History of Listening

Tom Service’s first lecture series as Gresham Professor of Music retells the story of musical cultures from the perspective of their listeners. Listening is not a passive phenomenon but the fundamental creative energy of which musical cultures are made. He discusses musical listening across times and places from our deep past to our digital present.

What does it mean to listen to music? How might the concepts and practices of ‘listening’ and ‘music-making’ have first emerged in the story of human development? We journey back in time, to the origins of human society - in the company of research like Steven Mithin’s book The Singing Neanderthals - and to the origins of our hearing, to the mechanisms of how our bodies and auditory systems are designed to receive and interpret sound waves. Our music and our listening have been in a symbiotic round-dance ever since.

What has become, in the 20th and 21st centuries, a musical tradition of as-quiet-as-possible, cough-free contemplation and passive disengagement in concert halls wasn’t always that way. In fact, it wasn’t ever that way: the way that audiences listen is inscribed in the fabric of music of the last millennium in Western classical music, a spectrum that encompasses everything from silent meditation to explosive applause. Professor Service introduces the idea of musical works as tools for listening, from Mozart to Mahler, from medieval repertoires to minimalism.

What happens when we listen to music that incarnates a divine presence? From our early ancestors, whose listening in the caves of Europe 40 millennia ago opened gateways to other worlds, sacred places have developed special acoustics for spiritual encounters across religious traditions from Buddhism to Christianity. That means special modes of listening, and unique musical repertoires: simultaneously directed outwards, towards the heavens, and inwards, sounding out the spaces that are sometimes called souls.

Musicians make sounds - that much, you’d have thought, is obvious! Yet more than the sounds they make, it’s the choices that musicians are making about how and when to play that really matter - choices that are made through listening. We can hear listening in action by exploring the musical relationships between the players of different ensembles, across genres and repertoires, from jazz groups to string quartets to symphony orchestras, to understand what makes them work as listening collectives.

As music gets quiet, so too must listening. But what do the contexts and ideologies of quiet music and quieter listening mean? From different eras, and radically opposed musical traditions, Richard Wagner’s innovations in his theatre at Bayreuth, forcing his audience to sit in near-total darkness and silence, have striking similarities to theories and practices of listening developed by modernist and post-modernist composers, from Karlheinz Stockhausen to Pauline Oliveros and her Deep Listening Band. What’s happening to our listening bodies in these deep listening contexts?

It’s a tough time to be a listener. Our present-day cultures of listening are radically fragmented, as our time and attention are fractalised into bits of information. What’s the future of listening? What will happen to the ways we give attention to music in the future? Our conclusion might be that an expanded definition of listening - an active, participative, engaged listening! - can save our digital and musical futures from the fates they seem to be facing. We will find out how.