Asylum music and the Listening Experience Database

Yesterday I gave a conference presentation as part of a panel together with my colleagues from the Open University, Helen Barlow, Martin Clarke, Trevor Herbert and David Rowland. All four of my co-presenters are working on a project known as the ‘Listening Experience Database’, an attempt to collect together thousands of records of personal experiences of listening to music from across the centuries, including diaries, letters and memoirs. We challenged ourselves to sift for evidence of listening by the ‘lower orders’, who traditionally have left very little behind in terms of written documents. I joined them to talk about the evidence I have found about lower class engagement in music from my work on music in asylums, and particularly the large, state-run pauper asylums that form the core of my work at the moment.

It was something of a challenge to tease out the real evidence for listening from among the small mountains of records I’ve now extracted from asylum archives. So much of my work has been about uncovering the types of music performed, when, where and by whom, but what had I actually found out about the experiences of those listening to the music? The answer was precious little. I have found almost nothing about individual patients’ reactions to music, and no records from patients themselves about the music they heard. But what I did have was quite a lot of bits and pieces about the intended effect of music – the ideal ‘listening experience’ – of the patients in pauper asylums. In the Superintendents’ Annual Reports and elsewhere there are snippets that suggest music’s use as a therapeutic tool, and the ways in which, for some patients, the effect of music were remarkably beneficial.

As it turned out, most of the evidence we could muster between us was similarly recorded by writers of the middle and upper classes, by outsiders or onlookers, potentially skewing their views with the need to make a particular argument or create a certain impression. By piecing together evidence like the documents I have found in the asylum archives, we can build up quite a picture about the types of music the lower classes might have heard, and the contexts in which they themselves participated in music making. We can even gain a sense of the purpose behind some of the musical experiences, particularly when these were provided or encouraged by the (more-or-less) benevolent upper classes, who had their own agendas and ideas about how the workers should be spending their time and money. All these help to give a sense of working class musical experience, despite the frustrating elusiveness of their own testimony.

The LED project website can be found here: http://led.kmi.open.ac.uk/

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