Listening in semi-colonial Shanghai: the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra and its Chinese audience in the 1920s

Irene P. Pang

Irene P. Pang obtained her BA and MPhil in Historical Musicology from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and finished her PhD in Musicology at The University of Hong Kong. Her dissertation, ‘Reflecting musically: the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra as a semi-colonial construct’, examines the history of the first western orchestra established in China, with an emphasis on its relationship with the historical and social context of semi-colonial Shanghai. In the past few years, she has presented different parts of the project at international conferences in the UK, the Netherlands and Taiwan. In 2016, she contributed to the writing of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Brass Instruments (forthcoming), which introduces the development of brass instruments in China.


The Shanghai Municipal Orchestra was one of the earliest western orchestras in China. It started as a wind band in 1879, when part of Shanghai was occupied by the western powers. The band initially served the western community by performing light music in the Public Garden and playing martial music in the military parades. A Chinese audience was almost absent in these musical activities, since western music was foreign to them. The existence/non-existence of western and Chinese audiences echoes Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social distinction, which suggests that accessibility to culture differentiates social status.

This chapter examines the emergence of a Chinese audience for the orchestra through the writings of Chinese critics. It begins with a discussion by Xiao Youmei (1884–1940), the principal of the National Conservatory of Music, of the reasons for the absence of a Chinese audience. We shall then see how and why the Chinese critics had expended so much effort in promoting western music in the Chinese community. While writing about their personal experience and the behaviour of other Chinese audiences, these critics also compared Chinese and western music and expressed their admiration of western culture after attending the concerts. These writings record the first attempt of the Chinese in crossing social and cultural boundaries.


In 1843, the earliest batch of foreign residents arrived in Shanghai after the end of the First Opium War (also the First Anglo–Chinese War, 1839–42), which was concluded by the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. Under the treaty, Shanghai and four other Chinese cities, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou and Ningbo, were opened to Britain as treaty ports. In the next two decades, Shanghai witnessed the establishment and expansion of the British concession, American concession and French concession, as well as the merging of American and British concessions into the International Settlement.

Figure 1: Map of Shanghai, 1937 (source: (accessed 21 May 2014)
Figure 1: Map of Shanghai, 1937 (Source:, accessed 21 June 2017)

Foreigners living in Shanghai assumed a special status in the city and were ruled or ‘protected’ under the law of their own countries. The British and French were the two dominating forces in this region and they formed two separate councils, which were independent of the Chinese Manchurian Government. The Municipal Council dominated by the British was set up in 1854 and continued until 1943, while the French Consul-General created the Municipal Administrative Council in 1862 to preserve the independence of the French concession. Jürgen Osterhammel suggests ‘semi-colonialism’ as a phenomenon where the weaker government retains only nominal ownership but effectively loses control of its territory to the colonial power.1 The political situation of Shanghai meets the definition, since the Chinese Manchurian Government, although conceding part of the city to the western powers, remained as an independent polity. Shi Shumei further explains that the divided foreign concessions administered by multiple western powers (mainly British, French and American in Shanghai) is one of the key features of ‘semi-colonialism’.2

The purpose of this chapter is to illustrate the characteristics of semi-colonialism through the Chinese audience of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra, one of the earliest western orchestras in China. I will begin with the concept of semi-colonialism and the historical background of the orchestra. Then we shall examine the writings of different people who attended the Municipal Orchestra concerts. These writings will give us the reasons for the absence of a Chinese audience in the early years of the orchestra, the effort of the Chinese critics in promoting western music in the Chinese community, and different views on western art music among the Chinese in the mid-1920s.

The concept of semi-colonialism

The main theme of this study is semi-colonialism. To begin with, a survey of the meaning of a few related terms, such as ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’, will provide a useful ground for the discussion. According to Edward Said, ‘imperialism’ is the ‘practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory’ and ‘colonialism’ is ‘the implanting of settlements on distant territory’ as a consequence of imperialism.3 This concept becomes the point of departure when semi-colonialism is discussed in this chapter. The next question would then be the difference between ‘colonialism’ and ‘semi-colonialism’. Here, Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire is taken as a reference. He explains that empires are ‘territories under the formal rule or informal political domination [i.e. zones of influence]’of another state.4 This elaboration on the one hand suggests the importance of considering ‘political significance’ in our understanding of these terms and on the other brings out the significance of the term ‘informal empire’, which is inextricable from the concept of semi-colonialism.

In Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview, Osterhammel offers a useful classification of three different forms of colonialism: 1) colonial rule, 2) quasi-colonial control and 3) non-colonial determinant influence.5 These categories sub-divide different forms of colonialism according to the power relationship between the ruling and ruled countries. In colonial rule, ‘[i]ndigenous rulers are replaced by foreign rulers’ and this results in the establishment of a formal empire.6 This form of colonialism can be illustrated by the control exercised by the British Government over India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the second type, quasi-colonial control, ‘[t]he weaker state remains intact as an independent polity with its own political system. … There is no colonial administration, but occasionally especially in the area of finance – a mixture of foreign and indigenous administration.’7 Osterhammel suggests that the formation of informal empire as a result of this quasi-colonial control is more or less an economic phenomenon: ‘Informal empire, unlike colonialism (formal empire), presupposes a distinct economic superiority of Big Brother.’8 Robert Aguirre uses the term to describe the relationship between Britain and nineteenth-century Mexico and Central America, that is, the period after the independence of Mexico from Spain until the Spanish-American War in 1898, when British influence gradually diminished. He explains that ‘Britain’s primary interests in the region were driven by exchange, trade, and commerce’ and it ‘formally recognized the political independence of the Latin American republic … by signing commercial treaties.’9 British imperialism did not originate in a master plan to occupy the territory, and the imperial practices in the region were ‘conflictual, contingent, heterogeneous, and partial’ in quality.10 As to the last form of colonialism, non-colonial ‘determinant’ influence, ‘the economic superiority of the stronger national partner or of its private enterprise and/or its military protective function confers upon it opportunities to influence the politics of the weaker partner.’11 Here, the discussion of ‘quasi-colonial control’ is the most relevant to the foreign administration of the concessions in Shanghai. In fact, Osterhammel has used the term ‘semi-colonialism’ to describe the political and social situation of China in a book chapter, where he attempted to develop an analytical framework.12 His model, however, mainly focuses on the political and economic aspects of the society, rather than the cultural dimension.

On the cultural facet of semi-colonialism in China, Shi Shumei provides a more thorough discussion in her book, The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917–1937. Her explanation is particularly instrumental for this study. She uses the term ‘semi-colonialism’ to ‘describe the specific effects of multiple imperialist presences in China and their fragmentary colonial geography (largely confined to coastal cities) and control, as well as the resulting social and cultural formations.’13 China, which conceded its control over many of its cities during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, illustrated certain features of semi-colonialism: the ‘rivalry’ and ‘co-operation’ among the foreign powers, the multiple, layered, intensified, incomplete and fragmentary nature of the colonial administration, a lack of cohesion and an abundance of strife within the cultural sphere, and the diverse responses of the Chinese towards semi-colonialism.14 This chapter will examine the writings of Chinese intellectuals in order to obtain an understanding of their ideological, political, and cultural positions within the semi-colonial setting.

To divert slightly from the current topic, Shi brought out the notion of asymmetric cosmopolitanism in her discussion and proposed that it is an intermediary in the social transformation of a city from the ideology of semi-colonialism to cosmopolitanism. She explains that ‘[w]hen applied to Third World intellectuals, ‘cosmopolitanism’ implies that these individuals have an expansive knowledge constituted primarily by their understanding of the world (read: the West), but when applied to metropolitan western intellectuals there is a conspicuous absence of the demand to know the non-West.’15 When this is applied to the case of China, we shall notice that Shanghai actually underwent a social transformation from a semi-colonial to an asymmetric cosmopolitan city before moving towards a cosmopolitan metropolis, since the Chinese were initially neglected in the settlers’ concept of ‘cosmopolitanism’.

For the purpose of this study, the term ‘semi-colonialism’ is defined as a concept that grows out of Hobsbawm’s ‘informal political domination’ and Osterhammel’s ‘informal empire.’ Semi-colonialism will be viewed as an ideology that facilitated Shanghai’s development towards cosmopolitanism in the twentieth century. Initially, the transformation began with asymmetric cosmopolitanism where the Chinese were not involved. Cosmopolitanism gradually became the shared value in the settlement when the Chinese were included in the semi-colonial hierarchy in the 1930s. This chapter will focus on the emergence of the Chinese audience in the performances of the municipal orchestra since the 1920s.

A history of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra

The Shanghai Municipal Orchestra began as a wind band in 1879, consisting of fourteen Filipino bandsmen led by the French bandmaster Jean Rémusat (1815–80).16 It was financed by the British-dominated Shanghai Municipal Council and the French Municipal Administrative Council since 1881; and was managed by a Band and Orchestra Committee (thereafter ‘Band Committee’). The orchestra was an important cultural institution in semi-colonial Shanghai, as it was the one with the longest history in China and was omnipresent in many social and cultural activities of the settlement. Its 64-year history can be divided into three stages: the formative years (1879–1906) when it was a brass band; the transitional period (1906–19), which witnessed its growth into a symphony orchestra; and the matured period (1919–42).

The orchestra began as a wind band serving the parade of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps, a military force formed by the Municipal Council in 1853 for defending the settlement.17 In the parade the rangers, artilleries and infantries marched along the main streets of the settlement, and the public band accompanied the procession with martial music. The band also entertained the foreign community with light, popular dance tunes and opera medleys in open-air concerts and at private functions. In 1906, the Band Committee proposed to reconstruct the band by transforming it into a municipal orchestra. With the effort of two conductors, Rudolf Buck (1866–1952) and later Mario Paci (1878–1946), the orchestra was once known as ‘the best orchestra in the Far East’.18 By the mid-1930s, the Municipal Orchestra consisted of over 30 members from Russia, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Hungary, the Philippines, Japan and China. It also expanded the repertory to include the orchestral and chamber works from the Baroque to the modern period. As reported in The Musical Quarterly in 1935, the orchestra’s programmes comprised ‘works of Respighi, Rieti, Malipiero, de Falla, Ravel, Kodaly, Bartok, Graener [and] Hindemith.’19

The orchestra offered many different types of performances, which can be grouped into three main categories: regular concerts; accompaniment in the military parades; and private engagements. At the inception period, the public band performed several times a week during the summer in public gardens to entertain the foreign residents. This tradition was maintained even when the band was expanded into a municipal orchestra in the early twentieth century. Music in the open-air concerts was played by the wind band and was generally light-hearted in nature. As the orchestra grew, it also offered some easy-listening orchestral pieces in these outdoor performances to raise public interest. In 1899, the erection of the Town Hall in Shanghai provided the first indoor venue for regular concerts during the winter concert season. In addition to the weekly symphonic concerts, the orchestra had also offered educational concerts, subscription concerts, chamber concerts and dance music concerts since the beginning of the twentieth century. As discussed, the orchestra was initially created for the military parade. This function also remained, even when the band was later developed into a symphonic orchestra. To increase its income, the orchestra also engaged in other performances, such as accompanying the theatrical productions of the local drama clubs and visiting opera troupes. Sometimes, ensembles were formed by members of the orchestra for playing in private or social functions. In this chapter, I will focus on the regular concerts, as they had the broadest reach in the settlement and draw the most attention in today’s literature on the orchestra.

The Shanghai Municipal Orchestra is considered a semi-colonial construct for several reasons. The orchestra was managed by the Band Committee and was mainly financed by the Municipal Council, which made it a good representation of the settlers. Through the music it played, the orchestra became a useful tool for circulating the voices of the colonisers. Although the British dominated both the council and the orchestra, membership of the management was multinational, suggesting that the voice was not necessarily monolithic. Initially, the players of the orchestra were recruited from the Philippines, rather than China, and were trained by the European bandmasters. This suggests that the settlers did not intend to impose western culture and values on the Chinese people by forcing them to learn western music. The primary purpose of the orchestra was to serve the settlers’ community, and the Chinese were almost ignored in the conception of the foreign settlers. On the other hand, the exclusiveness of the western cultural activity seems to allude to the supremacy of its participants. While most Chinese were indifferent to what the foreigners did, some others were made to believe that the ability to comprehend or even play western music would elevate their social status. Here, the belief in western superiority was induced, rather than imposed in a strong and direct manner by the foreign residents. The Municipal Orchestra, as a tool serving the settlers, became an institution reflecting ‘semi-colonialism’ in Shanghai under this context.

Current literature on the orchestra generally pays more attention to the western side of the story by focusing on the western musicians, the Municipal Council’s financing of the orchestra, and the contribution of Paci in recruiting the Chinese musicians to the orchestra. This chapter attempts to broaden the existing research on this topic by bringing in the voice of the Chinese audience. It will focus on the indoor concerts in the 1920s, the early years of its matured period when the Chinese audience started to grow in number. I will propose that the reaction of the Chinese audience, in addition to other personnel associated with the orchestra such as the conductors and players, would enhance our further understanding of semi-colonialism in Shanghai.

Chinese audience – from absence to presence

The Chinese were almost absent in the early years of the Municipal Orchestra concerts, despite the limited records about the appearance of Chinese officials and local amahs accompanying their European masters in the open-air concerts in the late nineteenth century.20 Other early records on the Chinese audience were unavailable until Tanabe Hisao, a Japanese musicologist, wrote about a concert he attended in 1923:

There were 500–600 guests in the hall that evening, making the room quite full. However, it seemed that most of them were Westerners; about 10% were Japanese, and only 10 Chinese individuals were in attendance. So one might conclude that Chinese people’s interest in Western music was rather limited at that time.


One important obstacle that hindered the Chinese from accessing the concerts is that they were not allowed to enter the Public Gardens where open-air concerts were given. Lacking the opportunity to hear western music through the cheap outdoor concerts made it even more improbable for the general Chinese to buy tickets to the indoor concerts, since they had no reason to pay for music with which they were not acquainted. Xiao Youmei, the President of the National Conservatory of Music, noted the reasons for people’s reluctance to attend western music concerts:

… but the majority of attendants of the concerts are still foreigners. The Chinese did not even constitute 10% [of the audience]. What are the reasons? I think there are no more than the following two reasons. First, they did not know about this type of opportunity; second, although they know about it or have attended and listened to [the concert], the music played is too difficult to comprehend and so they would rather not attend the concert again.


Therefore, when the restriction on park access was removed by the Municipal Council in 1928, the situation changed. The opening of the public parks to the Chinese meant that approval was granted to the Chinese for attending the summer concerts. It appeared that the Chinese were gradually accepted as part of the settlement community and were allowed to participate in social and cultural activities previously exclusive to the foreign residents.

Although the setting of open-air concerts was less formal than that of indoor concerts, the opportunity to attend outdoor performances would actually help to promote the latter. As Xiao suggested:

… many new musical compositions require repeated listening. After continuous training of the ears, one would be able to appreciate their merits.


The Chinese were given admission tickets to make their first step to cross the cultural borders and familiarise themselves with western musical culture. The increasing contact with western music through the outdoor concerts would make them less resistant to the indoor concerts, since the biggest hurdle for the Chinese was probably their unfamiliarity with the sonority of western music.

On the other hand, interest in western music actually had existed among the Chinese elites in the early 1920s, although written evidence is limited. Zhang Ruogu (1905–67), a freelance critic of Shen bao (a popular Chinese newspaper), noted the presence of a Chinese audience in a Municipal Orchestra concert in 1926:

Recently in the venue of the Town Hall concerts, there have also been many Chinese listeners. I recalled that in the fifteenth concert last Sunday, except for the students in the gallery – those from several local universities and institutions [names omitted here], who frequently attended the concerts, there were unexpectedly also tens of Chinese buying tickets and sitting in the stalls. What’s more is that they were the literati famous in Shanghai. This is exactly a good phenomenon for the future of arts in China.

(近來市政廳音樂會中 ,也有很多中國的聽客了。記得上星期日第十五次音樂會,除樓上有常到的藝大、美專、同文、震旦,各學校一部份學生外,樓下居然也有數十位中國人買了票子入場的,而且都是上海很知名的文藝家。這正是中國藝術前途的一個好現象啊。)24

Voices from the Chinese audience

By that time, Zhang and some other critics had made much effort in promoting both the indoor and outdoor concerts to the general Chinese public. In 1923, for instance, a music journal in Chinese, Yinyue jie (Musician’s World), was published. The first issue includes an introduction to the Municipal Orchestra concerts. The writer clearly pointed out his purpose of encouraging Chinese participation in these concerts:

In the Municipal Town Hall of Shanghai, from October every year to May of the following year, in every Sunday afternoon between 5–7, there must be a concert given by the orchestra. It is called the symphony concert season. Now for the purpose of promoting our compatriots’ interest in the Western high-art music, [I] especially listed below the programmes of the 35th concert on 29 April and 36th concert on 6 May. The conductor is the Italian musician, Paci.


In this section, we shall see some of the writings of these critics, who shared their experience as members of the audience in the Municipal Orchestra concerts.

During 1925–27, Zhang wrote several articles about the Municipal Orchestra concerts in Shen bao. In an early piece, he explained the reason for paying so much effort in raising his compatriots’ interest in western music:

Up to here when I was writing this article, my friend visited. He asked: ‘This type of writing is too much of a promotional advertisement in nature. Do you mean to ask all of our compatriots to study music? I have a further question: What are the benefits of attending the concerts?’ I replied with a smile, ‘Of course not everybody has the ability to study music. I do not dare to impose this on other people. But not to study does not mean not to understand or not to like it. … Men are born to like music, although every person’s degree of interest in music, as well as their capability to appreciate music are different. … As to the benefits of attending concerts, this is mainly for cultivating personality and instigating courage through lyrical and harmonious, magnificent and exciting melodies. To take a look at the Westerners, no matter men or women, old or young, they all have much interest in music. … If our compatriots can attend Western concerts, they will feel ashamed psychologically. This might be able to encourage them to strengthen themselves. These are the benefits and impacts brought out [by the concerts].’


Zhang suggested that music possesses the quality to cultivate people and incite different feelings and emotions – an idea quite consistent with the general belief in the West. In his opinion, the Chinese should therefore share the same interests with the westerners and appreciate the value of western music. By attending the Municipal Orchestra concerts, the general Chinese public would acquire knowledge about other cultures. Western art music would widen their views – western harmony, instruments, musical genres and orchestration – these would make them realise the advancement of western culture and the deficiency of their own culture. This might make them feel ashamed, which would then arouse their eagerness to learn from the West.

In addition to the articles introducing the works performed by the Municipal Orchestra, Zhang also shared every minor detail of his experience as an audience member in another article in 1925:

The venue is the grand meeting room on the second floor [of the Town Hall]. At the entrance, there are Chinese police. After entering, there are two large staircases, each on the left and right wing respectively, where one can select either one for going upstairs. The box office is located there [at the end of the staircase]. … At the entrance, there are attendants collecting tickets. One can enter and get the programme notes of the concert on that day after presenting one’s ticket. In the hall, there are about 1,000 seats, which are free [for the audience] to sit. At the back, there is the gallery, which also has seats like the downstairs. Entrance to upstairs is free of charge, and is accessible by another stair, which is inside a small room next [to the hall]. There are staff holding the programme notes at the end of the staircase. Audience members can obtain a copy from them. However, space in the gallery is small and seats are filled quickly. Latecomers will thus be rejected and have to buy tickets for entry.

Before the concert begins, there is no person on the stage but the chairs, music stands, heavy and bulky instruments. Soon before the performance, all players come out from the resting room on the left and sit in order, then adjust the strings and tuning. When the noise suddenly stops, it is then followed by thunderous applause, because the conductor steps onto the stage.



This is not only an account of Zhang’s concert going experience; for the Chinese readers, this would also give them a clearer picture about what the Municipal Orchestra concert was like. In comparison to previous articles introducing the concerts, this sharing probably helped to mitigate people’s fear and embarrassment about attending concerts due to ignorance. By publishing the article in Shen bao, a more broadly distributed local paper, the message would be able to reach a wider potential audience as well. Here, Zhang took an important step forward in promoting western music to the Chinese community.

The article also manifests how foreign and exclusive the concert was to the Chinese audience. The interior design of the Town Hall, the location of the box office, the Chinese police guarding the hall entrance, the ticket collectors who also distributed the programme notes, where people should be seated, and when they should keep quiet – all of these were unknown to the Chinese who had never attended a concert. In fact, the Chinese audience seemed to ignore western concert etiquette, which made them looked silly in front of the westerners. In 1926, Zhang wrote an article to remind people about proper behaviour in concert hall:

I am worried. There are many Chinese who failed to observe the etiquette that they have to follow in public venues. A few rules are especially listed in the following. Attendants of Western concerts must pay attention at all times.

(i) Before entering [the concert venue], if one wears a hat in Western-style, s/he can leave it to the attendants at the entrance and obtain a numbered ticket for claiming back the hat, or s/he can put it next to his/her seat. (ii) Do not speak loudly and gesticulate in the venue. (iii) Do not spit, or throw scraps of paper or skins of food on the floor. (iv) If the performance has already begun, one can wait outside the door for a moment. Do not knock the door and shout. (v) When seated, do not leave the seat arbitrarily and walk outside if the performance on the stage has not yet finished. (vi) If the performance on the stage is excellent, one must wait till the end of the music to applaud. Do not shout in a strange voice. (vii) During the performance, one must keep quiet, do not speak to the neighbouring people. (viii) At the end of the concert, leave the hall in an orderly fashion. Do not run and push, or socialize with friends in the crowd. To conclude, these are common social manners that citizens of a civilized country should have. I very much hope that readers no matter where they are in the public venues, should always follow the above eight rules on concert attendance as a minimum requirement.



If, as Zhang felt, the Chinese could not behave themselves, this would mean that they were less cultivated than, and thus appeared inferior to, westerners. This idea was echoed by Eileen Chang (1920–95) when she wrote about her musical experience in her book Liuyan (Written on Water):

When my mother first took me to a concert, she warned me over and over before we even arrived, ‘Whatever happens, don’t make a sound, and don’t say a thing. Don’t let them say Chinese people don’t know how to behave properly.’ And indeed I sat silently, without so much as moving a muscle, and did not fall asleep.


Here, Chang’s writing suggests that the increasing contact of the Chinese with western culture in effect made them believe in their ignorance and their marginality in the settlement’s social hierarchy, as well as the backwardness of their artistic development and the less civilised quality of their people.

The sense of shame that Zhang refers to also relates to the view that Chinese music sounds primitive when compared with the complexity of western orchestral music. For the Chinese, western music is more advanced in terms of harmony, instruments, texture, form and design. This point was elaborated in an article printed in Yinyue jie, in which the writer expressed his thoughts after attending a concert of the Municipal Orchestra in 1923. He rejected the thought that blindly valued ancient Chinese music and disdained western music, suggesting that most Chinese should be ashamed of their own music:

A few stubborn audience members, however, shamelessly said, ‘Our music in Tang and Sui dynasties [AD 618–907 and AD 518–618 respectively] is no worse than modern Western music. We also invented theory in music harmony before they did. It is a pity that those studies have been lost.’ They were only overstating. They were only sighing. They were only worshipping the past. They have never thought of how to revitalize ancient music, however. If they failed to search diligently for the lost treasure, what’s the use of sighing?

To criticize fairly, the pentatonic instruments inherited from our ancient past, how would they be comparable to the elegance of the Western instruments? The aforesaid [Chinese] theory, how would it be as accurate as the Western harmony? These hypocritical overstatements do not mean to respect our own country, but are evil fallacies that hinder the study of Western music.




The writings above illustrate two poles of discourse on the cultural encounter among the Chinese – one admiring and the other rejecting western musical culture. The varied responses of the Chinese as the colonised towards the colonial culture are characteristics of semi-colonialism, as I suggested in my study of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra.31

Ju Qihong categorises thought in early twentieth-century China about western music into three different camps, namely revitalisation, abandonment or impoverishment, and syncretism.32 While the first two factions represent two poles of the dispute as seen from the article above, the last proposes an eclectic approach to the question. Revitalisation was a repercussion against the influence of western music. It loathed school songs, the adoption of the western music education system and other western influences on the development of Chinese music; and supporters asserted the revitalisation of ancient court music and traditional music. Abandonment or impoverishment, on the other hand, proposed an almost wholesale adoption of western music in place of Chinese traditional music. Proponents of this camp urged the learning of western music for the purpose of improving traditional Chinese music or creating new Chinese musical style. Syncretism, as suggested by Nettl, is a ‘fusion of elements from diverse cultural sources’ and the resulting ‘hybrid styles seem to have developed most readily when musical similarities between non-western and western cultures can be identified, when the musics are compatible and most important, when they share central traits.’33 The thought of Liang Qichao, an important figure in the New Culture Movement,34 is representative of this attitude. He pointed out that:

…reformation of [Chinese] music should rely on the import of Western music … with a strategic and selective adoption of foreign compositions. As to the foundation [of the reformation], we should rely on our musical tradition, and abandon the biased view to expel other traditions.


Here, the diverse views of the Chinese reveal the tensions in the cultural encounter. As noted by Shi Shumei, this is also a feature of semi-colonialism, where ‘the Chinese intellectuals [possess] more varied ideological, political, and cultural positions than in formal colonies.’36

From the various writings above, we can understand the reasons behind the absence of a Chinese audience in the early years of the orchestra, as well as the effort of the critics to promote western music in the Chinese community. These writers not only shared their concert-attending experience, they also expressed their own views and reported other Chinese people’s views on western music. The polarised opinions on colonial culture demonstrate one characteristic of semi-colonialism in Shanghai as suggested by Shi Shumei. These views were also translated into the varied responses of the Chinese musicians when they collaborated with the Municipal Orchestra in the next decade, and to a greater extent led to the multi-directional development of Chinese music in the next century.

Selected bibliography

Bickers, Robert. Britain in China: Community, Culture and Colonialism, 1900–49. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Bickers, Robert. ‘The greatest cultural asset East of Suez: the history and politics of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra and Public Band, 1881–1946’ in Qixiong Zhang (ed.) Ershi shiji de Zhongguo yu shijie lunwen xuanji (China and the World in the Twentieth Century). Taipei: Institute of History, Academia Sinica, 2001, vol. 2, pp. 835–875.

Enomoto, Yasuko. Xifang yinyuejia de Shanghai mong: gongbuju yuedui chuanqi. (Western Musicians’ Dream of Shanghai: Story of the Municipal Orchestra), transl. Yi Zhao. Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe, 2009.

Lee, Leo Ou-fan. Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930–1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Osterhammel, Jürgen. Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview. Princeton: M. Wiener, 1997.

Shen bao (Shanghai News), 1925–27.

Shi, Shumei. The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917–1937. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001.

Xiao, Youmei. ‘Tingguo Shanghai shizhengting da yinyuehui hou de ganxiang’ (‘Feelings after listening to the symphony concert in Shanghai Town Hall’) in Yinyue zazhi (Music Magazine) 1/1, 10 January 1928, pp. 1–6.

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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.37 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).38 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.39

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).40 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’.41 He argues that listeners practise this behaviour in part ‘in order to cultivate versions of themselves (that is, as ‘technologies of the self)’.42

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.43

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.44 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.45 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.46

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.47 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.48

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.)49

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.50 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’.51 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).52

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’.53 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’.54 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.55 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.56 (They have also been central to western appropriations of North Indian classical music.)57

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’.58

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.59 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.60 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.61

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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