More than meets the ear: on the sociology of listening
Prof Simon Frith, University of Edinburgh
Listening is something we do for ourselves. Sounds reach us through our ears but the musical experience happens inside our heads; it is something to be studied by psychologists and neuroscientists. In this paper, though, I want to approach listening as a sociologist, to treat it as a social fact. In doing so I will address a number of issues. First, as the LED archive shows so vividly, there are many different ways of listening to music: silently, noisily, individually, collectively, by participation (whether in an orchestra or a football crowd) and dancing (the most common way of listening to many forms of popular music). Second, the differences between ways of listening are often the effect of different listening ideologies. This has been most entertainingly illustrated in social histories of the classical world’s notion of ‘proper’ or ‘serious’ listening but in popular music studies too we are familiar with the ideological assumptions shaping the different listening conventions of, say, jazz and folk clubs or Rhianna and Springsteen stadium shows. In both public and private spaces listening disputes are routine, whether they involve cinema ushers trying to make people sit down or parents telling their children that their music is too loud. Third, listening is not just what happens in people’s heads. It is a form of social behaviour: to listen is to perform ‘listening’. I will therefore consider, finally, how, if at all, the development of ‘home entertainment’ (and headphones) has changed listening as both behavioural and ideological practice.