Introduction: understanding listening experiences

David Rowland

David Rowland is Professor of Music, Principal Investigator for the Listening Experience Database (LED) project and former Dean of Arts at The Open University. He is the author of three books and numerous chapters and articles on the performance history of the piano and early keyboard instruments. He has also edited the first scholarly edition of Clementi’s correspondence, which provided the impetus for a much broader investigation of the London music trade during the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, on which he has published extensively. David is also a performer on early keyboard instruments and Director of Music at Christ’s College, Cambridge.


The essays in this peer-reviewed collection started life as papers at a conference organised in 2018 by the Listening Experience Database (LED) project team, hosted by the Music Department and Knowledge Media Institute (KMI) at The Open University, and run in collaboration with members of staff at the Royal College of Music and Glasgow University. The approach of the LED project team is both novel and distinctive, concentrating on historical listening experiences as evidenced in personal documents such as diaries and letters. As such, LED’s approach is to write listening history ‘from below’, as distinct from the way in which most conventional musicology is conceived. At the core of the LED team’s enquiry is the study of the listeners themselves, many of whom had little status in society, not the opinion formers whose professional role is to critique or teach music. No previous studies of listening have focused to this degree on individuals and the evidence they create. The emphasis of the LED project is reflected in this collection and the challenges it creates form a large part of this Introduction.

Nevertheless, this collection also reflects some of the wider interests and methodologies that have emerged in listening studies in the last few decades (scholars from all branches of listening studies were invited to contribute to the conference and some of their research is included here). For example, while the LED project focuses on the unsolicited evidence of personal documents, some of the chapters here are based on material gathered from interviews, both recently (see Stephanie E. Pitts) and in the past (see Lorenzo Vanelli). Craig Hamilton and Simon Brown use computer analysis of digital evidence from the internet. Studies of audiences (as opposed to individual listeners) also feature – a particularly important strand of listening studies since James Johnson’s Listening in Paris. 1[1] James Johnson, <em>Listening in Paris: A Cultural History</em> (Berkeley; London: University of California Press, c.1995).

But this collection does not pretend to be comprehensive. In such a relatively small space it could not possibly cover all of the ground outlined, for example, in the Introduction to the latest major work on listening, The Oxford Handbook of Music Listening in the 19th and 20th Centuries. 2[2] Christian Thorau and Hansjakob Ziemer (eds), <em>The Oxford Handbook of Music Listening in the 19th and 20th Centuries</em> (Oxford: Oxford University Press, published online in 2018 and in print in 2019). It does, however, make an important contribution to the understanding of how individuals, many of them from modest social backgrounds, listened to music, and how the experience of those listeners compare with their modern counterparts.


While the majority of essays in this collection focus in one way or another on the listening of one or more individuals, the first two contributions concern the collective listening behaviours of audiences. In the opening chapter Dave Russell focuses on listeners who seldom feature in conventional histories of music – those of modest social status in the long nineteenth century who listened to music in ‘popular’ venues such as music halls, variety theatres, pubs, working men’s clubs and brass band contests, as well as in concert halls. Along with others who seek to understand the views and behaviours of lower-class audiences, he acknowledges a problem inherent in the source material: the evidence for such studies, which often does not originate with the listeners themselves and is largely found in newspapers, periodicals and published histories of music, is both scattered and fragmentary, offering only occasional glimpses of the ways in which a significant proportion of the population engaged with music. The role played by social class is now a major theme in listening research. A number of recent studies highlight the part played by it, especially as it relates to audience behaviours. 3[3] See most recently, for example, Charles Edward McGuire, ‘Amateurs and auditors: listening to the British music festival, 1810–1835’, in Thorau and Ziemer, 2018/19.

Russell’s conclusions have some parallels with Johnson’s 4[4] Johnson, c1995. in so far as both describe an increasing tendency towards attentive listening in the nineteenth century. However, rather than identifying a simple behavioural trend away from inattention towards engaged listening, Russell presents a more nuanced picture in which a variety of listening practices, including participatory listening, gradually gave way to generally quieter listening by the mid-twentieth century. 5[5] Other refined studies of audience behaviours are now appearing: see Katherine Ellis, ‘Researching audience behaviours in nineteenth-century Paris: who cares if you listen’, in Thorau and Ziemer, 2018/19.

That a nuanced view of audience behaviours is needed is amply demonstrated in Stephanie E. Pitts’ chapter. In particular, by surveying modern concert attenders she demonstrates a fundamental truth that writers on historical audiences would do well to note: silent listening does not necessarily equate to attentive, or engaged listening. Using evidence gathered by survey, by asking people to draw pictures, and by recording interviews, her case studies examine how audiences react with both the familiar and the unfamiliar. What is perhaps most striking about Pitts’ findings is the conclusion that ‘the answer to “what are concert-goers doing when they listen”? is perhaps no closer as a result of this provocation, but it is fairly certain not to be what is going on in the head of an academic music researcher’. This comment neatly summarises one of the major issues in listening research: despite the existence of listening orthodoxies that often have their roots in published educational materials, listeners in the present and past – we don’t know the proportion – listen, or have listened, in very different ways that we are only just beginning to understand.

‘Personal’ documents and their readers

The majority of chapters in this collection focus on the written evidence of individuals, whether in the form of diaries and correspondence, oral history, or some form of social media. On the face of it, these documents appear to contain unvarnished accounts of listeners’ reactions to music, providing us with precisely the sort of evidence of authentic listening experiences that might help to answer the questions posed by Stephanie E. Pitts. Yet the sources pose multiple challenges of interpretation. In order to understand the documents it is important to evaluate the factors that shaped them, for example, prevailing philosophies, social and cultural contexts, writing conventions, and so on. This introduction briefly examines these factors, beginning with an evaluation of the sources’ readers. (It should be added at the outset that ‘readers’ in this context includes those who actually read the sources, as well as those to whom the sources were read.)

The letters and diaries which are so crucial to the study of historical listeners could be supposed, naively, to contain the private outpourings of individuals as they wrote exclusively for themselves (diaries), or for one or two other readers (letters). Indeed, sometimes this was the case, but more often than not the circumstances were different, a factor that crucially affects the nature of the accounts. The following examples demonstrate the range of readers for whom these sorts of documents were written and hence some of the factors that influenced the way they were written.

When a sixteenth-century aristocrat wrote a letter the text was most likely shaped in some way by the knowledge that its contents would also be known by the scribe to whom the letter was dictated, and the messenger who delivered it. 6[6] Jonathan Gibson, ‘Letters’, in Michael Hattaway (ed.), <em>A New Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture</em> (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2010), p. 456. In the eighteenth century, as letter writing became ever more fashionable, the medium sometimes served as a training exercise for entry into the literary world and it is clear that some letters were written with the clear intention of later publication. 7[7] Susan E. Whyman, <em>The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers 1660–1800</em> (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 191–192. Commenting on letters written by poorer members of society towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Martyn Lyons writes that ‘letters had multiple recipients and sometimes several authors. They were intended for reading aloud to a family group and sometimes became a kind of general newsletter for an entire village’. 8[8] Martyn Lyons, <em>The Writing Culture of Ordinary People in Europe, 1860–1920</em> (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 250. Lyons’ comments refer to particular sorts of writers at a certain time in history, but letters were written with similar intentions in many eras; for example, Clare Brant comments with respect to the eighteenth century:

The varied and often unpredictable circulation of letters confounds simple distinctions between public and private … In the context of letter writing, ‘personal’ is useful in that it recognises the significance of letters to individuals and to relationships. It is preferable to ‘private’, a term that is simply inaccurate for many eighteenth-century familiar letters, which were composed in company, voluntarily circulated beyond the addressee and frequently found their way into print. 9[9] Brant, Clare. <em>Eighteenth-century Letters and British Culture</em> (Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), p. 5.

Diaries or journals (whichever term is used probably matters little)10[10] Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, <em>Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives</em> (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), pp. 193, 196. were frequently written for a readership other than the author. Prominent members of society throughout history have known that their diaries might be of interest to a wider circle of people and would be published either in their lifetime, or after their death. But it was not just the influential in society whose diaries were written for a wider readership. The diary of John Yeoman, for example, an eighteenth-century farmer and pottery owner from Somerset, was not just written for himself: the frequent addresses to ‘the reader’ and other equivalent designations shows that it was written with his family and friends in mind.

Earlier authors of spiritual diaries knew that extracts may be published posthumously, and wrote accordingly:

specially selected entries were sometimes published after a diarist’s death alongside a sermon written for her funeral. In their diaries, believers monitored and constructed themselves in a culturally acceptable fashion, so as to avoid posthumous social embarrassment, not to mention God’s wrath. 11[11] Dan Doll and Jessica Munns, <em>Recording and Reordering: Essays on the Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-century Diary and Journal</em> (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2006), p. 65.

In the nineteenth century it was not so much the wrath of God that some diary-writers feared, but rather the opprobrium of a governess, who oversaw the writing of young women’s diaries as they wrote ‘under duress’. 12[12] Philippe Lejeune, ‘The practice of the private journal: chronicle of an investigation’, in Rachael Langford and Russell West, <em>Marginal Voices, Marginal Forms: Diaries in European Literature and History</em> (Amsterdam: Rodolpi, 1999), pp. 196–197.

Clearly, documents such as diaries and letters were often intended for a wider readership than their author or recipient and although we may still refer to them as ‘personal’, we do so in the knowledge that many of them were anything but ‘private’. It is not difficult to imagine, therefore, that in many of these documents the writers were carefully constructing images of themselves for portrayal to others. Indeed, even in the case of diaries written only for the author a certain amount of construction may be apparent, as the diarist’s thoughts are written down according to certain conventions – a theme we will come to.

Understanding authors of ‘personal’ documents

Notwithstanding these caveats, as personal documents diaries and letters undoubtedly reflect the particular concerns, characters and world-views of their authors, and if we are to interpret and understand the listening experiences they contain, we must also acquaint ourselves as well as we can with the people who wrote them. This means studying the entire documents, wherever possible, and referring to whatever other sources about the authors may be available, not just focusing on the sections relevant to our enquiries, and not just exploiting the sources ‘as quarries for the telling quotation or support for a preconceived view’. 13[13] Philip Woodfine, ‘”Nothing but dust & the most minute particles”: historians and the evidence of journals and diaries’, Doll and Munns, 2006, p. 189. The need to study documents in their entirety is a common theme in the secondary literature of diaries and journals, and the current collection contains some intriguing examples. Elaine Moohan’s chapter examines the recorded listening experiences of the siblings William and Hannah Ann Stirling, who grew up in Scotland in the early nineteenth century. Hannah Ann was a very active musician whereas William was a self-confessed ignoramus in musical matters. Yet in their correspondence it was William who wrote most about music, for the benefit of his sister whom he thought would welcome this sort of news. In order to understand why Hannah Ann was so reticent in musical matters, and why William was so voluble, it was important to construct a detailed profile of their characters through a careful reading of numerous letters and other documents.

Knowing the authors of personal documents means understanding their views of ‘self’, especially how those ideas differ from equivalents in other generations. Peter Heehs has studied the way in which changing notions of ‘self’ have affected the contents of personal documents (primarily, in his study, diaries and memoirs), beginning with the earliest writings of self-expression prior to the age of printing, and moving forwards in time to the present. He concludes:

we see that over the last two millennia, the prevailing idea of the self has changed from a ghostly spirit [deriving identity from an external being] to a substantial soul to an autonomous individual to a centre of expression to a fiction constructed by social and biological forces. 14[14] Peter Heehs, <em>Writing the Self: Diaries, Memoirs, and the History of the Self</em> (New York, London, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 230.

An understanding of the author of a letter or diary in relation to prevailing attitudes to self goes some way to explaining the literary style of their documents.

Knowing the authors of personal documents means understanding the ways in which they perceived and experienced the world around them. A growing area of importance to the study of listening experiences, as this collection demonstrates, is research drawn from cultural history into historical perspectives of the sensorium – how the senses feature in people’s understanding of their worlds. Ina Knoth’s chapter examines eighteenth-century accounts of listening against the background of what she describes as an acknowledged ‘shift from the dominance of the hearing sense to the visual sense in the Age of Enlightenment’. Rebecca Rinsema takes these ideas forward into modern times, discussing the significance of the ‘sensory turn’ on the study of listening.

Other crucially important contexts that affect individuals include the social and political environment in which they lived. Helen Barlow’s chapter is telling in this regard, as she studies an environment in which individual listeners and opinion formers endeavoured to understand Welshness and the important place held by music in defining the phenomenon.

Knowing the authors of personal documents means understanding the way in which they were likely to express themselves according to contemporary social conventions. For those of us who study listening accounts it has often been surprising that so many sources make no reference whatsoever to any emotional response to music: we might even ask if many individuals did actually react to music emotionally prior to modern times. But in earlier times virtues such as self-control and propriety held sway, as they continue to in some contexts today, so we should not expect to read of intensely personal reactions to music in sources of every era.

A particularly significant period in which expressions of emotion came to the fore as never before was the age of sensibility. 15[15] See John Arthur Mullan, <em>Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century </em>(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988) and Janet Todd, <em>Sensibility: An Introduction </em>(London: Methuen, 1986). In the late eighteenth century the expression of emotion became something of a hallmark of authentic human experience, which was expressed both in people’s behaviour and in their personal documents. For example, Whyman identifies a period of ‘the heightened language of sensibility in letters written by Robert [Johnson] and his friends from the 1770s – 90s’, 16[16] Whyman, 2009, p. 210. the period when the culture of sensibility was at its height. During these decades it was acceptable for both men and women to display emotion, before the floodgates were shut with the coming of the Victorian era, when men in particular needed once again to demonstrate behavioural restraint. 17[17] See Philip Carter, ‘Tears and the man’ in Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor (eds), <em>Women, Gender and Enlightenment</em> (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian, 2005); Henry French and Mark Rothery, <em>Man’s Estate Landed Gentry Masculinities c.1660–c.1900 </em>(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); John Tosh, <em>Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain</em> (London: Routledge, 2004). However, even during the age of sensibility, expressing oneself emotionally was not without social risk, since not everyone shared the view that it was to be encouraged. It is against this background that Thomas Twining expressed his emotions somewhat hesitantly, albeit tearfully, as recorded in a letter dated 24 February 1780 to his friend and university tutor, John Hey:

we dined with Bates one day, & heard Miss [Sarah] Harrop sing from tea-time till ten o’clock; snug & comfortable; no audience but the two Bates’s, Mrs. Bates, & ourselves. One of the greatest musical treats I ever had. I had, as Sir Hugh Evans says, “great dispositions to cry”; nay, the tears actually came out, and Elmsall said he should have cried if he had not seen how foolish I looked. She sung Pergolesi, Leo, Hasse — things I know, & that nobody sings. It gave me some faint idea of meeting one’s departed friends in Heaven. 18[18] Ralph S. Walker (ed.), <em>A Selection of Thomas Twining’s Letters 1734–1804</em>, vol. 1 (Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1991), pp. 177–xx.

Did men and women experience music, or write about their experiences of music, in a similar way? Comments in the previous paragraph suggest that an answer to the question is likely to be complex. 19[19] See also David Rowland, ‘Listening in England c.1780–1820’, forthcoming in <em>Nineteenth-Century Music Review</em>. It seems that in the age of sensibility all could express themselves and express their emotions in writing, but at other times it is less likely to have been so.

As well as acquainting ourselves with the writers of personal documents and the environment in which they lived, we must also understand the literary conventions and constraints that shaped the texts they wrote. So, for example, during the seventeenth century in particular, manuals for the writing of spiritual diaries were used and model diaries were published. 20[20] Avra Kaoffman, ‘Women’s diaries of late Stuart England: an overview’, Doll and Munns, 2006, p. 65. In the long eighteenth-century manuals provided blueprints for the growing number of letter-writers. 21[21] See Eve Tavor Bannet, <em>Empire of Letters: Letter Manuals and Transatlantic Correspondence, 1688–1820</em> (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). The nature of travel literature was initially highly influenced by the Royal Society, whose publications affected the way that travel journals were written. Shortly after the foundation of the Society in 1660 a document was drawn up detailing the kind of data required from the experiments to be carried out and the observations to be made by Edward Montague as he led a naval squadron towards the Mediterranean. ‘There were six topics of enquiry: the depth of the sea, variations in the salinity of the seawater, the pressure of the seawater, tides and currents in the Straits of Gibraltar, and the nature of phosphorescence’. 22[22] ‘Bordering on fact in early eighteenth-century sea journals’, Doll and Munns, 2006, p. 164. This sort of approach, which was governed by close observation and accurate, factual reporting, and little expression of emotional engagement, characterises many travel diaries written during the century or so that followed. Whatever their experience of music, one would not expect to find accounts of the personal impact of music on its listeners in these documents, whereas one might in later travel writing: later manifestations of the genre were marked by an increasing concentration on the individual and a tendency towards personal reflection and sensationalism. 23[23] See Tim Youngs, <em>The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing</em> (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

The textual style of personal documents is to some degree dictated by the media in which they were created. For example, in the modern era, everyone knows that tweets can only contain a certain number of characters, but without that knowledge we would probably find them baffling. Another example from modern times addresses the sort of quick and easy editing that has been become possible by means of computing technology; not editing undertaken in order to prepare text for publication, but changes made in order to produce a polished text for the sake of personal satisfaction. In his account of writing, first a teenage diary and then an adult one, Philppe Lejeune describes the stylistic differences of the two texts and some of the reasons for those differences:

As an adolescent writer, I adopted the rule of total spontaneity. I refused to rewrite my diary, which was of course why it was rubbish. I was even reluctant to correct its spelling. Since 1991, I have been working on a word-processor. While writing the journal of Le Moi des demoiselles on my Macintosh, I realised that it was possible to work over a diary in the present, ‘crafting’ an entry while remaining close to the truthfulness of the momentary emotion. I realised that the journal form was not incompatible with the process of composition: a dramatic and argumentative line of prose could be constructed in such a way as to meet the future. 24[24] Lejeune, 1999, p. 201.

Given the polished nature of their prose, some of the more elegantly-written diaries from earlier centuries read as if they underwent a parallel process of editing.

A new (or not now so new) type of ‘personal’ document currently exists on the internet. Users of social media, to some extent at least, now live out their personal lives in the online presence of a selected or entirely public readership. Exactly how different social media texts are from the letter-writing of earlier centuries is a matter for discussion, but there can be no doubt that the online text which appears is a construct, as Heehs observes:

By creating a profile and uploading text and pictures, users define who they are or rather create an online identity that they offer to others as themselves … The result has been the blurring of the line between the user’s ‘actual’ identity and his or her online persona. 25[25] Heehs, 2013, p. 235.

Not only is there potential conflict here between an actual and online persona, but the possibility of rapid changes of online identity.

Studying online and oral evidence

For anyone studying online texts perhaps the biggest challenge is the sheer quantity of online data. Craig Hamilton’s research is based on people’s accounts of listening that ‘provide detail and reflection on their experiences with music across the course of a single day’. The accounts have been gathered from posts to online platforms, emails, and online forms. It is the challenge of making sense of large amounts of data from diverse sources with which the chapter is mostly engaged. In this respect, the chapter is similar to Simon Brown’s, which sets out to find ways of analysing pre-existing online data on Twitter and Facebook. What meaningful conclusions can be reached by analysing the short snippets of information provided by this data?

Martin Clarke’s chapter deals with a different kind of online interaction – a section of BBC Radio 3’s Forum relating to its regular broadcasts of Choral Evensong. The online interaction is distinctive in so far as elements of it form a conversation, carried out in the full gaze of a wider public. Quoting an individual’s reaction to the performance in Durham Cathedral of a piece by William Byrd, Clarke goes on to highlight a relatively ‘intimate’ discussion of the piece between nine individuals, writing between them a total of 23 posts, and his chapter points to the importance of this sort of activity in forming a unique kind of listening community.

So far we have considered some of the issues that arise when listening testimony in the form of written words is used, but some chapters in this collection use oral history and ethnographic recordings respectively – sources which, by their nature, could be thought to lie in a category between the ‘personal’ documents we have considered and the questionnaire approach used in Stephanie E. Pitts’ chapter. Oral history may be structured according to a specific series of questions asked by a second party, or they may be formed more loosely. Whatever the circumstances they may generally be regarded as ‘solicited’ sources in so far as one individual has usually asked another to provide information on a particular subject. As Barlow points out, we may therefore question to what extent their content has been influenced by the project that underpins the recording – yet another example of ‘personal’ evidence that is shaped by factors beyond the individual. 26[26] For a discussion of the nature of oral history see the Introduction to Donald A. Ritchie (ed.), <em>The Oxford Handbook of Oral History</em> (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), especially the sections ‘Milestones in sound recording’, ‘The digital revolution’ and ‘The intellectual evolution of oral history’.

Lorenzo Vanelli tackles head-on the problems of using ethnographic sources as evidence. His chapter on African American Hollers analyses the way in which flawed methods of gathering evidence have led to a false narrative as a direct result of the way in which information was solicited on the basis of false assumptions, as well as the way in which the material has been poorly archived.


Historians of listening are frequently disappointed by the brevity and apparent superficiality of listening accounts. In many historical periods it is rare to find expressions of real engagement with music, and more often than not only the barest of details of performances are provided. This has much to do with the issues raised above. However, even though an account may not appear to say much about a listener’s experience, the language it contains may nevertheless contain clues as to the intensity of an experience, because individuals whose listening was highly engaged often tended to use a richer vocabulary than those whose listening was more casual. The difference in language is especially, but not exclusively, evident in the choice of adjectives. A comparison of two listeners’ experiences, just 20 years apart, makes the point.

Mary Berry (1763–1852) was an author. Many of her listening experiences are recorded in the Extracts of the Journal and Correspondence of Miss Berry from the Year 1783 to 1852, which was published in 1865. A typical example is her account of a performance in Hanover Square on 18 May 1810:

Went to Barthelemon’s concert with Lady Ellenborough. The party. Lord and Lady Ellenborough, Lord and Lady Dunmore, Lord Sidmouth, sat together very comfortably. The Handel part of the concert fine. The Hanover Square Rooms quite full of persons, not one of whose faces I had ever seen before. At the end of the first act I went away, and walked down the whole length of the room with Mr. Rogers, through rows of people, all well or expensively dressed, who had paid half a guinea for their tickets, such a place is London!

Like many other accounts of the period, Berry’s is mostly given over to what we might consider to be incidental descriptions of the people who accompanied her, the rest of the audience and the price of tickets. Her comments about the music are very brief and, crucially, she chose a very weak adjective to describe the performance: the word ‘fine’ is a very frequently-used, but vague word, similar in strength to other adjectives of the time such as ‘admirable’, ‘agreeable’, ‘charming’, ‘delightful’, ‘pleasing’, and so on. Weak adjectives such as these are a common feature of Berry’s listening accounts. The amount of space she gives to descriptions of other aspects of performances suggests that music was for her just one element of a nice evening out.

Anna Seward (1742–1809), too, was an author, but her correspondence shows her to be a much more engaged listener than Mary Berry. In a brief extract from a letter to a Mrs Martin dated 27 October 1790 she reported that:

I ventured to one of the morning music festivals at Shrewsbury, and heard Mr Saville open the Messiah with a pathos, an energy, and a grace that none ever excelled, and which I never heard equalled. 27[27] Archibald Constable, ed. <em>Letters of Anna Seward: Written Between the Years 1784 and 1807</em>, 6 vols (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable & Co., and London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, William Miller, and John Murray, 1811), vol. 3, p. 37.

Tellingly, in this extract three words (‘pathos’, ‘energy’, ‘grace’) are used to describe Saville’s performance, each of them chosen carefully to convey a particular sense of an element of his singing style. A comparison is also made between Saville and other performers. This sort of specific comment is characteristic of her other descriptions of performances: the care with which she expresses herself in passages such as this are symptomatic of her high level of engagement with music.

When studying listeners’ language care must obviously be taken to understand the contemporary meaning of words, and the interpretation of one passage should be made in the context of other similar descriptions by the same author. Adjectives such as ‘pretty’ have changed their meaning over time and terms such as ‘sensibility’ and ‘sublime’ need to be understood in the context of the wider picture of philosophical history and each writer’s experience of the concepts.

Language also offers a way in to an important question in the LED project’s research: how does the experience of ‘ordinary’ listeners compare with the orthodox pronouncements of those who promote ideas in society? It can reveal a gap between the experience of ‘ordinary’ listeners and public discourse about the supposed purpose of music in a given period. This is vividly illustrated, for example, in the language of public pronouncements on music in wartime that emerged during the First World War, in the press and in parliamentary debate, compared with the way that serving military personnel wrote about the effect of music. Unsurprisingly, public discourse focused on the function of music in promoting moral strength and martial spirit, particularly at the front. It frequently featured the adjective ‘good’ (as in ‘good rousing march tunes’, 28[28] Sir Frederick Bridge, quoted in <em>The Times</em>, 28 January 1915, 5. and ‘good music by good musicians for good soldiers’ 29[29] ‘The Music in War-Time Committee: Report of the Leeds Section’, <em>Musical Times</em>, 1 September 1917, 410. – the blandness of that term conveying rather effectively the triteness and superficiality of the assumptions underlying such public utterances.

A close reading of the language in which musical experiences are described by military personnel in their letters, diaries and memoirs, reveals a very different tone. While such accounts certainly bear witness to the positive effect of music, their language rarely expresses patriotic fervour, but rather speaks of music as a means of reassurance, comfort, connection with home, and even sustenance and healing. While descriptions are not necessarily lengthy, the intensity of the experience is revealed in strong, vivid adjectives and other language patterns – such as the notably frequent use of an almost medical vocabulary: ‘a vital necessity… it was a life-giving nourishment’; 30[30] Florence Farmborough, Diary of Florence Farmborough, 1915, in <em>War Recollections of 1915</em> (City of Alexandria, 2005), p. 11, <a href="">,</a> accessed 5 February 2019. ‘If it was medicine, as I believed it to be, then it was swallowed in great gulps’. 31[31] Colonel W. N. Nicholson, <em>Behind the Lines</em> (London: Johnathan Cape, 1939), p. 256, <a href="">,</a> accessed 5 February 2019.

This is one historical context where the perspectives of listeners suggest experiences of music that were very different from the ‘official line’. 32[32] For a fuller treatment of listening in the context of the First World War, see Helen Barlow’s forthcoming chapter ‘“A vital necessity”: musical experiences in the life writing of British military personnel at the Western Front’, in Michelle Meinhart (ed.), <em>A ‘Great Divide’ or a Longer Nineteenth Century?: Music, Britain, and the First World War</em> (London: Routledge, 2020). Helen Barlow’s chapter offers another instance, using late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century oral testimony alongside the evidence of newspapers, periodicals and speeches to explore how Welsh singing, especially the performance of Welsh traditional song, was interpreted as evidence of cultural progressiveness. She compares the written and spoken rhetoric of opinion formers with the testimony of individuals who remembered from childhood the songs they experienced in everyday life.


Understanding historical accounts of listening is a complex and challenging task. We are only just beginning to unravel the issues, but at least one thing is clear; a thoroughly interdisciplinary approach is necessary in order to be able to grasp how individuals have interacted with music and what it has meant to them. The nature of the source material is often perplexing and often superficially disappointing, yet with care and imagination it offers up insights into the past which would otherwise be lost. Listening history is a fascinating sub-discipline that is at last beginning to gain some traction and it is our hope that this collection will play its part in developing the discourse and encouraging others to engage.

Select bibliography

Bannet, Eve Tavor. Empire of Letters: Letter Manuals and Transatlantic Correspondence, 1688–1820. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Brant, Clare. Eighteenth-century Letters and British Culture. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.

Doll, Dan and Munns, Jessica. Recording and Reordering: Essays on the Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-century Diary and Journal. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2006.

French, Henry and Rothery, Mark. Man’s Estate Landed Gentry Masculinities c.1660–c.1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Heehs, Peter. Writing the Self: Diaries, Memoirs, and the History of the Self. New York, London, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Johnson, James. Listening in Paris: A Cultural History. Berkeley; London: University of California Press, c.1995.

Langford, Rachael and West, Russell. Marginal Voices, Marginal Forms: Diaries in European Literature and History. Amsterdam: Rodolpi, 1999.

Lyons, Martyn. The Writing Culture of Ordinary People in Europe, 1860–1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Mullan, John Arthur. Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Ritchie, Donald A. (ed.).The Oxford Handbook of Oral History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Smith, Sidonie and Watson, Julia. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Thorau, Christian and Ziemer, Hansjakob (eds). The Oxford Handbook of Music Listening in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Oxford: Oxford University Press, published online in 2018 and in print in 2019.

Tosh, John. Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain. London: Routledge, 2004.

Whyman, Susan E. The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers 1660–1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 191–192.

Youngs, Tim. The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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View the online publication details 33[33] <em>The Experience of Listening to Music: Methodologies, Identities, Histories</em> has been Open Access funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), grant AH/J013986/1, The collection has been peer reviewed, edited by David Rowland and Helen Barlow, and subsequently prepared for online publication by the Knowledge Media Institute (KMi) of The Open University. Published by: The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA.  Copyright © The Open University. First published: July 2019. ISBN: 9781473028647. PDFs displaying some of the content from the online collection are available from <a href=""></a> You can experience the online publication as it was originally designed at <a href=""></a> View copyright information relating to the publication here: <a href=""></a>  <a href="">  

Download: Introduction: understanding listening experiences

The Harkive Project: popular music reception, digital technologies, and data analysis

Craig Hamilton

Craig Hamilton is a Research Fellow in the School of Media at Birmingham City University. His research explores contemporary popular music reception practices and the role of digital, data, and internet technologies on the business and cultural environments of music consumption. This research is built around the development of The Harkive Project, an online, crowd-sourced method of generating data from music consumers about their everyday relationships with music and technology. Craig is also the Co-Managing Editor of Riffs: Experimental Research on Popular Music.


Through an analysis of how respondents to The Harkive Project describe their use of vinyl records, this article will demonstrate and reflect upon the development of an experimental methodological approach derived from the fields of digital humanities and cultural analytics, and show how this was applied to my ‘home’ discipline of popular music studies. Before proceeding to my analysis, I first describe the context and rationale for taking this approach. In reflecting on this approach I discuss how it enabled me to explore how data-derived knowledge creation works through practice within contemporary popular music culture, highlighting some of the issues raised by data-related technologies and techniques in both popular music culture and in arts and humanities research. My hope is that work in this area may help popular music studies begin to account for the technologies and practices that have so changed the field. Towards that aim, and in consideration of Sandvig and Hargittai’s recent work highlighting the importance of ‘benchwork’, my article links to code, sample data, and instructional blog posts that may enable scholars to replicate and/or build upon my work.


This paper was delivered at the 2018 Listening Experience Database (LED) project conference at The Open University, Milton Keynes, on 7 March 2018. The conference took place just a few days after I completed my PhD at Birmingham City University and was in fact my first outing as a newly minted doctor. I am delighted, then, to have been invited to revisit that talk for this volume of LED proceedings.

During my AHRC-Midland3Cities-funded research project I looked at popular music reception, with a particular focus on the digital, data, and internet technologies that have over the last 20 years helped bring about such huge changes in my field of study. In this article I want to provide an overview of my research, and in particular describe how working through a number of methodological issues ultimately led me towards ideas and practices that may be more broadly understood as ‘data science’. Ultimately, and just as I did in my thesis, I want to argue that a greater practical understanding of and critical engagement with the digital, data, and internet technologies is possible, both for popular music scholars such as myself, and also for the millions of people who engage with popular music in their everyday lives. Along the way I hope to demonstrate that my work represents a small step towards that.

After briefly describing Harkive, the project that underpinned my research, I will demonstrate how I arrived at using automated data collection and computational analysis techniques in my work. By walking through an example of the type of analysis I undertook, I want to highlight some of the potential benefits and problems with such an approach. I will then reflect on some of those potential benefits and problems, and suggest some next steps. My hope is that the work undertaken during my project may provide a springboard for future work, and in particular for the creation of new tools, platforms, and research projects that may enable consumers and scholars alike to develop useful and productive epistemic responses to the role of digital, data, and internet technologies in popular music. To begin, however, I should briefly explain what The Harkive Project is.

The Harkive Project

Harkive is an online, crowd-sourced project that runs on a single day in July of each year. It invites people to provide detail and reflection on their experiences with music across the course of a single day. Since the project first ran in 2013 it has gathered over 10,000 individual entries. The reflections and detail contained within the Harkive dataset come from posts made to social media platforms, from participants who have emailed the project directly, or from people who have completed an online form. The shortest entry in the database contains only two words, the longest almost 4,000.

Taken as a whole the Harkive dataset contains descriptions and reflections on many different forms of music reception. By music reception, I am taking Keith Negus’ definition of ‘how people receive, interpret and use music as a cultural form while engaging in specific social activities.’ 34[34] Keith Negus, <em>Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction</em> (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1997), p. 4. This definition encompasses how we engage with music in our everyday lives much more usefully than perhaps the embodied act of ‘listening’, or more commercially focused ideas of ‘consumption’ could. This is because music is not just something we hear, or buy; it is also something we talk about, think about, or otherwise use in a variety of ways.

The texts collected by Harkive represent snapshots of different individuals’ engagement with music, and each (to varying degrees) contains descriptions of respondents’ use of various technologies, or the locations and everyday situations involved when engaged in music reception activity. Some stories are inspired by memories, others detail engagement with technologies, and many show how deeply experiences with music and technology are woven into the rhythms and routines of everyday life.

Before proceeding to how I analysed those texts, I should like to provide a little more context for my research. This context is crucial, because it was engaging with the broader issues of debate around contemporary popular music reception, and in particular the role of digital, data, and internet technologies within that, that ultimately informed the methodological approach I took.

Research context

Over the last two decades digital, data, and internet technologies have emerged as important and influential factors in how popular music is produced, distributed and consumed. These technologies, allied to practices of data collection and computational analysis, now play a significant role both in how audiences engage with music, and how those audiences are understood. A key point here is that popular music audiences are now highly individualised, and defined according to a growing number of new categorical variables. At the same time, however, audiences are also understood through the large-scale agglomeration of data points. An example here would be streaming services such as Spotify, which provide access to music through an interface that facilitates the capture, analysis and use of data about the daily activity of millions of people. We may also wish to consider social media platforms, where people discuss and share music, or search engines and online retailers, all of which gather data about users and derive forms of knowledge from that which is then deployed according to what Hartmann et al. call Data-Derived Business Models (DDBMs) 35[35] Philipp Max Hartmann, Mohamed Zaki, Niels Feldmann and Andy Neely, ‘Big data for big business? A taxonomy of data-driven business models used by start-up firms. A Taxonomy of Data-Driven Business Models Used by Start-Up Firms’, University of Cambridge, available at <a href="">,</a> accessed 8 February 2019. – that is, models relying on data as a key resource.

For popular music scholars these are intriguing developments, but studying these new environments is difficult. This is because the systems of data collection and analysis that facilitate them are technologically complex, subject to rapid change, and are often hidden behind commercial and legal firewalls. 36[36] Mike Ananny, ‘Toward an Ethics of Algorithms Convening, Observation, Probability, and Timeliness,’ <em>Science, Technology & Human Values</em>, 2015, 0162243915606523. At the same time, however, the use of online technologies by many people during the course of their everyday lives is providing scholars with new opportunities and methods for undertaking research in the humanities. This in turn is leading to questions about the role of the researcher, and – in the case of popular music studies – how we as scholars may take into account the new technologies and practices that have so changed the field. Of particular interest to me are automated recommender systems, the manner in which digital interfaces foreground (or not) content to audiences, and the new ways in which audiences are conceived of and organised.

Given the growing importance of streaming services, social media platforms, search engines, and so on, within the field, popular music scholars wishing to understand contemporary conditions of music reception are faced with the problem of exploring the consequences of systems that they presently lack sufficient access to, or else the technical knowledge and skills required to fully understand.37[37] Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford, ‘Critical Questions for Big Data: Provocations for a Cultural, Technological, and Scholarly Phenomenon,’ <em>Information, Communication & Society</em> 15, no. 5 (2012), pp. 662–79. Although in the case of streaming services, for example, recent work by Hagen,38[38] Anja Nylund Hagen, ‘The Playlist Experience: Personal Playlists in Music Streaming Services,’ <em>Popular Music and Society</em> 38, no. 5 (2015), pp. 625–645. Nowak, 39[39] Raphaël Nowak, ‘Investigating the Interactions between Individuals and Music Technologies within Contemporary Modes of Music Consumption,’ <em>First Monday</em> 19, no. 10 (2014). Prey, 40[40] Robert Prey, ‘Henri Lefebvre and the Production of Music Streaming Spaces,’ <em>Sociologica</em> 9, no. 3 (2015), pp. 1–22.  and Webster et al. 41[41] Jack Webster et al., ‘Towards a Theoretical Approach for Analysing Music Recommender Systems as Sociotechnical Cultural Intermediaries,’ in <em>Proceedings of the 8th ACM Conference on Web Science</em> (ACM, 2016), pp. 137–145. has made progress in helping to develop our understanding, a wider question for popular music scholars is how such an inquiry into these recently emerged systems may be usefully undertaken. Through The Harkive Project, and via the methods I have developed, my intention has been to see if I could make a contribution to that wider question by discovering a little more about the new conditions of everyday music reception.

Towards a method

In terms of the practicalities of my doctoral work, the size, variety and complexity of the data I had collected through Harkive immediately presented two interrelated methodological and intellectual problems:

  • How could I derive useful information and insight from the large collection of unstructured texts I had gathered?
  • How could I do that in such a way that said something useful and interesting about contemporary popular music reception?

In attempting to deal with those questions, I decided that a potentially productive route would be to subject the Harkive data to similar computational analysis processes to those used by commercial organisations seeking to understand the way people engage with popular music. What I mean here is the idea that activities such as listening through streaming services, Googling your new favourite artist, or discussing music with friends on social media – in other words, activities that would fall under the definition of ‘music reception’ – now often take place within environments where, as Bernhard Rieder describes, data capture, analysis and output are integrated. 42[42] Bernhard Rieder, ‘Big Data and the Paradox of Diversity’. <em>Digital Culture & Society</em>, 2(2), pp. 39-54.

Because of this, music reception activities now create data points that can be aggregated and analysed in order to produce a form of knowledge that in turn informs interface design, or the foregrounding of certain content, which ultimately impacts upon the experiences we may have. We can consider here, for example, automated recommendation and curated playlists offered by streaming services, or product recommendations positioned within the interfaces of online retailers and social media platforms. Through analysing the Harkive texts in a similar manner, and alongside discovering what respondents were saying about their music reception, I wanted to explore the processes involved with attempts to represent complex elements of individual real-world experience through the medium of data and computational analysis.

As attractive as this proposed direction for my research was, however, it revealed an immediate problem related to my own research skills. I attempted to define this problem early on in my research journey, in this quote taken from my research notebook:

I am a reasonably tech-savvy media scholar, but I am not a data scientist, or a coder. Yet I am building a PhD research project that hinges on my ability to make sense of my data through computational techniques.

In short, I had backed myself into a practical, methodological and intellectual cul-de-sac.

The process of finding my way out of that cul-de-sac started with a period of trying to get to grips with the technologies and practices involved. Through an intense period of reading, attending conferences, listening to ‘data science’ podcasts, and several months of self-directed learning in the R programming language, I slowly got to grips with the practicalities of how data and computational techniques are used in commercial settings and academic research. A key realisation, and indeed a consideration for the purposes of the remainder of this article also, is that the texts gathered by Harkive were in a digital format and were thus reducible to data points that could be counted, analysed, and otherwise computationally processed at scale. Stripping away the unique, individual detail contained within each response, the ‘raw material’ I had to work with could be understood as data. My research project was now, concurrently, a philosophical exploration of how data-derived ‘knowledge’ is created and a data science ‘problem’ is to be solved.

Using a number of automated collection methods, 43[43] For a detailed breakdown of this process, see the instructional overview provided on The Harkive project website: <a href="" class="broken_link"></a> . Harkive data was subsequently gathered into a single database organised according to the principles of tidy data, 44[44] Hadley Wickham, ‘Tidy Data,’ <em>Journal of Statistical Software</em> 59, no. 10 (2014), pp. 1–23. which made it ready for computational analysis at the point it was collected. The dataset contained text-based submissions and quantitative survey responses, along with metadata gathered during the collection processes – including time/date stamps, and detail on which platforms each text was collected from – and additional variables generated through the use of a series of unsupervised machine learning algorithms, including topic modelling, which is described in more detail below. This meant that the data about music reception activities available to me could be understood and analysed in a number of different ways, ranging from the close readings of texts more usually associated with humanities research, through to the clustering, visualisation and analysis of abstractions generated through computational/algorithmic processes that rendered the original texts as data. The method also allowed for analyses that combined these approaches.

All of which is to say that what I ended up with was an experimental approach that conceived of Harkive as both a ‘space’ in which people could reflect upon their engagement with music, and simultaneously a ‘place’ able to replicate many of the commercial practices related to data collection and processing. Through this, I sought to critically engage with the growing role of data-related technologies associated with music reception, whilst simultaneously exploring the use of those techniques in popular music studies research. An intriguing sub-question that emerged from this methodological development was to attempt to discover what patterns, correlations and other potentially interesting insights could be derived through the use of techniques that are largely guided by their own internal mathematical logics, and less by the human researcher. In the next sections I will walk through one of the ways I explored this question.

LDA topic modelling – overview

One unsupervised algorithmic technique I employed was topic modelling, which David Blei 45[45] David M. Blei, ‘Topic Modeling and Digital Humanities,’ <em>Journal of Digital Humanities</em> 2, no. 1 (2012), pp. 8–11. defines as a process that:

provides a suite of algorithms to discover hidden thematic structure in large collections of texts. The results of topic modelling algorithms can be used to summarize, visualize, explore, and theorize about a corpus.46[46] Blei’s article appears online in the <em>Journal of Digital Humanities</em>, and as such no page numbers are attributed to his quotes. The full article is available here: <a href=""></a>

Topics can better be understood as recurring data points (in this case, words) across a larger dataset (a corpus of text documents). The model, meanwhile, is a mathematical representation of the extent to which each individual entry in a dataset – that is the documents within a given corpus – contains data points – that is topics/words. Applying this to the case of my own research and the Harkive texts, the immediate potential in a process of this kind was that the larger a collection of documents is, the more difficult and labour intensive it becomes to manually explore, encode and reveal common themes within it. Beyond simply saving time and effort, however, a further potential advantage lay in the possibility that there may be themes or topics within the dataset that were not immediately apparent. In other words, these may be hidden or otherwise made ‘latent’ by the complexity and scale of the corpus. The broad rationale behind topic modelling is that latent themes in text corpora may be revealed by mathematical processing.

I employed the most commonly used approach in automated topic modelling, Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA), which was originally developed in 2003 by Blei and colleagues at Berkley. Blei has since argued that automated modelling of this kind can help humanities scholars ‘build a statistical lens that encodes…specific knowledge, theories, and assumptions about texts’. 47[47] David M. Blei, Andrew Y. Ng, and Michael I. Jordan, ‘Latent Dirichlet Allocation,’ <em>Journal of Machine Learning Research</em> 3, no. Jan (2003), pp. 993–1022. Blei reveals that LDA in particular can be understood as being based on two assumptions:

  • There is a finite number of patterns of words, or groups of terms, that occur together within a corpus.
  • Each document within a corpus exhibits these to a varying degree.

Although the documents and words are observable to a manual reading, the thematic structure – in other words, the topics – may be hidden, and will be more likely to be hidden as the scale and complexity of a corpus increases.

LDA infers these hidden structures based on what can be computationally processed (that is, by counting the frequency with which unique words occur across documents), and represents these in terms of the probabilistic likelihood that a document belongs to a given topic. It was this process and rationale that was applied to the Harkive dataset from the years 2013–2016 inclusive.

LDA Topic modelling and Harkive texts

Using the topicmodels package with the R software, the LDA process described above revealed the following words associated with five topics, organised here according to frequency, with the top 20 words associated with each topic shown in Figure 1 below. The LDA process of course had no ‘knowledge’ about the contents or meaning of the document corpus and had processed it purely according to the statistical probability of words appearing in documents. Nevertheless the initial results were interesting, and I was able to interpret the topics as being relatively distinct. The appearance, for instance, of words such as morning, home, office, train, commute, and so on, were interpreted as being related to ideas of ‘Time and Place’. Another topic containing words such as love, play, sing, hear, summer and favourite was interpreted as being more closely associated with ‘Emotions and Experience’. There were other topics related to ‘Formats and Methods’, another more generally about ‘Listening’, and finally one that appeared to relate to The Harkive Project itself, with words such as post, tweet, project, blog, and write.

Top twenty frequently occurring words in each LDA topic
Figure 1: Top 20 frequently occurring words in each LDA topic. Colour-coded according to research interpretation, with words interpreted as being most closely aligned to the interpreted topics colour-coded.

To explore these initial results further it was also possible to visualise them alongside other variables, including the results of other unsupervised analyses. In Figure 2, for instance, we can see how topic allocation plays out according to the various channels by which texts were gathered, suggesting that texts gathered from Facebook, email and Flickr contained a higher proportion of texts allocated to the ‘Emotions and Experience’ topic by LDA processing.

LDA topic allocation - Graph
Figure 2: Proportion of texts gathered via each automated collection method according to LDA topic allocation

Figure 3 visualises the LDA results alongside another unsupervised algorithmic analysis, sentiment analysis, and suggested a high concentration of texts in the ‘Time and Place’ topic clustered around a neutral sentiment, while ‘Emotions and Experience’ texts appeared to exhibit a wider spread of positive and negative scores. Figure 4, meanwhile, visualises some frequent words revealed by the LDA process in terms of trends across the lifetime of the project. The rise in mentions of Spotify and vinyl since 2013, along with the downward trend in mentions of iTunes and downloads, appears to tally somewhat with what appears to be happening in popular music consumption more widely.48[48] See, for instance, IFPI reports on the revenues derived from recorded music: <a href=""></a>

Scatterplot graph
Figure 3: Scatterplot demonstrating relationship between Sentiment Analysis scores and Standard Deviation in Topic Allocation, coloured according to LDA Topic Allocation.
Percentage Chart
Figure 4: Percentage of texts containing keywords across each of the years 2013–2016, inclusive.

Although these initial results and exploratory visualisations are potentially useful and may lead to further questions, it was still necessary to delve a little deeper, both in terms of finding interesting things about music reception, but also in terms of exploring how the process of analysing data in this way produces forms of knowledge. An example of a potentially useful route towards this can be seen if we go back to the LDA topic allocation outlined in Figure 1 and look specifically at words relating to the ‘Formats and Methods’ topic. We may notice, for instance, that the word vinyl appears instead amongst the ‘Emotions and Experience’ topic, and that words related to mobile-based digital listening formats and technologies, such as ipod, shuffle and headphones, appear in the ‘Time and Place’ topic. An interesting initial observation is that these allocations seems to perhaps fit with some more widely held notions of those two modes of listening as having distinct characteristics: vinyl is often associated with a more ‘warm’, ‘authentic’ and ‘real’ experience of listening; digital listening by comparison is seen as cold, distracted, and functional. This may suggest that the texts gathered by Harkive perhaps contain descriptions that repeat similar ideas, and moreover that the LDA process has been efficient in revealing this. But is that indeed the case?

Topic scores
Figure 5: LDA Topic Allocation scores for the first 10 documents in the corpus. Each row produces 5 values, each associated with a topic, that are divisions of a total score of 1.

In fact, a closer look at the numbers behind such an observation suggests that the differences between documents, and thus their alignment with discrete topics, were perhaps less stark than the corpus-wide overview suggested. The topic modelling process is based on the assumption that documents within a corpus exhibit relationships to all topics in varying degrees, and the figures in Figure 6 show those relationships in terms of a total score that is equal to 1. We may note that there are some very marginal differences between topic allocations, and so corpus level observations – in this case about digital and analogue listening methods – need to be augmented by a further, close reading before any claims could be reasonably made. Do the assumptions we carry about the technologies of vinyl records and the iPod, for instance, that appear to have been foregrounded and validated by the results of the computational reading facilitated by the LDA process, carry over into a close, manual reading of the texts concerned? In other words, how far does Blei’s ‘statistical lens’ take us in terms of theorising about a corpus? By looking more closely at texts containing mentions of vinyl, we are able to explore this further.

Case study: music reception and vinyl

Isolating from the corpus those texts containing the word vinyl returned n=139 entries, which represented 1.83% of the total corpus. From the following visualisations we can immediately observe two things. Figure 7 reveals that not only are stories mentioning vinyl present in all topics, but that a similar number (n=40) appear in the ‘Time and Place’ topic to those appearing in the ‘Emotions and Experience’ topic (n=33). Almost immediately these results appear to challenge the conclusions suggested by the corpus-wide analysis discussed in the previous section. We can see that vinyl is discussed in many other topics than the one it was allocated to by the LDA process, and which has been interpreted as related to ideas of the emotional and experiential. To what extent, then, do texts containing the word vinyl allocated to particular topics exhibit the characteristics our interpretation has assigned to those topics? A closer reading of the 139 texts containing the word vinyl in terms of their allocation to different LDA topics reveals some interesting results.

Bar chart
Figure 6: LDA topic allocation of texts containing the word vinyl.

Of the (n=40) vinyl stories contained within the ‘Time and Place’ topic, 20% (n=8) contain only information about what the respondent had played. These were texts where the respondent mentions only the name of an artist or record they were listening to at the time, and have mentioned that they were using vinyl, but have not provided any additional context. Of the remaining 32 texts, 69% (n=22) explicitly reference listening whilst working, or being in domestic spaces, and in the examples below we can see vinyl records being used in mundane, everyday situations, including ironing school uniforms and hanging out washing. Considering first of all the topic allocation of ‘Time and Place’, the activities accompanying vinyl listening here are emblematic of what we may expect, yet appear to challenge the conclusion suggested by the corpus-level overview:

Quick coffee before next set of jobs / chores. Ornette Coleman – Twins, vinyl (#295) 49[49] All quotes and extracts from Harkive stories presented in this and subsequent chapters will be identified only by their unique story number allocated by the collection process outlined above.

Decided the Marvin’s too uptempo for the heat. Playing ‘One On One’ by Bob James & Earl Klugh on vinyl LP, hanging out the washing (#7040)

Working from home today so will mainly be listening to vinyl (#5764)

Ironing school uniforms ‘Toussaint’ by Allen Toussaint on vinyl and what a cracker this is (#2377)

First up for @harkive 2014, Beirut, The Rip Tide on vinyl while my daughter has her breakfast (#6056)

#harkive Whilst kids getting ready for bed, had bits of Armand Van Helden ‘Killing Puritans’ and Faith No More ‘The Real Thing’ from iTunes, then a bit of ‘American Supreme’ by Suicide on vinyl to bring them right down….(#1125)

In the ‘Emotions and Experience’ topic, meanwhile, we perhaps begin to see support for the conclusion suggested by the corpus-level analysis. Although, as in the ‘Time and Place’ topic, some texts (33% (n=11)) contain only information about what has been played and provide no further context, of the remaining 22 texts 45% (n=10) make specific reference to the aesthetics and physicality of the ‘spinning’ vinyl record as an object. These features appear to play a central role in its descriptions of its use, as evidenced by the examples below:

I really want to get this Bosconi Stallions set on vinyl as it comes in a box that looks like this [photo attached] (#3180)

It’s my Vertigo copy of Autobahn, I love this sleeve almost as much as the record (#330)

On to vinyl (must remember to take it off at the end, can’t risk warping!) (#7643)

I listen to music in all formats, CD, Cassette, MP3 but my favourite is still vinyl. I just love the ceremony of playing a record (#4159)

I’m spending Harkive Day at home with a pile of records to listen to…I love rooting through boxes of old records looking for the next addition to my..collection; it’s a great way of discovering new old music and I’ve gained loads of favourite artists this way (#5126)

Looking forward to getting home and spinning some new charity shop vinyl purchases for pleasure and #harkive (#3111)

A further 27% (n=6) of the texts made explicit reference to vinyl in terms of memory (‘I’d forgotten how good this sounded!’). In the first example below, a longer-form text about playing a record, the respondent recalls going to a Bruce Springsteen show. Meanwhile, 50% (n=11) of the texts in this topic also discussed listening to vinyl in other experiential terms, referencing physical and emotional reactions to the music they heard on vinyl:

I remember being lent Born To Run, The River, and Greetings From Asbury Park by our very musically wise youth leader with a ‘you MUST listen to these’, and I did, and loved them too. But for some reason I stopped listening to Springsteen at all a few years after that, my vinyl got put away in a cupboard. (#2155)

Mrs R out again so loud vinyl time. This one really shakes the walls (#1364)

Darn That Dream’ from ‘Undercurrent’ by Bill Evans & Jim Hall on vinyl. Music that doesn’t break a sweat whilst the rest of us do (#7039)

Little Richard & His Band Pt 2 on 7’ #vinyl (London 1957). Imagine hearing Tutti Frutti for the 1st time. (#71)

In the ‘Formats and Methods’ topic cluster, which we may recall contained almost all the other common methods through which people listen (that is, radio, Spotify, iTunes, and so on), we find 22 texts, 9% (n=2) containing only information about what has been played and provide no further context. Of the remaining 20 texts, however, 75% (n=15) discuss vinyl within the context of other technologies, services and formats. Here we can see evidence of the type of fractured and heterogeneous listening suggested by Nowak, 50[50] Raphaël Nowak, ‘Investigating the Interactions between Individuals and Music Technologies within Contemporary Modes of Music Consumption,’ <em>First Monday</em> 19, no. 10 (2014). where meaning is derived not so much from the properties, affordances or perceptions of a particular format, but rather from the ‘circuit of practices’ Maguadda 51[51] Paolo Magaudda, ‘When Materiality ‘bites Back’: Digital Music Consumption Practices in the Age of Dematerialization,’ <em>Journal of Consumer Culture</em> 11, no. 1 (2011), pp. 15–36. describes that together combine to constitute cultural practices around the reception of music. Vinyl listening is variously informed by the use of streaming services, or else discussed in terms of the download codes that now accompany new vinyl releases:

I guess I make most of my musical discoveries in the evenings and then do further investigation/research during the day via Spotify (before deciding to either download the album from eMusic or buy on CD/vinyl) (#5822)

Finally streaming ‘Electric’ by Pet Shop Boys after ten annoying minutes of having to download Pandora on a new phone and resetting my password. If it’s good I’m pre ordering the vinyl. 11:34 Well that was fantastic. Aside from the ads (#162)

This morning was something from Wolves In The Throne Room, I got their new album on LP from my local indie vinyl place last week and the handy digital download means the songs live in all my devices immediately (#5560)

Taken together this brief analysis of the small number of texts containing the word vinyl demonstrates that this particular format can be seen as being described by respondents in many other ways than the initial corpus-wide computational analysis and subsequent clustering and visualisation suggested. As well as evidence of vinyl providing the types of visceral, aesthetic and emotional experiences that Barthamski and Woodward 52[52] Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward, ‘Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age’ (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). suggest are defining factors of vinyl use, we can also see it being used as a background accompaniment to more mundane, everyday activities – something perhaps more commonly associated with digital technologies. 53[53] See, for example, Jonathan Sterne, ‘The mp3 as cultural artifact’, <em>New media & Society</em>, 8(5), 2006, pp. 825–842. We also see vinyl being used as part of more complex listener practices that make use of different formats and technologies as part of individualised cultural practices. An interesting thing to observe also is the apparent absence of any qualifying statements regarding the ‘better’ or ‘more authentic’ qualities of vinyl listening in comparison to other formats and technologies. In the main we see the use of vinyl records as being narrated by respondents as part of a complex, wider landscape of music reception in a variety of everyday contexts – including in commuting, working, social and other situations. These everyday situations are what Felski calls the ‘mundane activities that frame our forays into more esoteric or exotic worlds’, 54[54] Rita Felski, ‘The invention of everyday life’. <em>New formations</em>, (39), pp. 13–31. and here – recalling again Maguagga – we can see that vinyl is but one way the use of available technologies provide the means through which these forays occur. Perhaps more pertinently, this section has also shown that computational analyses, if used uncritically and unreflexively, could be used to generate results that may help reinforce or otherwise appear to support assumptions we may have – in this case, around the manner in which vinyl is used – when in actuality the detail beneath the abstractions reveals that in individual cases those assumptions are problematic. A key reflexive observation enabled by this analysis is that computational processes have both numerous benefits and limitations when used in humanities research and with cultural texts. The responsibility for ascertaining the difference between these two extremes falls to the critical researcher, who is required to make careful decisions at each stage of the research process, and particularly when it comes to interpreting the results of computational analyses.

Reflection and discussion

In reflecting upon the issues and questions that have informed the development of my method, I must consider first of all how as a researcher I initially lacked the technical skills required to collect, prepare and analyse data in the manner I had identified as being of potential use. As such my project became as much about how to conceive of new methods for studying the reception of music as it did about studying music reception.

The approach I arrived at drew upon similar methods to those used in the commercial environments of popular music, and to methods associated with the computational turn in humanities research. 55[55] David M. Berry, ‘The Computational Turn: Thinking about the Digital Humanities,’ <em>Culture Machine</em> 12, no. 0 (2011), p. 2. Data collection processes and computational techniques have been shown in the analysis above to be in equal parts technically efficient, potentially useful in question formation, but also inherently reductive and in a manner which often prevents them from capturing and accurately reflecting complex cultural practices. In particular, text-based, qualitative data is a difficult form of data to process using computational methods and can lead to results that are problematic. I must recognise also, however, the extent to which the different modes of analysis afforded by my chosen method have enabled me to arrive at different forms of insight (and further questions) that may not have arisen through methods usually associated with the humanities alone. In other words, the observations derived from such an approach speak as much to the approach itself as they do to their application.

I still do not consider myself a coder, or a data scientist, and have attempted to utilise some complex mathematical processes from an under-privileged viewpoint. This is perhaps representative of a wider problem in the humanities when it comes to work of this kind, where as scholars we are attracted to the affordances of large datasets and computational techniques through their increasing availability and falling barriers to entry, but are simultaneously ill equipped to adequately explain and explore those methods of analysis.

By publishing regular notes on The Harkive Project website, or through the creation of interfaces such as the recently created data explorer – a resource providing both interactive access to the Harkive data and analysis and also raw code and instructional videos that enable replication of my work – I am attempting to reveal and reflect upon what Sandvig and Hargittai call the messy benchwork 56[56] Christian Sandvig and Eszter Hargittai, ‘How to Think about Digital Research,’ <em>Digital Research Confidential: The Secrets of Studying Behavior Online </em>(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), p. 1. involved when attempting to put such techniques to use. They argue that – apart from in ethnographic work – there is very little notion of ‘bench science’ in the humanities and social sciences, but that there should be. Their point is that the ‘workaday’ practices of our research processes need to be highlighted, particularly in areas of work that look at digital media and the internet, because these are producing the ‘new methods, new opportunities, and new challenges for understanding human behavior and society.’ As the authors state, the desired outcome is a space where ‘researchers can reveal the messy details of what they are actually doing, aiming towards mutual reflection, creativity, and learning that advances the state of the art’.57[57] Christian Sandvig and Eszter Hargittai, ‘How to Think about Digital Research,’ <em>Digital Research Confidential: The Secrets of Studying Behavior Online </em>(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), p. 5. It is my hope that my work around The Harkive Project may make a small contribution in this regard.


The analysis in this chapter will, I hope, have helped raise new questions for the reader on a general level about how we may approach the complexity of contemporary music reception and – specifically – how we may begin to critically engage with the data-derived technologies and practices that now play a key role in those music reception activities. My aim has been to provide both an argument for and perhaps even a suggested route towards a more practical engagement with data, digital, and internet technologies. The intention has been to suggest new means by which scholars may be prompted to think about the efficacy of data systems when they are applied to popular music, to challenge numerous assumptions around what a data point can and does represent, and to consider ways in which we may formulate new ways of working that are able to critically engage with digital, internet, and data technologies through practical work that attempts to understand their operations, benefits, and consequences.

In terms of the practicalities of method that may underpin such an approach, in reflecting upon the process of developing and performing my research, I can offer in the first instance that the process of learning involved with attempting work of this kind is hard – particularly if the researcher is approaching it from scratch, as I did – but, equally, that it is possible to arrive at a point where such work can be undertaken. I have shown also that when approaching data-related research projects, thinking about collection, organisation and analyses as one interrelated process is extremely useful, and probably essential.

More specifically, unsupervised machine-learning algorithms such as topic modelling can efficiently help reveal trends and patterns within a text-based corpus. However, although the results on the surface appear unequivocal, a closer examination of the numbers behind any claims related to those results reveals problems, and further questions. However, exploring both the results and the process nevertheless points towards potentially fruitful lines of enquiry that can be facilitated by further computational techniques, such as the automated extraction of specific elements based on results, keywords, and other variables, which is particularly useful with large datasets. Such processes, as I have shown, can simultaneously assist with question formation and – on a practical level – with the foregrounding of texts in large corpora. As I hope to have shown, however, it was only when considered alongside manual, close readings of texts – facilitated in part by automated process – that the results of computational processing were fully understood. As such computational techniques should be used to augment, rather than replace, close readings of texts.

As I continue to develop my own analyses into popular music reception, learning from one coding error after another through experimenting with practice and method, the limitations and affordances of working in this way are slowly revealed in the process of writing my notes, in the detail of the painfully slow, step-by-step benchwork. It is my hope that other scholars may find the resources I have made available on The Harkive Project website, and through interfaces such as the 2013–17 Data Explorer, of use. They may also find that work of this kind can be replicated, built upon, and may lead to the creation of new questions, collaborations, and projects as together we endeavour to understand the role of digital, data, and internet technologies in the field of popular music studies.

Select bibliography

Ananny, Mike. ‘Toward an Ethics of Algorithms Convening, Observation, Probability, and Timeliness,’ Science, Technology & Human Values, 2015, 0162243915606523.

Berry, David M. ‘The Computational Turn: Thinking about the Digital Humanities,’ Culture Machine 12, no. 0, 2011, p. 2.

Blei, David M. ‘Topic Modeling and Digital Humanities,’ Journal of Digital Humanities 2, no. 1, 2012, pp. 8–11.

Boyd, Danah and Crawford, Kate. ‘Critical Questions for Big Data: Provocations for a Cultural, Technological, and Scholarly Phenomenon,’ Information, Communication & Society 15, no. 5, 2012, pp. 662–679.

Felski, Rita. ‘The invention of everyday life’. New Formations (39), 1992, pp. 13–31.

Hamilton, Craig. ‘The Harkive Data Explorer v1.0’, Web application / Research Database / Scholarly Resource,, accessed 12 February 2019.

Negus, Keith. Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1997.

Nowak, Raphaël. ‘Investigating the Interactions between Individuals and Music Technologies within Contemporary Modes of Music Consumption,’ First Monday 19, no. 10, 2014.

Prey, Robert. ‘Henri Lefebvre and the Production of Music Streaming Spaces,’ Sociologica 9, no. 3, 2015, pp. 1–22.

Sandvig, Christian and Hargittai, Eszter. ‘How to Think about Digital Research,’ Digital Research Confidential: The Secrets of Studying Behavior Online, 2015, p. 1.

Webster, Jack, Gibbins, Nicholas, Halford, Susan and Hracs, Brian J. ‘Towards a Theoretical Approach for Analysing Music Recommender Systems as Sociotechnical Cultural Intermediaries,’ in Proceedings of the 8th ACM Conference on Web Science, pp. 137–145. ACM, 2016.

Wickham, Hadley. ‘Tidy Data,’ Journal of Statistical Software 59, no. 10, 2014, pp. 1–23.

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View the online publication details 58[58] <em>The Experience of Listening to Music: Methodologies, Identities, Histories</em> has been Open Access funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), grant AH/J013986/1, The collection has been peer reviewed, edited by David Rowland and Helen Barlow, and subsequently prepared for online publication by the Knowledge Media Institute (KMi) of The Open University. Published by: The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA.  Copyright © The Open University. First published: July 2019. ISBN: 9781473028647. PDFs displaying some of the content from the online collection are available from <a href=""></a> You can experience the online publication as it was originally designed at <a href=""></a> View copyright information relating to the publication here: <a href=""></a> 

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