Listening to a singing people: accounts of Methodist hymn-singing

Martin V. Clarke

Martin Clarke is a Lecturer in Music at The Open University. He has published widely on aspects of Methodist and Anglican hymnody in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He is a Co-Investigator on the second phase of the Listening Experience Database (LED) project.


This chapter uses a series of listening experiences from the long nineteenth century to explore the significant place afforded to hymnody in articulations of Methodist identity. It draws on accounts of individual practice and institutional events from Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist backgrounds. It situates these experiences in the context of evidence available through other sources, such as denominational hymnals, arguing that they allow for a fuller understanding of the relationship between centralised and localised attitudes and practices. Through detailed interrogation of the accounts of hymn-singing, focusing on the practice, repertoire and reactions they record, it highlights their value in placing emphasis on the experiential aspect of hymnody, arguing that this is vital to evaluating the causes of its long-lasting and powerful impression on Methodism.


A special affinity with congregational hymnody is commonly identified as a characteristic of Methodism and Methodists, both institutionally and individually, as well as internally and externally. The Methodist Church of Great Britain’s website includes a section explaining ‘What is distinctive about Methodism?’ that lists ten distinguishing factors, ranging from theological emphases to ecclesiastical structures, among which is one entitled ‘Born in song.’ The explanation of this states that ‘Methodists are well known as enthusiastic singers, in choirs and congregations. Singing is still an important means of learning about, sharing and celebrating our faith.’ The phrase ‘Born in song’ is borrowed from the preface to the Methodist Hymn Book (1933) and, thanks to that hymnal’s popularity as well as its own poetic quality, it has become embedded in the consciousness of many Methodists.1 Among many ways in which a more personal attachment to hymnody can be observed is in the long-established custom of many Methodists owning a personal copy of the current hymnal and taking it with them when they attend services.2 External observers of hymnody’s prominence in Methodism include eighteenth-century critics of the movement’s evangelical method, novelists such as George Eliot and Harold Frederic, and ecumenical partners.3

Hymn texts, particularly those of Charles Wesley, feature prominently in explanations of the significance of hymnody in Methodism. Wesley’s hymns were instrumental in the development of the uniquely Methodist concept of authorised hymnody, whereby hymnals and the individual hymns they contain are authorised as being in accordance with, and representative of, Methodist doctrine. The precision that language affords is the obvious reason behind hymn texts being used in this way, and hymns are typically identified by their texts.4 However, hymns are combinations of words and music in both intention and practice, and are most commonly experienced as such in liturgical contexts. Since the late eighteenth century, each authorised Methodist hymnal has contained hundreds of hymns, with some extending to over 1,000 individual items.5 These hymnals are important documents in understanding institutional views on hymnody and its relationship to doctrine, while they also offer insights into cultural and aesthetic preferences within the denomination. Significantly, however, these further insights are mediated by the individuals and committees responsible for compiling and editing the hymnals. Furthermore, an authorised hymnal can provide only a broad indication of the repertoire sung in Methodism at a particular point in the denomination’s history, but cannot show how its contents were used and received at a local level. To understand fully the significance of hymnody in Methodism, therefore, consideration of a broader range of perspectives and sources beyond authorised hymnals is needed.

This chapter explores six experiences of listening to Methodist hymnody in the long nineteenth century. Taken individually, they each provide a geographically and temporally specific insight into the practice of hymnody in Methodism. Considered in relation to each other, and alongside other evidence such as authorised hymnals, they contribute to a deeper understanding of the diversity of practices and attitudes that characterised Methodist hymnody in this period.

John Wesley at Warrington, 1781

John Wesley used his journal to record observations on all aspects of his itinerant ministry, including the conduct of Methodist meetings across the country. These descriptions sometimes refer to the singing of hymns and, as with a range of other topics, Wesley uses his observations to emphasise his own viewpoints, such as in his account of a visit to Warrington in 1781:

The service was at the usual hours. I came just in time to put a stop to a bad custom, which was creeping in here; a few men, who had fine voices, sang a psalm which no one knew, in a tune fit for an opera, wherein three, four, or five persons sang different words at the same time! What an insult upon common sense! What a burlesque upon public worship! No custom can excuse such a mixture of profaneness and absurdity.6

Wesley’s attitude is consistent with his other statements on music in worship, and with the publications of hymn tunes for use across the connexion that he oversaw. The basis of his stance is articulated in a statement prohibiting anthems recorded in the minutes of the annual conference of preachers in 1787: ‘No anthems be in future allowed in Methodist chapels, because they cannot ‘be properly called joint worship.’7 His concept of ‘joint worship’ is crucial here in understanding his earlier negative reaction to the singing at Warrington. Heavily influenced by his early contact with Moravian missionaries in America and London, Wesley conceived of hymnody as both doxological and pedagogical. The hymnals he compiled for use in Methodist Society meetings were organised according to the experience of Christian life rather than any liturgical principle. Coupled with his evangelical Arminian theology that emphasised the universal offer of salvation, full and equal participation in hymn-singing was thus a matter of practical and theological significance. These views doubtless lay behind the unison format of A Collection of Tunes Set to Music and Select Hymns: With Tunes Annext.8

The real significance of this listening experience, however, lies in Wesley’s description of what he actually heard. It reveals a tension between local practice and his own views, which coloured his reaction. This tension existed in terms of both repertoire and performance practice, and Wesley’s comment that the practice was ‘creeping in here’ indicates that this was not an isolated case. Within this local Methodist Society, there was differentiation according to musical familiarity and ability, and an appreciation of part-singing and secular musical styles by at least some of its members.9 Wesley’s observation attests to the challenges of his centrifugal instincts, which extended more broadly than hymnody. Jonathan Rodell gives a sense of the relationship between Wesley and the early Methodist societies, identifying ‘chaotic diversity’ as a defining characteristic.10 Wesley’s status as an itinerant listener is also important; while he was able to make a timely and decisive intervention on this occasion, his ability to influence practice and repertoire on a broader scale, both geographically and temporally, was limited to publications and edicts issued through the annual conference. This listening experience hints at what had been happening in Warrington prior to this occasion, and what Wesley hoped would happen thereafter, but whether or not he effected a longer-term change is impossible to determine.11 Rodell’s argument that in the 1780s ‘Most societies were the products of local initiatives’ may have had practical expression through musical repertoire and practices such as Wesley observed in Warrington.12

Listening to rural Primitive Methodism

The Primitive Methodist Connexion, formally constituted in 1810, but tracing its origins to a Camp Meeting at Mow Cop, Cheshire, in 1807 was strongly revivalist in its outlook, and is popularly juxtaposed with nineteenth-century Wesleyan Methodism in its emphasis on outdoor evangelical activity, rejection of formalism in worship and music, and the greater role it gave to the laity in positions of leadership. Henry Woodcock’s Piety Among the Peasantry: Being Sketches of Primitive Methodism on the Yorkshire Wolds contains numerous descriptions of the worshipping practices of Primitive Methodist societies, some of which provide insights into their musical practices and preferences. His account of a society meeting in Rudston is particularly detailed, and includes the text of the hymn sung:

The society was small, poor, excitable, and very demonstrative. … A self-styled ‘Revivalist’ – a small pot, soon hot – conducted a protracted meeting. One of his favourite hymns, lustily sung by plough lads and milk maids, was that strange ditty, one verse of which reads; ‘Where is now the prophet Elijah,’ &c. The words were stupid; the thought commonplace; the tune (!) depressing; but, alas! It was sung thus:-

Where is now the prophet-et – Elijah?
Where is now the prophet-et – Elijah?
Where is now the prophet-et – Elijah?
Safe in the promised land!

There was abundance of enthusiasm, but it was shapeless; without form, and void.13

As with Wesley in Warrington, here too there appears to be a tension between the hymnody popular among the local society and the tastes of the observer. Woodcock was an itinerant minister, mostly stationed in circuits throughout Yorkshire, and was thus likely to have possessed a broader experience of hymnody than the members of the individual societies he visited. Though he made neither intervention nor suggestions for improvement, it is clear that, like Wesley, he considered a more serious style of hymnody appropriate for worship. However, his critical tone masks some aspects of the description; the lusty singing indicates that the participants did not share Woodcock’s view, but instead found the whole experience, including the music, enlivening. While Woodcock represented connexional authority to a lesser degree than Wesley, the experience he records again points to the disjunction between centralised ideals concerning the conduct and content of worship and their local expression.

This theme is also apparent in his report of a personal encounter in a domestic setting, along with a deeper insight into the attachment Primitive Methodists had to particular hymns, as suggested by the manner of the singing in Rudston:

Mrs. Knaggs was a saint of Christly disposition. Though old and suffering when we knew her, she was as blythe as a young milkmaid. We fancy we see her, watching the broth bubbling up in the ‘Kiel pot’ over the fire, beating up the contents with a wooden ladle to prevent the ‘lithing lumping,’ and keeping time, by its movements, to a hymn she was singing. :-

Jesus sits on Zion’s Hill,
He receives poor sinners still;
Would you serve this blessed King?
Come enlist, and with me sing;

I a soldier sure shall be,
Happy in e

When the new hymn book was issued (1853), minus the above hymn, Mrs Knaggs said, with an air of disappointment: ‘Where is Jesus now? He used to sit on ‘Zion’s hill’, bless Him, but where is He now? I know where He is. He lives still yonder,’ pointing upwards, ‘and here, in my heart. Yes, bless Him, they may take Him out of the hymn book, but they can’t take Him out of my heart, nor shift Him from His throne on high. Call the men in for dinner, for the pot’s a-boiling,’ and giving the ladle a sharp turn, she sang, with trembling voice:

Christ He sits on Zion’s hill,
He receives poor sinners still.14

Here, Woodcock presents a more impartial account, refraining from any value judgement on the repertoire or performance. The significance of this listening experience is two-fold, and offers possible reasons for Woodcock’s impartiality. The hymn sung by Mrs Knaggs was the opening hymn in the A Collection of Hymns, for Camp Meetings, Revivals, &c: For the Use of the Primitive Methodists, compiled by one of the movement’s founders, Hugh Bourne.15 This was an influential book in Primitive Methodism, and one which encapsulated the evangelistic zeal of its early years. As such, ‘Christ He sits on Zion’s hill’ would have been familiar to many Primitive Methodists, particularly those who recalled the movement in its infancy, and Woodcock himself would have been aware of its significant heritage. Furthermore, Woodcock’s account emphasises the highly personal nature of this episode. It is apparent that this hymn has a profound spiritual significance for Mrs Knaggs, but this type of attachment would have been widely shared by Methodists of all backgrounds, such was the integration of hymnody into the devotional life of the denomination. By recording the account in such detail, Woodcock tacitly acknowledges and affirms the powerful influence hymnody exerted on the lives of many Methodists. Although he does not expand upon the qualities that made Mrs Knaggs ‘a saint of Christly disposition’, it is clear that he regards her singing as a manifestation of her Christian character, revealing her to be focused on her faith in the midst of her daily tasks.

Mrs Knaggs’ distress at the omission of her favourite hymn from The New and Enlarged Hymn Book For the Use of the Primitive Methodists provides further indication of the divergence between centralised and localised thought and practice.16 Evidence of change in Primitive Methodist hymnody is found in Philip Brown’s Companion to the Primitive Methodist Hymn Book: ‘Within the last twenty years Psalmody has undergone a great change. Fugue tunes, and those which repeat much, and many others formerly popular, are now seldom heard in many congregations, having been supplanted by chaster selections.’17 However, Woodcock’s concluding summary of Primitive Methodist hymnody on the Yorkshire Wolds suggests that such changes had not been uniformly adopted: ‘Familiarity breeds contempt and, perhaps, one of the weaknesses of Wolds Primitive Methodism is the sameness of its singing. For 60 years they have sung the same spirit-stirring hymns to the same tunes, which by frequent use have become so doleful, that if David played in the same tones we do not wonder that Saul threw his javelin at him.’18 Significantly, a souvenir booklet produced for a national celebration of Primitive Methodism’s centenary in 1907, discussed below, contained a small selection of ‘Hymns and tunes of ye olden time,’ the first of which was ‘Christ now sits on Zion’s hill.’19 Taken in isolation, its inclusion may be regarded as merely nostalgic, but Woodcock’s account, both in terms of the individual case of Mrs Knaggs and the more general observation of unchanging musical habits, suggests that while some Primitive Methodists had embraced change, its older hymns, such as this, remained part of the collective memory of the denomination.

Sir Frederick Bridge and the Methodist Hymn Book (1904)

The appointment of Frederick Bridge, organist of Westminster Abbey, as musical editor of the Methodist Hymn Book (1904), a joint publication of the Wesleyan Methodists and the Methodist New Connexion, was a significant coup for a denomination that, at least institutionally, sought to portray its hymnody as reflective of current sophisticated musical taste. The hymnal’s preface describes how the selection of tunes drew heavily on the work of ‘the great composers of the last generation, and of others happily still with us, whose names are household words in Christian homes, and whose tunes have done so much to elevate popular taste in Church music.’20 Bridge’s influence in soliciting new tunes from many musical luminaries is apparent, and the committee records its ‘deep sense of obligation’ to him.21 They also note that ‘he has entered with sympathy into the spirit of Methodist hymnology and worship’, a claim which is backed up by Bridge’s own accounts of his work in his autobiography and in an address to the Methodist Conference in 1904.22 In both, he describes an unusual listening experience, involving his cook, a Wesleyan Methodist named Mrs Rider:

I concluded [the conference address] by speaking of the help afforded by my cook, who was a Wesleyan, and to whom I often appealed to ascertain from her special knowledge if a particular tune was popular. ‘Oh, yes,’ she once said, in reply to one of my queries, in the hearing of a member of the Committee, ‘we sing that in our chapel very often,’ and she piped a few bars of it up the lift, at the bottom of which she was standing. This brought down the house, and my cook was presented by the Committee with a special copy in recognition of her valuable services to the book and to me.23

Although the hymn is unspecified, this account provides a number of interesting insights, not least that this was hardly a unique occurrence for Bridge. The description of the event in his conference address makes clear that the tunes concerned were unfamiliar to Bridge, indicating that they were unlikely to have been from the standard Anglican repertoire. His concern to establish their popularity points to the preservation and frequent use of some tunes that were distinctive to Methodism. Bridge’s desire to draw on his cook’s knowledge and the committee’s recognition of her contribution also indicate that there was a desire to make the tune selection representative of current practice, rather than simply imposing a selection based on abstract criteria. The relationship between singer and hearer in this listening experience is crucial. Bridge, the epitome of the professional church musician, listens to and learns from a domestic employee. That he does so, and allows the experience to influence the contents of the hymnal, emphasises the experiential significance of hymnody. Mrs Rider’s familiarity with these tunes, gained through experience rather than as a result of musical education, is the determining factor with regard to their inclusion.

This episode, and the emphasis it places on the experience of Methodist hymnody, also provides informative context for decisions taken by the compilers of the 1904 hymnal and its 1933 successor. As well as listing eminent composers of new tunes and highlighting sources of hymn tunes such as the ‘great composers’ mentioned above, the compilers of the 1904 hymnal also notes that ‘Owing to the revived interest in what are commonly known as “Old Methodist Tunes,” the Committee has felt justified in placing in an Appendix a select number of those melodies most widely known and used. For these it must assume entire responsibility, though in connexion with them Sir Frederick Bridge has offered valuable suggestions.’24

The placement of these tunes outside the main body of the hymnal and the categorical absolution of Bridge from any responsibility for them indicates that there was some resistance, presumably aesthetic, to these tunes. This is supported by Bridge’s comment that ‘Of course there were many old Methodist tunes that were dear to the Wesleyans, and which, although not of a very high class, had of necessity to be included.’25 Though it is not clear that these were the same tunes about which Bridge consulted his cook, his lack of familiarity in both cases suggests that there may have been some overlap. Interest in these tunes is also evident in publications commemorating the centenary of John Wesley’s death (1891). In his preface to The Centenary Tune Book, Alfred Rogerson, a Wesleyan choirmaster from Wainfleet, observes that ‘The Centenary Celebration of Wesley’s death has revived these old tunes, and the present time may be considered opportune for introducing a well-selected and carefully-harmonized edition of these time-worn favourites, any of which were in danger of sinking into undeserved oblivion.’26

Bridge’s distaste for these tunes and the committee’s ambivalent attitude suggests a somewhat uneasy relationship between the editorial and denominational hierarchy responsible for the hymnal and the Methodist societies it sought to serve. This presents a different perspective on Bridge’s interaction with his cook, creating an implicit link between her status and her musical taste. However, many of the new tunes introduced in the 1904 hymnal, and fifteen of the 21 tunes by Bridge himself, did not survive to the 1933 hymnal. Instead, many of the tunes included in the Appendix to the 1904 hymnal became the principal tunes set to familiar texts by Charles Wesley and others, as compilers acknowledged their currency with Methodist congregations. In terms of Bridge’s experience of listening to his cook singing hymns, it indicates that the real significance lies in hearing a representative voice of actual Methodist practice. Though the hymns that she advised on are unknown, the account points to the central place of the practice and experience of hymnody in understanding how particular hymns have gained significance within Methodism.

Celebrating the 1904 hymnal

The Methodist Conference of 1904 included an act of worship marking the publication of the new hymnal, at which Bridge presented his address. An anonymous newspaper-style report, perhaps produced for the official record of the Conference, and now preserved in the Methodist Archives, provides great detail on the service held to celebrate the publication. The writer describes the musical forces that took part, which included a choir of over 350 voices drawn from local chapel choirs, under the direction of a renowned organist from one Sheffield chapel and accompanied by another. Although the report notes that no solos were included, it nonetheless lists by name a dozen ‘singers of high repute in the city’ who were among the choir.27 The content of the service is then described in detail, beginning with the first hymn:

The Rev. Charles H. Kelly rose and announced the hymn,

‘O for a thousand tongues to sing.’

In this hymn, as in several others specially marked for the purpose, the congregation was requested to join. The benefit of special training was in an instant felt by all present in the vigour with which the first verse was sung. Verse 3 of this hymn was almost dramatic in its rendering, the second line, ‘That bids our sorrows cease,’ being sung softly, and then, in the fourth line of the same, the words, ‘’Tis life and health and peace,’ coming out with fine crescendo effect.28

This extract indicates that full congregational participation was restricted to a selection of the hymns sung. Although the report is not entirely clear how each hymn was performed, several are described as including the congregation, while some items, such as the chanted settings of the Beatitudes and the Te Deum, are described as being sung by the choir alone. Some other hymns are reported as receiving appreciative hearings, which indicates that they were sung by choir alone too. Among these was Bridge’s own hymn tune ‘Gordon’, set to the traditional Easter text ‘The foe behind, the deep before,’ and clearly composed with choral singing in mind. In the ‘Musician’s note’ printed after the main report, the author notes that ‘the verdict of approval was unmistakeable,’ and that the setting would become a ‘great treasure to the Methodist congregations in the immediate future.’29

The extent and detail of this listening experience is atypical of most accounts of Methodist worship, as is the event that it describes. Nonetheless, the scale and status of the occasion indicate its importance as an expression of the significance Methodism attached to its hymnody and the launch of its new hymnal. While the identity of the writer and the exact purpose of the account are unknown, it is a document for public consumption written by someone who is well acquainted with and sympathetic to both the nature of the particular occasion and Methodism at large. As such, the listening experience is described in a way that seeks to communicate the grand scale and aura of the event to readers who were not present. Its significance lies, then, not in the degree to which it is representative of local Methodist practice Sunday by Sunday, but in what it reveals about how the Wesleyan Methodists wished to represent themselves at a denominational level, and how the local Methodists who were able to be involved responded to this.

The most striking feature is the official prominence given to choral singing by a choir that was discrete from the rest of the congregation. This stands in marked contrast to John Wesley’s attitude when he observed the segregated group of singers at Warrington. By 1904, choral singing has become an accepted, even celebrated, part of the musical identity of Methodism that the event sought to present. Together with the description of musical sources in the hymnal’s preface, it demonstrates the cultivation of a repertoire of sacred music that the conference authorities deemed to be in good taste for the purposes it was meant to serve. Wesley’s account of local choral singing, however, paints a picture of the enthusiastic adoption of secular styles with scant regard for their religious suitability. The attitude of the Wesleyan leadership in 1904 may be regarded as a continuation and expansion of what Kevin Watson describes as their early nineteenth-century counterparts’ concern for ‘the preservation of a respectable image’ in the wake of Primitive Methodism’s emergence.30

The details of the make-up of the massed choir also makes clear that the local enthusiasm for choral singing that Wesley observed in Warrington was still present in individual Methodist chapels at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, the writer also describes how extensive rehearsals had been held in preparation for the event, and how the choirmaster had ensured that each chorister’s hymnal was marked up with detailed performance instructions, which presumably allowed for the dynamic nuance and drama observed in the performance of the first hymn. Such meticulous preparation over a lengthy time period was probably atypical of the working practices of the individual chapel choirs from which the singers were drawn. The selection of repertoire would have taken place far in advance, and the prestigious occasion would have demanded a degree of preparation that could not realistically have been achieved or maintained on a weekly basis with a much smaller group of singers. The resulting emotive qualities of the musical performance described indicate that this event was able to create a listening experience of heightened intensity.

The centenary of Primitive Methodism

Methodism’s strong historical consciousness has often found expression in special acts of worship to celebrate or commemorate various anniversaries, whether at local level to mark the opening of a chapel, or at connexional level to mark an event significant in the life of the denomination. The Primitive Methodist Connexion’s official celebrations of the centenary of the camp meeting at Mow Cop that led to its foundation included a public meeting at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, which was attended by some 3,000 people. In his description of the celebrations, William Patterson cites a report that commented in detail on the musical forces present and their effect:

A great united choir filled the orchestra stalls; ‘but in point of fact,’ remarked a journal in surprise, ‘the entire gathering was one gigantic choir. Not a single one in the multitude but could sing, and did sing. The hymns chosen needed no restraint on the part of the singers, no delicate tone painting; they were the old, full-bodied psalms of praises, resonant and triumphant. So this magnificent gathering threw restraint to the winds, and the deep swell of the great organ led them in such paeans of praise as it refreshed one to hear.31

Compared with the description of the Wesleyans’ celebration of their new hymnal three years earlier, there are some points of similarity and difference. A massed choir is again present, indicating that choral singing was also a regular part of Primitive Methodist worship at the local chapel level. However, despite their defined musical role being emphasised by their physical separation from the rest of the gathering, the musical qualities that impressed the writer do not appear to have been the result of the rehearsal of fine details. Instead, the robust singing of the whole congregation made the strongest impression. The resulting listening experience is nonetheless similar, in that the musical effect is wrought by the sheer scale of the event and stands apart from what might be more typically experienced in a local chapel. However, the noteworthy full and enthusiastic participation, and the use of familiar, well-established repertoire, points to a connection between the singing witnessed here and broader practices and attitudes among the denomination’s membership. The familiarity of the hymns would have been crucial in encouraging such participation, and the congregation’s enthusiastic participation a tacit signal of the approval of the selection. Whether this was based on their current, localised experience of Primitive Methodism, or nostalgia for the hymns of the past, is uncertain, although the selection of ‘Hymns and tunes of ye olden time’ in the souvenir programme, mentioned above, suggests that the latter may have played some part.

Hymnody’s undisputed yet contested centrality

Though small in number, the range of listening experiences considered here, spanning more than a century, encompassing private devotion and mass gatherings, and drawn from different strands of Methodism, all affirm the important place hymn-singing has occupied in Methodist practice and thought throughout the denomination’s history. Those recounting listening to an individual singer seem not to find their subject’s readiness to express themselves in song unusual, while the organisation and effect of the connexional celebrations afforded music and musicians a prominent place, which was matched by the detailed attention given to the singing in the reports of these occasions. All of the writers simply accept unquestioningly that hymn-singing was a fundamental part of the experience of being Methodist, whether individually or institutionally. To some extent, therefore, these experiences merely affirm the centrality of hymnody that the regular production of large-scale authorised hymnals by each branch of Methodism demonstrated at an institutional level. However, they also enable a more complex understanding of the significance of hymnody for Methodists by providing insights into actual practices and preferences, which can be brought into dialogue with the printed records enshrined in authorised hymnals, sometimes revealing points of congruence, but at other times divergence.

Choral singing emerges as a popular practice among the Methodist people at both ends of the historical spectrum covered by these accounts, and also across Wesleyan and Primitive Methodism. However, the relationship between its popularity at local level and its institutional acceptance shifted significantly over this period, from Wesley’s resistance to the practice he observed in Warrington to the prominent position given to massed choirs at connexional celebrations. The shifting terms of this relationship point to the vitality of hymnody in Methodism; practices, repertoires and attitudes changed as they were influenced by internal and external factors, while a tension can frequently be observed between localised and centralised ideas.

This vitality and tension are particularly apparent in relation to the selection of repertoire, and demand that the significance of a new hymnal be considered carefully. The very decision to create a new authorised hymnal indicates an institutional desire to update the church’s repertoire and, once it has been published, commercial necessities as well as belief in its intrinsic worth both play a part in the advocacy of the hymnal by figures in positions of authority. On the other side of the relationship, the tendency of chapel-goers like Mrs Knaggs to draw on older repertoire indicates the importance of the experience of hymnody; new repertoire would typically require time and repeated exposure in order to gain acceptance, let alone to have spiritual significance attached to it. However, institutional and individual attitudes are linked, as the exposure to hymnody brought about by the institutional priority afforded to it has been a contributory factor in the affection for particular hymns expressed by individuals, while their enthusiastic participation in congregational and choral singing has helped to maintain hymnody’s prominence as a characteristic trait of Methodism.


Listening experiences emerge as important sources in understanding the significance of hymnody to those whose stories are recounted through them. In terms of the prominent place hymnody has in perceptions of Methodism, they provide insights into the role of personal experience and practice in creating and perpetuating such perceptions. However, there are some limitations and qualifications that need to be considered when evaluating such experiences. The best preserved and most readily accessible accounts tend to come from literate persons in positions of authority, such as lay and ordained preachers, whose views and recollections may not correspond to those of the congregations to whom they preached. Sometimes, however, as in Woodcock’s account of Mrs Knaggs, these provide a voice for those whose experience might otherwise have remained inaccessible, owing variously to levels and traditions of literacy among some of the social groups with which Methodism has historically been associated. Furthermore, irrespective of the context of the experience, it is common for precise details concerning the words and tunes sung to be left out of accounts. As shown above, while some conclusions about repertoire and practice can be extrapolated from such accounts, they need to be placed alongside other forms of evidence to gain the fullest possible insight. However, in the context of such an approach that draws on multiple types of source, listening experiences can contribute to an enhanced overall understanding through the marrying of objective historical record with the valuable insights of human interpretation and reaction. In the case of Methodism, they show the importance of practical and experiential dimensions in contributing to the prominent place accorded to hymnody in individual and institutional articulations of Methodist identity.

Select bibliography

Gibson, William, Forsaith, Peter and Wellings, Martin (eds). The Ashgate Research Companion to World Methodism. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.

Patterson, William M. Northern Primitive Methodism: A Record of the Rise and Progress of the Circuits in the Old Sunderland District. London: E. Dalton, 1909.

Rodell, Jonathan. The Rise of Methodism: A Study of Bedfordshire 1736–1851. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2014.

Temperly, Nicholas and Banfield, Stephen (eds). Music and the Wesleys. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Woodcock, Henry. Piety Among the Peasantry: Being Sketches of Primitive Methodism in the Yorkshire Wolds. London: Joseph Toulson, 1889.

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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.32 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).33 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.34

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).35 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’.36 He argues that listeners practise this behaviour in part ‘in order to cultivate versions of themselves (that is, as ‘technologies of the self)’.37

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.38

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.39 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.40 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.41

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.42 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.43

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.)44

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.45 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’.46 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).47

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’.48 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’.49 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.50 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.51 (They have also been central to western appropriations of North Indian classical music.)52

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’.53

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.54 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.55 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.56

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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