A cultured ear: why does listening to music matter?

Saturday 31 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Henry Moore Gallery

Today it’s often lamented that, though music permeates society, we no longer value the act of listening. Indeed, have we lost touch with how we listen? Why do we listen to music, and how does the way we listen change in different contexts? Whereas the composers of the past wrote pieces for specific reasons, such as dances, coronations or religious ceremonies, music today can seem strangely de-contextualised. Arguably, listening to music as an end in itself is actually quite a new idea, so does it really matter?

Parents-to-be play Mozart to their fetuses in the womb, but this missionary zeal seems to wane when children are old enough to have tastes of their own. Commentators champion ‘participation’ in music for the social benefits they claim it brings, while staying mute on how to listen and make value judgements. With worries over ‘noise pollution’, deafness caused by loud pop concerts, and even concerns that orchestras mustn’t play Sibelius at full blast because it contravenes EU legislation on workplace safety, sound often seems something we’re supposed to protect ourselves from rather than relish.

But can our listening be too safe in a more critical sense? Within our own listening worlds, do we embrace the diverse, new and challenging music that is increasingly available? Enthusiasts insist classical music is better than all the rest, but doesn’t learning how to listen mean being able to appreciate all genres equally? Shouldn’t we be more critical in what we listen to, rather than seeing the same old classics as heritage to be preserved? And isn’t it even more ‘elitist’ to insist classical music is great without explaining why?

This debate is in partnership with ‘Hear Here!’ – the UK’s first classical music project dedicated to listening – presented by the Royal Philharmonic Society and Classic FM and supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.


Rachel Halliburton
deputy editor, Time Out London; theatre writer, Independent, Financial Times and Evening Standard

Professor Philip Hensher
professor of creative writing, Exeter University; columnist, Independent; novelist; author, The Northern Clemency

Ivan Hewett
chief music critic, Daily Telegraph; professor, Royal College of Music; broadcaster; author, Music: healing the rift

Tom Hutchinson
clarinettist; teacher; arts project manager, Royal Philharmonic Society

Karl-Erik Norrman
founder and secretary-general, European Cultural Parliament; former Swedish ambassador; author, The Gala Concert, Verdi/Wagner 200 years

Sarah Boyes
freelance writer and editor; assistant editor, Culture Wars; editor, Battles in Print 2010

Produced by
Sarah Boyes freelance writer and editor; assistant editor, Culture Wars; editor, Battles in Print 2010
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The Epistemology of Elitism

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