Indian classical musicians and listeners tend either not to discuss this form of listening or else to cast it in a negative light, preferring instead to celebrate more active, noisy ways of listening to music. However, by not considering the full range of listening practices at North Indian classical performances, scholars have not theorised how competing value systems shape different ways of listening within a single performance environment. Here, I consider how certain North Indian classical musicians and listeners invest still, silent listening with positive significance. I argue that embodied modes of attending to music are implicated in social negotiations over prestige and status. Moreover, embodied listening demeanours have the power to reproduce musical ideologies.


What shapes the embodied ways listeners engage with music? What are the social meanings of embodied listening practices? And what can scholars learn by asking listeners about their listening behaviours and experiences?

A diverse field of embodied listening behaviours can be observed at live performances of North Indian classical music. At a typical performance, some listeners sit still, perhaps with their eyes closed, silently attending to the music. Others are more conspicuous. They interact with the musicians and with each other throughout the performance and frequently comment out loud or gesture in response to the music.

I am interested in the sociality of these embodied listening practices. With this chapter, I explore the significance listeners attach to embodied ways of engaging with music. I focus on still, silent listening, an area neglected in scholarship on North Indian classical music; I consider what this particular listening practice means in the context of contemporary performances of North Indian classical music. This research is based on ethnography and interviews with musicians and listeners. By asking listeners about their listening experiences, I highlight powerful intersections between embodied listening practices and (verbal) discourse on music. I show how individual listeners each mobilise the discursive resources available to them in order to make sense of their listening behaviours, preferences and experiences. Moreover, I argue that embodied ways of listening to North Indian classical music sustain particular musical ideologies.

This work builds on diverse existing scholarship on the embodiment of ways of listening to music.1 This has included work on still, silent listening in various global contexts. In Listening in Paris, a study of the ‘historical construction of listening’ in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Paris, James Johnson links the emergence of still, silent listening practices with broad shifts in musical ideology (towards romanticism).2 The ethnomusicologist Lorraine Plourde, meanwhile, has discussed the still, silent practices of listeners to the Japanese new music genre onkyo. She links their particular ways of listening to the aesthetic of the music and shows how listeners’ experiences and behaviour were shaped by pamphlets and other written materials, as part of a niche culture of musical connoisseurship.3

This chapter is especially inspired by the work of Jonathan Gross. He has conducted a rich ethnographic study of audiences for the BBC Proms (a concert series of mainly western classical music held in the prestigious Albert Hall every summer in London).4 He uses interviews with individual listeners in order to examine the social norm of still and silent listening, exploring ‘the ends to which diverse audiences put this very particular way of using music’.5 He argues that listeners practise this behaviour in part ‘in order to cultivate versions of themselves (that is, as ‘technologies of the self)’.6

Like Johnson and Plourde, my aim here is to highlight relationships between conventional (embodied) listening behaviours and ways of thinking about music. Like Gross, I am interested in the individual ways in which listeners make sense of their own embodied listening practices; I will show how shared discourses and ideologies intersect with the personal ways listeners engage with North Indian classical music. In doing so, I draw on Gross’ idea that listening can function as a ‘mode of using music’, a way for individuals to fulfil social and emotional needs.7

This chapter also contributes to a growing body of research on the embodied listening practices of North Indian classical music. So far, however, this work has focused on the behaviour of the most active, noisy listeners at North Indian classical concerts.8 Often great musical experts, these listeners demonstrate their musical engagement with their bodies and voices: they gesture or comment out loud during performances, as a way of signalling their appreciation for what the performers are doing. Through their embodied and audible reactions to music, they show what they make of what they are hearing, both to the performers on stage and also to each other.

It is not surprising that these extrovert listeners have been the focus of most scholarship on North Indian classical listening so far: they are conspicuous at concerts and their ways of listening are valued by musicians and listeners alike. However, not all listeners engage with North Indian classical music in this way. Some audience members move and talk more than others. Many do not move or talk at all. Despite this, scholars have largely ignored the still, silent mode of listening in this tradition. I will suggest, however, that there is much to gain by examining this way of listening to North Indian classical music: as I will demonstrate, this can shed light on powerful intersections between embodied ways of listening, on the one hand, and ideologies of music, on the other.

With this chapter, I consider how listeners make sense of (and, following Gross, make use of) still, silent listening practices at performances of North Indian classical music.9 This work is based on ethnography and interviews with musicians and music-lovers in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, conducted during research trips in 2014 and in 2015. As part of this fieldwork, I conducted formal interviews with 20 music-lovers. I also arranged a series of listening and discussion sessions, attended concerts and other musical events, and had many informal conversations with musicians and listeners. During my interviews, I asked listeners about their listening experiences at live performances. This is the main source of data I employ here: in what follows, I quote from a number of these interviews, in all cases anonymising the names of my participants.

Based on this research, I highlight the social meanings of embodied ways of listening to North Indian classical music. I discuss some of the individual and highly personal ways listeners make use of the listening behaviours available to them. In doing so, I consider the implications of the fact that there are social boundaries around the most valued and high-status ways of listening: these listening practices are more accessible to some listeners than others. By focusing on still, silent listening in this context, I show how some individuals rationalise and legitimise a typically devalued mode of listening to North Indian classical music. Finally, I explore ways in which discourses on embodied ways of listening intersect with other discourses and musical ideologies. In particular, I draw attention to powerful meeting points between ideas about still, silent listening and a discourse of spirituality in North Indian classical music. I argue that the coexistence of different modes of listening to North Indian classical music is a result of (and reproduces) a complex discursive field, shaped by competing musical ideologies, themselves the traces of particular, intertwined histories in the tradition. Thus I suggest that musical ideologies in this context are performed and sustained, in part, through listeners’ embodied engagement with North Indian classical music.

Noisy, active listening versus still, silent listening in India

At the performances of North Indian classical music I attended in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, audience members displayed a range of embodied listening practices, including noisy, active listening and still, silent listening. These different practices, however, do not have equal value.

Noisy, active listening has a privileged position at performances of North Indian classical music. It is valued by musicians and listeners alike. As Martin Clayton and Laura Leante have shown, listeners’ gestural and audible contributions are integral to North Indian classical performances. For example, Clayton writes that:

it appears to be more productive to see the performance as an event constituted by all its participants, rather than to see the audience as the ‘context’ for the musicians’ performance.10

This co-production is a source of value for performers and listeners. Musicians value the instant feedback they get from the most active listeners, which allows them to gauge how their performances are going, helping them to decide what and for how long to perform. Some musicians also told me that a responsive audience can help them to perform at their best. Expert music-lovers expressed great pride in the fact that their contributions are crucial to a successful performance.

Conspicuous, noisy listening also serves important social functions. Responding to music with gestures and comments can be a way for listeners to perform the high-status, prestigious, classed identity of the rasika, or music connoisseur, as I discuss elsewhere.11 Being a rasika is often associated with having musical expertise; and so many musicians and listeners take an active audience as a sign that that audience is knowledgeable. For example, the music organiser Raj told me that a knowledgeable audience would usually be ‘a little more responsive than the non-knowing audience’. He said that when there is ‘an audience which knows what is happening’ and ‘approves of what is happening’, that that ‘[generates] a little more positivity into it’. And, as well as implying musical expertise, responding audibly and visibly to music also has positive ethical connotations, evoking generosity, sincerity and patience. Many associate this behaviour with a past Golden Age of North Indian classical music.12

On the other hand, many listeners see still, silent listening as a problem: they interpret it as a sign that listeners are not engaged in the performance, as evidence of an undiscerning, ignorant audience, or as a symptom of North Indian classical music’s much lamented move from small, intimate performance environments, to large, impersonal concert halls.

For example, Radha, a lifelong music-lover, told me that the best kind of audience is an ‘appreciative audience’. She compared this with audiences who do not appear to be listening to the performance, who, she said, made her feel ‘sad’. Likewise, Sunny, another very keen music-lover, compared the ‘very good’ audiences he remembered in Calcutta in the 1970s, who were very active, with an audience he had recently seen on the television:

I remember this guy, this nice guy […] – in Calcutta I used to go to these concerts – it was a guy sitting and he would just go absolutely like he was having an epileptic fit almost: his reaction to the music [was] like that. And talking about listening like that, it’s really funny: I was watching some classical music concert on TV the other day, recently, and when they’re panning the audience, […] the singer is doing his best, he is singing, it wasn’t bad, but the audience, my goodness! People looked like, Jesus, is this a depression? Everybody looked like the last thing they enjoyed was music.

For Sunny, then, not responding to music is a sign of a lack of enjoyment. He makes clear that the music here was good and that the singer was not at fault. Rather, these immobile listeners themselves must be to blame. The implication is that they are deficient as listeners, unable to discern good music from bad.

There are various practical reasons why listeners might not participate in active, noisy listening. Newcomers and audiences outside India may simply not be familiar with these conventional ways of responding to music. Audience members may feel uninspired, or not in the mood to respond conspicuously during a performance; or they might find it difficult to engage with an uncommunicative musician. Many listeners believe that it is more difficult to interact with musicians in a large concert hall than in a small, intimate environment. And certain parts of the music seem to invite responses more than others. (As John Napier, Martin Clayton and Laura Leante have documented, interaction between performers and audiences is often fairly limited at the start of a performance, but intensifies as the performance continues.)13

Active, audible listening practices are also distributed (unevenly) according to social hierarchies. Brian Silver, for example, has considered how the different social status of audience members in influences their behaviour at performances. Social status, in this context, is determined by a variety of factors, including age, gender, whether one is a patron or ‘honored guest’ and, importantly, musical expertise. Silver notes that it is the audience members with the highest social status who tend to sit closest to the musician during the performance and it is with them that musicians interact the most.14 Similarly, Leante has described how both status and the ‘expected degree of freedom of interaction with the performers’ are ‘directly proportional to the proximity to the stage’.15 As Clayton and Leante have shown, social hierarchies at performances of North Indian classical music are both spatialised (that is, distributed unevenly in the performance space) and also embodied (made manifest in the different embodied demeanours of that individuals present).16

This spatialised, embodied social hierarchy is sustained in part through social policing. For example, Brian Silver describes how soloists might ‘deliver a lecture’ during a performance to ‘presumptuous’ junior musicians who are ‘too vocal in their praise’ of a performance ‘in an attempt to attraction’.17 Similarly, the music-lover and amateur performer Ravi told me that, although he would not generally ‘be bothered about judging other listeners’, he does disapprove of those who ‘[make] a nuisance of themselves’ by being ‘too loud’. Daniel Neuman has also discussed the risks for non-experts of participating in noisy, active listening in this context: ‘inappropriately timed responses’ can reveal a person’s musical ‘naivete’.18 In each of these cases, an individual’s audible responses to music expose them to criticism (and moral judgement) from musicians or other listeners. Elsewhere, I have discussed other examples of the ways extrovert listening behaviours are policed at performances of North Indian classical music: I show how the social boundaries around these listening practices reproduce social hierarchies within the music world (especially around levels of expertise) and also broader class distinctions.19 Although participating in noisy, active listening affords unique pleasures and offers the promise of social rewards (especially for the most high-status listeners), it also carries risks.

The different kinds of listening behaviours evident at performances of North Indian classical music are thoroughly implicated in social hierarchies and questions of value. In this context, musicians and music-lovers typically view still, silent listening in a negative light, often interpreting it as a sign of ignorant or unengaged listeners. However, there are various reasons (including social policing) why some listeners might nevertheless adopt still, silent listening practices at performances of North Indian classical music. In the next section, I will consider how individual listeners inhabit this generally devalued mode of embodied listening.

How listeners make sense of still, silent listening

How do still, silent listeners make sense of their listening experiences? In contrast with most music-lovers’ frequent celebrations of extrovert listening practices, a minority of the music-lovers I interviewed invested still, silent listening with positive significance. They included some very expert listeners and patrons, with a high status in the music world. These listeners understood still, silent listening not as inexpert or inattentive, but rather as a legitimate and valuable way of engaging with music. In this section, I shall explore how these listeners craft this minority position, drawing on the discursive resources available to them in order to negotiate with the dominant position on listening still and silently to North Indian classical music. I shall show how, for certain listeners, listening in this way is what Gross calls a ‘mode of using music’: a pattern of behaviour which people can take up and employ, according to their own individual needs.

Shivika, a prominent music organiser, made the case for still, silent listening by drawing attention to the negative side of noisy, active listening. She said:

A person like me, I will not say ‘Ah, ah, ah, ah!’ I don’t want to attract attention to myself. I may say a subtle ‘Vāh!’ [Wow!] or ‘Ah!’ […] But there are some people: ‘Are vāh! Are kyā!’ You have seen [it]. So sometimes people also do a lot of theatrics.

She interpreted these ‘theatrics’ as a sign that audience members want to show off, asserting their superiority over others. As she put it:

Some people, meaning connoisseurs, they want to let other people know, ‘Here is what I understand.’ You know that person has come on the sam [the first beat of the metrical cycle] and I understood. And if you have not understood … It is not only very innocent appreciation, genuine appreciation of good but is also, ‘Oh, that happened and I knew it; I understood it; I understand it.’

Here, Shivika highlights a negative aspect of the fact that noisy, active listening can be a performance of expertise: this exposes the more extrovert listeners to the accusation that they are not being ‘genuine’. For Shivika, listening quietly is not a sign of ignorance or inattentiveness, but part of how she is able to take a principled stance about enjoying music in a genuine way and not showing off. In Gross’ terms, listening in a restrained way is a means by which Shivika cultivates a version of herself that is ‘genuine’ or authentic.

Similarly, the music patron and connoisseur Arun told me that in the ideal kinds of performances, with a small number of expert listeners, noisy, active listening can be unnecessary:

So, within a […] space of ten or fifteen listeners, and the artist who is really doing a magnificent job, something great is happening. And you know something great is happening because you have had a history with the same artist and you have had a history with the same music, a history with the same rag, even a history with most fabulous accompaniment coming together, you know, collaboratively. [It’s] an ambiance. You have friends, an artist is coming: it takes a lot of things for something really, really great to happen. When it’s happening, you’re part of it. You’re happy to be part of it and you are silent, my dear.

He described his experience of listening silently at a small house concert as a ‘reverie’ and an ‘inner purge’, and said, ‘If something magnificent is going on, […] it transcends vāh vāhs and all that.’ Here, Arun reverses the usual formulation, in which interaction between musician and audience is associated primarily with intimate performance environments; for him, silence is the ultimate sign of musical enjoyment in such contexts.

At another point in our conversation, he compared this with his experiences of western classical music:

Sometimes when the going is good, […] you’re just caught up in the sheer magic of the music and you’d rather keep [your eyes] closed, like sometimes when you’re listening to great Bach, even on headphones, you keep your eyes closed. Or Chopin.

One might speculate that it is in part his engagement with western classical music which caused him to adopt this embodied demeanour (which is normative in the context of western classical listening) in relation to Indian classical music.

Meanwhile, where he did discuss the advantages of noisy, active listening, he framed this in pragmatic terms, telling me that he might praise a tabla player out loud if they appear to be taking over the performance with too much virtuosity, to ‘cajole’ them into being more ‘sedate’. Like Shivika, Arun too understands still, silent listening as a more genuine engagement with music than the more conspicuous, extrovert embodied mode. For him, listening silently is what happens when one is ‘caught up in the sheer magic of music’; responding audibly to music, on the other hand, is only necessary as a way of manipulating certain musicians into holding back, lest they mar the performance.

Another theme that came up in a number of my interviews was the idea that getting people to close their eyes could be a good way of enticing newcomers to North Indian classical music. As well as the fact that non-experts are subject to social policing when they engage in extrovert listening, getting people to close their eyes is often used as a strategy to encourage beginners to engage with the music.

Chirag, a prominent listener and music organiser, described a listening session he had organised, featuring the renowned santur player Shivkumar Sharma:

See I give an example of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. He had come for a lecture demonstration in the afternoon. We used to have this thing on Saturday afternoon, soon after college, so that students, before they go home, they could get a taste of this music. […] And he said, ‘Now I am going to play an ālāp. And an ālāp, it’s a gradual development of the ālāp, without any percussion instrument. But I will request the whole audience to close your eyes and listen.’ After those ten or twenty minutes, the ālāp, then he would say, pick up someone, a young lady, ‘What did you feel while listening?’ Somebody would say, ‘I could hear waters gushing from a river, or from the mountains.’ Somebody would say, ‘I am seeing the image of some god.’ Somebody would say, ‘I feel saddened.’ The effect of music on different people at the same time! […] And [this was] how he created an audience.

According to this anecdote, an extremely famous North Indian classical musician asks an audience of non-experts to close their eyes as a way of fostering engagement with the music. Since non-experts are liable to face social policing for engaging in noisy, active listening, this makes sense; but by telling this story, Chirag also invested this mode of listening with positive significance, as something which can improve listeners’ engagement with music. This anecdote served to validate this as a legitimate mode of listening.

Note here also how the mechanism of closing one’s eyes produced various statements that sit within a broader discourse of spirituality in North Indian classical music, such as the listener who is reported to have said that they saw ‘the image of some god’ on hearing this music. This was typical of a broader trend. Ideas about spirituality or meditation came up frequently when listeners made the case for still, silent listening. A discourse of spirituality informed Arun’s description of listening to music (above), in which he described it as an ‘inner purge’. Similarly, it also coloured this description of still and silent listening by Shekhar, a record collector. He told me:

Well when I am listening in a concert, by default I am not allowed to even look at the other person nor speak. So usually I will sit in yogic posture, eyes closed. Because I will enjoy myself. And even if somebody is making a comment, I will feel offended.

Another prominent organiser, Neeraj, also used the language of spirituality when he described his embodied engagement with a particular instrument:

If I listen to a flute, of a certain particular person, I go into a trance. But the same raga if it is played on sitar, my responses are totally different. […] Vocal music, my responses are totally different. I’d hardly do any vāh vāh and ah ah for the flute. […] After time, people think that I am asleep, but I am not. I go into a trance. I enjoy each and every note. […] I may just nod, ‘Aha!’ like this, to myself, because my eyes are closed.

In each of these cases, listeners drew on a shared set of ideas about music as an inner, spiritual experience in order to craft their own discursive stances on still, silent listening practices.

Thus for certain listeners, listening still and silently goes beyond simply not participating in the noisy, active listening that characterises the tradition. Rather, they find their own ways of understanding and representing their listening in a positive light. For some, listening in this way is tied to ideas about being genuine or authentic, while for others it signifies spirituality or a way for newcomers to engage with North Indian classical music. In the next section, I will consider what broader ideological work is being done through these individual discursive negotiations on ways of listening.

Embodying discourse and ideology

What is the relationship between embodied ways of listening to North Indian classical music, the individual ways in which listeners make sense of their listening experiences, and the broader discursive landscape of the tradition? My discussions with listeners about still, silent listening revealed how shared sets of ideas have emerged around a generally devalued mode of listening to North Indian classical music. Listeners individually mobilise the discursive resources available to them in order to invest their embodied ways of listening with positive significance; however, although each listener I spoke with crafted their own, unique position, certain themes came up repeatedly.

Most often, still, silent listeners understood their own listening in terms of spirituality and meditation. Such ideas are an important part of the discursive landscape of North Indian classical music.20 (They have also been central to western appropriations of North Indian classical music.)21

A similar discourse on spirituality is a common lens through which North Indian classical musicians and listeners understand musicians’ embodied demeanour in performance. John Napier has described how performers commonly start their performances with a ‘closed-eyed, self-contained demeanour’, before gradually becoming more animated and interacting more with their audiences. He writes that this ‘self-contained’ embodied stance gives the impression of ‘drawing on the subconscious’, linking this with ‘the long-standing association of Indian performance with an almost meditative act’.22

As Napier observed, some musicians I interviewed also drew a link between closing one’s eyes and meditation. For example, the singer Urvashi described how ‘when I reach that state of meditative level of consciousness in my music, then once in a while I might just shut my eyes and go in deep within’.

Meghna, an amateur singer, too, told me that:

You get into a different zone, so even when you are performing you really don’t pay attention to the audience beyond a point, or at least I don’t. You get into a zone which is much more about you, the music and the higher self. It’s like a very, a very sort of self-contained space. […] When you are listening as well you enter that level of space. It’s very similar in a way. It’s not a self-conscious space at all. […] It’s very meditative and it’s very – it really takes you into a different realm.

This was in tune with her other comments about North Indian classical music. Throughout our discussion, she emphasised the spiritual dimensions of North Indian classical music, saying that for her music is a source ‘of beauty, of something that comes closest to a spiritual experience’. Thus there are parallels between the ways certain listeners understand still, silent listening as a spiritual or meditative act and a wider discourse on embodied spirituality, typically applied to musicians.

Moreover, this discourse on the embodied spirituality of musicians is itself one side of a discursive binary surrounding North Indian classical music, in which ways of understanding of music as spiritual compete with courtly associations. Daniel Neuman has discussed the semiotics of different performance styles adopted by musicians. He compares what he calls a courtly (or darbār) model of performance with a devotional (or bhakti) model, and notes some of the implications this has in terms of performers’ stage behaviour and dress. He further suggests that these ‘represent the bipolar traditions of music as a way for and a way of life’ and ‘continue a fundamental ambivalence in the meaning of musicianship’ in North Indian classical music.23 Likewise, in Brian Silver’s book chapter ‘The Adab of musicians’, he describes what he calls two ‘behavioural models’ available to musicians: the ‘simple man’ and the ‘courtly man’. In his description, while the ‘simple man’ pursues music as an expression of spirituality, the ‘courtly man’ cultivates an aristocratic musical demeanour.24 These different embodied demeanours are the traces of different (but frequently overlapping) imagined histories for North Indian classical music: while some musicians and listeners link contemporary North Indian classical music primarily to its Mughal, courtly past, others prefer to emphasise pre-Mughal musical practice, hearing music primarily in terms of Hindu spirituality.25

I would suggest that the models of listening behaviour I have discussed here are indicative of that same discursive binary, between courtly and spiritual understandings of music. While extrovert listening practices tend to be associated with past courtly patronage, courtly etiquette and elite, expert connoisseurship, still, silent listening is more often aligned with ideas about spirituality and the universality of musical expression. Ways of listening are thus implicated in wider conceptual frameworks for understanding music. They are shaped by competing ways of understanding music. Moreover, these two kinds of embodied listening are an important way in which these discourses are internalised, performed and reproduced.

As well as a discourse of spirituality, attitudes to the embodied aspects of listening also intersect with other discourses, too. Recall how, in Chirag’s anecdote (above), a spiritual interpretation of music was aligned with ideas about making the tradition accessible to newcomers. This in turn resonates with a broader ideology of the universalism of North Indian classical music. This ideology circulates through discussions about the extent to which expertise and musical knowledge are necessary for someone to be a ‘good’ listener of North Indian classical music. While some musicians and listeners believe that experts make the best audiences for North Indian classical music, others think that the tradition is, and ought to be, accessible to everyone. Thus celebrating still, silent listening can support a particular ideological position on musical universality.

In linking ideas about spirituality with ideas about musical universality, Chirag makes a common discursive move. Note how Urvashi also uses the idea of spirituality in order to support her view that musical knowledge is not necessary for someone to have a legitimate musical experience. She described a concert she had given at which:

Everybody in the audience had tears in their eyes. […] I sang […] a beautiful composition on Shiva [a Hindu deity]. And it was Shivaratri [a Hindu festival associated with Shiva]. So it’s like everybody said, ‘We literally felt we could see Shiva sitting there in meditation.’ They all had that kind of spiritual experience – for a spiritual experience, you don’t need to know which is which svar [note].

This stance is in line with Urvashi’s personal career trajectory. She is a performer who has had a successful international career, performing frequently outside of India. For Urvashi, highlighting the spirituality of still, silent listening is a means of legitimising the way in which many of her audiences engage with North Indian classical music. She also, by extension, validates her own position as someone who performs to such audiences and the broader idea that North Indian classical music should be for everybody, not just the experts.

Thus, in each of the cases I have discussed in this chapter, listeners form their positions on listening by drawing in their own way on the shared discursive resources available to them. These, in turn, intersect with and reproduce broader musical ideologies. In this context, embodiment, discourse and musical experience are thoroughly interrelated.


With this chapter, I have discussed some of the social meanings of embodied ways of listening to music. I identified two contrasting modes of listening to North Indian classical music and explored some of the ways contemporary listeners make sense of their own embodied listening behaviours. I showed how certain listeners have negotiated with the normative model of listening in this tradition, imbuing still, silent listening with positive significance. And I considered ways in which attitudes to listening intersect with and reproduce broader discourses and musical ideologies.

This work highlights how discourse and musical ideologies can be variously embodied in, and reproduced through, listeners’ ways of attending to music in performance. Ways of listening to live performances are shaped by broader sets of ideas about music and musicians. As a result, the choices individuals make about how to attend to music are deeply meaningful. By listening to music in particular ways, listeners take a position within competing discourses on music, with implications in terms of prestige and social status.

Ways of listening are not ideologically neutral. Individuals understand and employ listening practices in highly personal ways, specific to their own unique circumstances and agendas; but embodied listening practices are also implicated in broader discursive negotiations. Embodied ways of listening are thus deeply personal, while they also have the power to sustain collective musical ideologies.

Select bibliography

Alaghband-Zadeh, Chloe. ‘Listening to North Indian classical music: how embodied ways of listening perform imagined histories and social class’, Ethnomusicology 61, no. 2, 2017 (forthcoming).

Clayton, Martin. ‘Time, gesture and attention in a Khyāl performance’, Asian Music 38, no. 2, 2007, pp. 71–96, doi:10.1353/amu.2007.0032, accessed 10 March 2017.

Clayton, Martin and Leante, Laura. ‘Role, status and hierarchy in the performance of North Indian classical music’, Ethnomusicology Forum 24, no. 3, 2015, pp. 414–442, doi:10.1080/17411912.2015.1091272, accessed 10 March 2017.

Gross, Jonathan. ‘Concert going in everyday life: an ethnography of still and silent listening at the BBC Proms’, PhD dissertation. Birkbeck College, University of London, 2012.

Johnson, James H. Listening in Paris: A Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Neuman, Daniel Moses. The Life of Music in North India: The Organization of an Artistic Tradition. New Delhi: Manohar, 1990.

Plourde, Lorraine. ‘Disciplined listening in Tokyo: Onkyō and non-intentional sounds’, Ethnomusicology 52, no. 2, 2008, pp. 270–295.

Silver, Brian. ‘On the Adab of musicians’ in Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam, ed. Barbara Daly Metcalf, pp. 315–329. Berkeley; London: University of California Press, 1984.

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The listening experience of the classical concert hall: the value of qualitative research with current audiences

Lucy Dearn, Jonathan Gross, Sarah Price and Stephanie Pitts

Lucy Dearn has recently completed an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award project with the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre (SPARC) at the University of Sheffield under the supervision of Professor Stephanie Pitts. She has been working in partnership with chamber music promoter Music in the Round to conduct research with classical music audiences across South Yorkshire. Her research investigates community formation around a concert series and the views of younger people often underrepresented in the regular makeup of audiences.

Jonathan Gross is based in the Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London, working on the Get Creative Research Project as part of the BBC-led Get Creative campaign. He previously worked on collaborative research projects at the Universities of Leeds and Liverpool, and at the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre. His PhD was an ethnography of audiences at the BBC Proms, which he completed at The London Consortium.

Sarah Price is a postdoctoral research associate on the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre’s new project, Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts. Prior to this, she was a postdoctoral researcher at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and completed an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award project with SPARC and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Her research interests are in audience development, the value of cultural experiences for individuals who engage with the arts, and the role of academic research within the commercial arts industry.

Stephanie Pitts is Professor of Music Education and currently Head of Music at the University of Sheffield and Director of the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre. She has research interests in life-long musical engagement, including amateur musical performance and live music listening. She is the author of Valuing Musical Participation (Ashgate, 2005), Chances and Choices: Exploring the Impact of Music Education (Oxford, 2012) and, with Karen Burland, a jointly edited book on audience experience, Coughing and Clapping (Ashgate, 2014).


Drawing on studies with audiences in three different cities and across multiple genres, this chapter considers the contribution of empirical research to understanding the experience of live music listening. We evaluate the potential of qualitative research tools ranging from life history interviews to art-informed visual methods, and present some of the findings from our recent work, which highlights the interconnectedness of the personal, social and musical elements of listening experience. Conclusions are drawn about the usefulness of these approaches for arts organisations, academic researchers and audience members themselves.


Understanding how and why people listen is a central aim of the Listening Experience Database (LED) project, which has taken a mainly archival approach to documenting experiences with live music across a wide range of settings and centuries. Interpreting the call for evidence from ‘any historical period’ to include ‘now’, the work of Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre makes a distinctive contribution to LED by considering how orchestral concerts, chamber music and contemporary classical music are experienced by their audiences, by asking: who attends and who does not?; how is live listening experienced musically, personally and socially?; and what are the challenges for researchers in understanding what people do when they listen?

Research with today’s audiences, rather than their historical counterparts, brings some advantages in being able to ask people about their motivations and experiences. However, other challenges are the same across the decades and centuries, most notably in the difficulties for audience members of finding the language to explain and evaluate their listening experiences. Audience research takes many forms26 and has shown in recent years an increasing awareness of the limitations of talk-based, retrospective reporting of the live arts experience, turning to visual methods,27 digital technology28 and social media29 in the attempt to capture the immediate impact of being in an audience. The longer-term impact of concert listening is of significance too, and life history approaches that take account of past arts experience and learning are also contributing to the debate.30 Understanding audience experience has obvious benefits for arts organisations, for whom the additional insight on how and why their audiences attend is of value in increasing access, growing and sustaining audiences, and building community. For academic research, greater understanding of how music intersects with people’s lives is also valuable, bringing fresh perspectives on cultural engagement, social interaction and ‘ways of listening’.31

In this chapter, we draw on our ongoing collaborations with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and Music in the Round (MitR), using empirical findings to explore the varieties of listening experiences among regular audiences and new attenders in those settings. We show how, through the use of a range of qualitative methods, researchers can investigate the hopes, anxieties and expectations that today’s audiences bring to the concert hall, and we consider the usefulness of eliciting and understanding these perspectives, as a way of enriching and sustaining audience experience. Each section of the chapter focuses on one of our recent studies, indicating the methods we have employed to study live listening experiences in the concert hall today, and illustrating the kinds of insight that these approaches can help generate.

Beyond language: the ‘Write-Draw-Tell’ method

When making empirical enquiries into classical music audiences, it is vital to question how such an ephemeral listening experience may come to be understood by researchers. In recent years, there has been a move from the demographic segmentation of audiences towards a deeper understanding of their lived experience, which prompts the need for a further investigation into how current methodological toolkits may be advanced in this field.

Empirical studies have begun to explore classical music audiences using quantitative methods, underpinned by a theoretical framework which investigates experience and is not limited to demographics.32 These studies questioned audience members before and after the event; however, participants were not able to reflect on the experience as it was happening. Other studies that consider classical music audiences have used more qualitative, talk-based research methods.33 Nevertheless, despite a growing body of data gathered with audiences, current qualitative methods used in this field are not without limitations and could be developed further.

A key consideration when using talk-based methods with audiences is the frequency with which commercial organisations request demographic information and ‘audience feedback’. This may result in greater familiarity with such research questions and standardisation of responses, resulting in a risk that participants may have become over-‘sociologised’ in qualitative methods.34 Another issue highlighted in the field is the way participants are often asked to reflect retrospectively, away from the listening experience, and therefore can be ‘influenced by partial memory, cognitive filters such as selective memory and peer pressure’.35 It could be the case, therefore, that researchers are not able to ‘entirely rely on oral or written accounts of the audience’s experience to provide a whole picture of this experience’.36 Finally, the level of literacy and technical language available to audience members when describing an arts experience, particularly when researching with newcomers or younger attenders, can greatly affect individuals’ confidence and ability to respond to the questions they are asked.

Lucy Dearn’s research at Music in the Round has focused on developing new methods for understanding the audience experience. Considering the issues outlined above, Dearn has applied a method termed ‘Write-Draw-Tell’ to the study of listening experiences of regular and new audiences. This method translates well across varying age ranges and attendance levels, is unfamiliar, sanctions participants to give an instant response simultaneously with their listening and allows participants to use some form of non-verbal response when describing the concert experience.

The art-informed creative method ‘Write-Draw’ has its origins in children’s health education.37 The method was developed to allow children to feel a greater sense of involvement and ownership in research investigating their use of health services. The method is based on provoking a written and drawn response to a research question. Later developments of this method have also introduced a ‘Tell’ phase, which encourages participants to explain the verbal and visual elements they have produced becoming a metaphor for discussion, often about sensitive or conceptual topics.38

The use of creative methods to study arts audiences is not without precedent; ethnomusicology and more recent applications in audience studies have used verbal or visual elements.39 Matthew Reason uses drawing and discussion-based methods when investigating primary school children’s experience of live theatre,40 and the development of a non-verbal methodological toolkit has been used with art gallery visitors in research by Lisa Baxter et al. 41 Bonita Kolb’s study investigating young people’s first attendance of a classical music concert also uses some visual activities as part of the pre- and post-concert focus groups.42 However, in Kolb and Baxter’s research these visual artefacts are not analysed as part of their studies and are used solely as a stimulus for discussion. Hence, the application of an arts-informed method like Write-Draw-Tell to classical music audiences, particularly simultaneously with the performance, is a new addition to the methodological toolkit currently used with arts audiences.

Presented below are two brief examples of the data collected using the Write-Draw-Tell method with newcomers under the age of 25 and regular audience members. The first response is by a 15-year-old female of Black Caribbean ethnic origin who is new to classical music concert attendance.

Figure 1: Write-draw response from a 15-year-old female audience member
Figure 1: Write-Draw response from a 15-year-old female audience member


The written response suggests this newcomer was lacking visual clues from other audience members as to how to listen and react to this type of music. A strong sense of ‘still and silent listening’43 was shown through the drawn responses, signifying that for this participant the idea of not being able to communicate with others during the concert was uncomfortable or confusing. A sense of alienation is also seen through this Write-Draw card. Firstly, a disparity between the age of this listener and the age of others in the audience is highlighted. Ideas of nationality are also present, with a strong sense of British nationalism seen through the drawn response, despite the programme for this concert not including any British composers. During the ‘Tell’ phase the participant was not sure why she had drawn these symbols, stating: ‘I don’t really listen to this type of music; I just thought it was really British’.

The second example is representative of the responses of regular audience members.

Figure 2: Write-draw response from regular audience member
Figure 2: Write-Draw response from a regular audience member

Many of the drawn responses by adult members were far more fluid than the fragmented replies from under 25s. They also relied more heavily on literal representations of the players, rather than abstract or metaphorical drawings. The written side often included musical terms but was also used by regular audience members to give feedback to the arts organisation, for example, the programming choices of the arts organisation, seen through the statement that Ligeti is ‘not really chamber music’ according to this audience member.

Although the application of this method to the study of classical music audiences yielded new insights, in particular an instant non-verbal response to concerts, it also brought its own challenges: firstly, distraction and an alteration of the arts experience; secondly, a degree of participant reluctance to make use of the method; and thirdly, the lack of established analytical frameworks to use when handling visual data.

Beyond the present: the life history approach

Among the many methodological challenges that face the study of listening, perhaps the most intractable is the problem of how to study experiences that are ‘beyond’ language. As the previous section illustrated, the innovative use of drawing techniques suggests new possibilities here. More conventionally, it is of course possible to study listening through the laboratory methods of experimental psychology. But as Clarke, Dibben and Pitts point out, one of the major drawbacks of experimental approaches is their disregard for the (often highly consequential) social environments in which musical listening takes place.44

As previous studies have shown, the value of even the most rarefied and seemingly ‘interior’ modes of listening – such as the still and silent attention of the classical concert hall – need to be understood within the contexts of everyday life.45 In studying the individual or personal value of concert hall listening today, we need to examine this value within both synchronic and diachronic contexts. In other words, we need to address both the immediate social environments in which the listening takes place, and the accumulated experience and attitudes developed over the course of each listener’s lifetime – aspects of biography that constitute key contexts to the value that audiences’ listening experiences have for them.

These points can be illustrated through a recent research project conducted by Jonathan Gross and Stephanie Pitts in collaboration with a range of organisations presenting contemporary arts in Birmingham. Our work in Birmingham was initiated by the marketing manager of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), Tim Rushby, seeking to know if there are current and potential cross-overs between audiences for ‘contemporary’ arts across art form (contemporary craft, dance, music, theatre and visual arts).46 In order to address this overarching issue, Gross and Pitts established a series of research questions concerning the experiences audiences have of the contemporary arts: these focused on routes into the contemporary arts, facilitative conditions for audience engagement, and cross-arts experiences of access and engagement.

To address these questions, Gross and Pitts made use of a combination of ethnography, an ‘audience exchange’ method of group conversation, and a biographical or life-history approach to semi-structured interviews. Ethnography, or participant observation, is the anthropological method of studying a practice or people through spending time with them and joining in. This is a particularly valuable way of examining the synchronic contexts of listening. For example, we were able to attend BCMG concerts and rehearsals with members of the audience, speak with them in the immediate surroundings of the musical event, and invite them to reflect informally on their present experiences, while observing audience behaviours and the uses made of the auditorium and foyer spaces.

Our second method, the audience exchange, involved research participants signing up to attend a performance or exhibition at a venue (or art form) they would not typically go to. In groups of between six and ten, we attended the performance or exhibition together, and then had a semi-structured conversation about our experiences of the show.47 Audience exchange participants spoke often of the usefulness of these conversations for enriching their experience of the live arts event, allowing them to hear other people’s responses to sometimes challenging or confusing work, and to explore their own responses by considering and articulating them in the group discussion. Within the subsequent 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons, BCMG have programmed audience exchange conversations after four of their concerts, each chaired by Jonathan Gross. BCMG’s decision to respond to the research project in this way indicates the potential value of the audience exchange method not only as a way of more fully understanding listening experiences, but as an enjoyable activity embedded within the creative programme of arts organisation on an ongoing basis.

Beyond the group setting of the audience exchange method, the one-to-one life-history interview provides a particularly powerful opportunity to dig deeper into audience experience. Life-history interviews have been employed within sociology since the 1930s,48 and yet, despite the recent ‘biographical turn’ observed in the social sciences,49 there is still little use of this type of interview method to study audiences. One important reason for this may be the fact that conducting interviews in this way is time intensive (for interviewer and interviewee); it produces very rich qualitative data that requires complex and time-consuming analysis; and requires particular research expertise and resources that many arts and cultural organisations do not have at their disposal. But, as our work with BCMG shows, the use of life-history interviews has the potential not only to illuminate the personal value of listening experiences, but to thereby help inform how musical institutions might develop new and deeper relationships with their audiences.

The specific version of semi-structured interviews that Gross has developed in his work with audiences is carefully designed to address the value of listening experiences within the biographical contexts of each interviewee. A combination of very open questions (such as ‘tell me about the last concert you went to’) and very targeted questions (‘how did you hear about this concert?’) provide opportunities for interviewees to articulate their listening experiences in their own terms, while ensuring that the conversations address specific points of interest for the research. Opportunities are also provided to answer questions more than once (‘is there anything else you’d like to tell me about the last concert you went to?’). This allows participants to think out loud and so provides opportunities – and a sense of permission – to go beyond the most readily available vocabulary. This can result in a richer, more personal account of listening experiences and their value to individuals, thereby addressing (at least partially) some of the challenges of mediating listening experiences through language, noted as a limitation in earlier research.

Another distinguishing feature of Jonathan Gross’s approach to interviewing is the use of an explicitly biographical framework, which, again, combines very open and more targeted questions: giving interviewees the opportunity to articulate their listening experiences – and the value of these – in relation to any other part of their life they choose to, including work, family, friendship, education or any other aspect of everyday life. Questions include, for example, ‘how have your interests changed over the course of your life?’, ‘tell me about your school’ and ‘what jobs have you done?’ These are asked alongside more targeted questions, such as ‘when did you first attend a concert?’ and ‘how has your concert going changed over the course of your life?’

To give just some indication of the kinds of findings this approach can generate, we offer the example of Dave (not his real name), a teacher in his 40s and a regular audience member at BCMG. Dave explains that his principal passion is twentieth-century classical music. He first became interested when hearing a piece on television as a child, and then sought out more by listening to BBC Radio 3. Teaching himself about music in this way, he first started going to orchestral concerts as a teenager, and was always very comfortable attending on his own or with others. Since that time, he has listened to a large amount of twentieth- and twenty-first century classical music. Dave normally attends several performances each week, and at times this can be as many as five events – spanning contemporary music, opera, dance and film. He explains the central place that attending live contemporary arts has for him, saying ‘this is what I do’.

Dave describes missing the sense of ‘difficulty’ he first experienced when listening to contemporary classical music as a child. He liked that difficulty – and the pleasures he found in struggling with strange and new ‘sound worlds’. He no longer experiences difficulty in this same way – but continues to take great pleasure in the ephemerality of the new music he is hearing. In combination with his employment as a teacher, attending the contemporary arts is how Dave lives his everyday life. He describes the experience of attending midweek, having just seen a brilliant performance, sitting waiting for the post-show talk to begin, and thinking to himself ‘this is the life’. Attending the contemporary arts is a central activity for Dave, and a key source of enjoyment and satisfaction. He particularly enjoys opportunities to attend pre- and post-concert talks, and to feel ‘part of that world’.

Dave’s example illustrates the capacity of this approach to open up the value of listening experiences within the broad contexts of people’s lives. If musical experience is well-recognised to be enmeshed with biographical memory,50 there is much more scope to investigate the ways in which the complexities of our lives are active within the present of listening and its value.

Beyond the individual: qualitative interviews and social experience

The qualitative methods employed by SPARC researchers in these projects offer a deep understanding of an individual’s engagement with classical music. The data produced by these methods is often highly complex and can even contradict itself. This can be difficult to reconcile with research conducted within the arts industry.51 Commercial research is heavily reliant on quantitative data, both collected through questionnaires and data gathered from ticket sales transactions. Although there is a long history of qualitative focus groups in market research, they are often conducted to address specific business decisions, and are rarely as open-ended and exploratory as the research conducted by the SPARC team.52

In her doctoral research at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sarah Price has conducted semi-structured interviews with audiences at a range of different concerts and across various levels of engagement. These interviews aimed to understand how audiences choose the concerts they attend and their experience in the concert hall, and asked them to reflect on how they perceived themselves as listeners. Price has also worked closely with the marketing team to analyse their extensive customer database and ticket sales history. She has had first-hand experience in how in-depth qualitative methods can complement quantitative data analysis in helping arts organisations better understand their audiences.

One way in which qualitative methods go beyond the reach of booking data is in understanding the role of companions. Ticket transactions data only captures information about the person who physically bought the tickets, the ‘initiator’ in Alan Brown’s model.53 This leaves a ‘ghost audience’ with whom arts organisations have no contact, despite the potential for them to be regular, highly-engaged attenders. Price’s interviews at the CBSO draw attention not only to the variety of companions that initiators bring to concerts, but also the many ways in which these companions can influence their choice of concert. Whether an audience member regularly attends with the same person, has an occasional companion, or attends alone, can be as important as aesthetic factors for selecting a concert to attend.

Regular companions

Some interviewees had a companion with whom they regularly attended concerts. This was often married couples who regularly attended with their husband or wife, though there were examples of friends and family members being regular companions. Yvonne54 is a regular CBSO attender who always goes to concerts with her husband. They have been attending CBSO’s core classical concerts since Yvonne retired a few years ago. Yvonne’s husband is rather more conservative in his musical tastes and therefore she admits to ‘manoeuvring the paperwork’ to hear music she likes. During the interview, Yvonne realised that the CBSO were playing Britten’s War Requiem at the BBC Proms that same evening:

Yvonne: Oh it’s today! Don’t remind me! I did want to go because it was… we went to Coventry to hear the War Requiem and I was just blown away by it but you see [her husband] wasn’t that keen and I thought ‘he’s not going to like going down to hear it again’. And we probably would have had to book a hotel when we got back as well so it would have turned into an expensive trip but I would have liked to have done it. Perhaps next year.

Yvonne was clearly disappointed not to be going. Having been ‘blown away’ by the Requiem the first time, she was keen to see it again. Her husband, however, was not impressed and therefore she assumed that he would not want to travel to London to hear it again.

Yvonne and her husband are classic examples of Brown’s ‘initiators’ and ‘responders’.55 Yvonne, the initiator, finds concerts to attend and pitches them to her husband, the responder. Developing Brown’s model, Dearn and Price have shown through their combined research data that initiators are often more adventurous in their musical tastes than responders, but that responders’ conservatism can mean they have the final say.56 Yvonne pushes her husband outside his comfort zone by taking him to concerts that he would not ordinarily want to attend. However, in always wanting to attend with her husband, Yvonne limits herself to concerts she can persuade him to attend and on some occasions, as with the War Requiem, misses out.

While Yvonne’s complete attendance history is recorded on the CBSO customer database, the organisation has no record of her husband’s attendance, despite him regularly going to CBSO concerts. In addition, bookings data cannot capture the effect of their different tastes on their choice of concerts. Qualitative investigation is necessary to expose the impact of socialising on concert selection.

Occasional companions

Audiences who are willing to go alone or who have a variety of companions are of course less likely to miss out because of the tastes of companions. However, the desire to share concerts with friends and family means that companions still influence their concert choice. Nicola is a very frequent attender, going to around 40 CBSO concerts a year and more besides at other organisations. She is more than happy to go alone, but tries to find concerts that her friends would enjoy:

Nicola: I go [to concerts] with different people. Some friends won’t try much beyond Beethoven and Mozart (oh, how they do miss out!) and some will try everything and anything, if they’re available to do so. Some only like Friday Night Classics too. Some will only go to CBSO or other symphony orchestras; others prefer chamber music. Some will only go to the opera in concert ones. So, since I love lots, it is about finding the right person for each particular concert – and sometimes nagging them to try something outside their comfort zones.

Nicola ‘loves lots’ of different types of classical music and so is able to find concerts to suit the tastes of a number of friends. Like Yvonne, Nicola is an initiator. She has broader tastes than her responders and consequently tries to push her companions to try new things. Unlike Yvonne, however, Nicola is willing to attend alone and therefore is not restricted by the tastes of her companions. Finding concerts for companions is Nicola’s way of sharing the concert experience. Most participants looked for opportunities to share concerts with companions and would only attend alone when no-one was available or interested. Despite the sacrifices being made for companions, no participants said that they would rather attend alone. Attending with other people seems to add social value to a concert which can be more important than the aesthetic engagement.

Attending alone

The small number of participants who frequently attended concerts alone reported talking to other audience members. Trevor is a long-term subscriber at the CBSO. He talks to ‘all sorts of people’ at concerts and describes concerts as a ‘social event’. Trevor’s subscription allows him to sit in the same seat for every concert and consequently he has become friends with attenders in the surrounding seats:

Trevor: There’s a guy that sits next to me on my left and he’s extremely knowledgeable about music. […] He’s enhanced my knowledge of music quite a lot. […] He’s very good at explaining what’s happening, you know. […] I know he’s a very keen Bruckner fan, and if it’s a Bruckner symphony, he’ll tell me all about it. I don’t read the programme [because] he’ll tell me all about it.

Over many years of attendance, Trevor has become friends with other audience members. The value of friendships and ‘like-mindedness’ to creating a sense of audience community has also been found in research at Music in the Round by Stephanie Pitts and Chris Spencer.57 As Ruth, another CBSO audience member, described it: ‘I’m not very good at chit-chat [but] when you’re meeting people here, you know you’ve got something in common to talk about’. Because these friendships are based on a mutual interest, they can also be a source of learning about classical music. Trevor will draw on his neighbour’s knowledge of Bruckner rather than buying a concert programme. The conversations he has with his fellow audience members shape the way he listens to the music. Therefore, whether or not these social interactions influence his concert choice, they certainly impact on his concert experience.

At the end of the interview, Trevor expressed how much he had enjoyed taking part in the research:

Trevor: It’s lovely to talk to someone about classical music! Because I’m afraid in the circles that I mix in, so very few … I’ve got nobody to talk to! […] There is nobody else, it’s sad! And that’s why I think socially, here, it’s good to be able to talk.

Despite regularly talking to other audience members at concerts, Trevor still wishes he was able to have more conversations about classical music. His comment highlights how much audiences want to talk about what they have heard. The real value of socialising, and the reason why audiences are willing to compromise on their choice of concerts in order to bring companions, is that it allows attenders to discuss and reflect on their concert experiences.

Semi-structured interviews offer new insight into how the social context of listening influences concert selection. Talking to participants for around thirty minutes each allowed them time to consider all the factors that went into their decision to attend. In addition, as in Jonathan Gross’s life-history interviews, participants were asked about their route into classical music attendance, whether they participate in music, and their engagement with other cultural events. Throughout the conversation, participants would return to the question of ‘how do you decide which concerts to attend?’ They provided examples to prove their points, clarified earlier responses, and described anomalies in their decision making. Yvonne, Nicola and Trevor’s comments begin to reveal the complexities of the decision to attend and the importance of social interactions in shaping concert attendance.


Our illustrations of work with audiences at Music in the Round (MitR), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) have highlighted the diversity of empirical methods used within the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre to explore the personal, social and musical value of live arts listening. In each of our studies, our chosen methods involve exploring ‘listening experience’ in its many facets – from the decision to attend a particular event, the ways of listening and engaging in the moment, and the process of articulating and reflecting on that event and its relationship to other aspects of the listener’s life. No single method achieves a perfect understanding of the listening experience, but by employing and exploring different methods, and by encouraging in all of them a reflexive approach, in which the listeners themselves grapple with the challenges of articulating and interrogating their responses, we come closer to having a sense of what it means to listen as part of an audience.

The research presented by each of the four authors in this chapter involves close collaboration with arts organisations. Dearn and Price’s three-year associations with MitR and CBSO, respectively, have each been enabled through AHRC collaborative doctoral awards; while Gross and Pitts’ work with BCMG came about through an invitation from BCMG to extend Pitts’ past work with classical music audiences to the different contexts of attenders at contemporary arts events. Such close associations are mutually valuable to arts organisations and researchers, bridging some the historical divides between commercial and academic research,58 and prioritising research questions that can not only increase understanding of audience experience, but also affect positive change. We have been fortunate in that our partner organisations have shared our interests in the complexities of audience experience, not looking for the quick answers of how to increase ticket sales or repeat attendance (though those suggestions have been welcome, where we have found them), but instead welcoming the insight that rich, qualitative research can offer on how and why newcomers and regular attenders are drawn to live listening and encouraged to return.

Our headline findings show that the personal, social and musical aspects of concert listening experiences are inextricably linked – and this has implications for the potential value of qualitative research methods of the kinds presented in this chapter. Even when it comes to deeply personal or private listening experiences, the opportunity to reflect on these through conversation (including conversations initiated by researchers) helps to embed, articulate and understand the experience in ways that have the potential to influence research participants’ future patterns of engagement and experience, including, potentially, an expanded receptiveness to a wider range of musical activities and experiences. In turn, these conversations can inform the future development of organisational practice – suggesting new ways in which musical institutions can respond to how the personal value of concert listening can be enabled, thereby developing relationships with audiences, contributing to and building new, valuable listening experiences through innovative concert practices.

We have aimed in this chapter to show the value of empirical methods for understanding listening experience, and have welcomed the opportunity to set this alongside the archival approaches of the Listening Experience Database to prompt interdisciplinary discussion of the ways in which listeners talk, write and think about their live arts engagement. There is scope for the questions at the forefront of our research to be applied to the historical evidence of the LED: analysis, for example, of the topics addressed by Samuel Pepys as he wrote his diary entries on the cultural life of seventeenth-century London would demonstrate that the effects of venue, the presence of other listeners and the expectations drawn from prior arts engagement have shaped audience experience over many centuries. Empirical research with arts organisations offers the chance for an understanding of audience experience to shape the cultural life of future generations, and will need to remain responsive to changes in technology, private listening habits and educational change. Through the use of multiple, flexible research methods, understanding of the many factors involved in listening experience can continue to grow, and with it the ability for researchers and arts organisations alike to articulate the value of live listening in the contemporary world.

Select bibliography

Baxter, Lisa. ‘From luxury to necessity: the changing role of qualitative research in the arts’, in O’Reilly, Daragh and Kerrigan, Finola (eds) Marketing the Arts: A Fresh Approach. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010, pp. 121–140.

Burland, Karen and Pitts, Stephanie (eds). Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.

Dearn, Lucy, K. and Price, Sarah M. ‘Sharing music: social and communal aspects of concert-going’, Networking Knowledge, 9(2), 2016, pp. 1–20.

Gross, Jonathan and Pitts, Stephanie. ‘Audiences for the contemporary arts: exploring varieties of participation across art forms in Birmingham, UK’, Participations, 13(1), 2016, pp. 4–23,, accessed 9 April 2017.

Price, Sarah M. ‘Academic and commercial research: bridging the gap’, Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 12(2), 2015, pp. 168–173,, accessed 9 April 2017.

Radbourne, Jennifer, Glow, Hilary and Johanson, Katya (eds). The Audience Experience: A Critical Analysis of Audiences in the Performing Arts. Bristol: Intellect, 2013.

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