Wanted: our listening experiences


Can you remember what it felt like to feel the metal back of your Ipod with your hand for the first time?  Or perhaps to look at your reflection in a CD for the first time?  Or maybe to get lost in the grooves of vinyl for the first time? Many of these personal experiences connected to our everyday technology we have either dismissed or take for granted, but a new online project aims to focus on precisely these in the hope of enhancing our collective understanding of how recording and broadcasting technologies affect people’s relationship with music.  Right now, they’re looking for our contributions.

The Listening Experience Database (LED) is a joint project between the Open University and the Royal College of Music, aiming to build an ongoing database of records of the ‘listening experience’.  And yes, the open call for ‘experiences’ is as wide-ranging as it sounds: every kind, from any era- provided these are authentic, open and honest records written without an eye for posterity.

What I think makes this particularly interesting from the point of view of us recordists is that in addition to musicians and radio listeners, the LED website specifically also invites to participate ‘people who encounter music in a more incidental way – perhaps travellers or passers-by in the street or the park’.  I quite like this approach, at least in principle inclusive of field recordings and open air settings, and I feel in it may lie the potential to make this project something both intriguing and of value, taking us out of the confines of the concert hall and into the wider spaces of human psyche.

From the project website: “We are looking for essentially private and personal experiences of listening to music, rather than professional music criticism or reviews of performances or recordings. (…)  We want to document reactions and opinions across this spectrum, and from whatever period and cultural context they come. The kinds of sources we will be looking at include diaries, memoirs, letters and oral history. (…) The database (…) will enhance our understanding of how recording and broadcasting technologies have affected people’s relationship with music, and offer a new range of evidence of how music is studied and learned. It will also sharpen our insight into the settings and ways in which music has been performed.”

The samples so far logged in the online database are as varied as one would expect, and range widely from the private letters of Benjamin Britten (recounting a particularly poor concert experience: “we had Clara Butterworth who was a dreadfull (sic) Soprano, she swallowed all her words and you could not hear one of them”) to excited anonymous facebook entries (“lucky enough to experience The Killers twice on this tour but Wembley smashed Liverpool, well worth the journey down south. Amazing!!”)

As these examples show, the LED database is looking for accounts that were not written with the intention of influencing public opinions and ideas about music: formal reviews or other forms of published criticism need not apply. Especially welcome are contributions from private family papers that the general public would not otherwise be aware of. So, if you have in your attic any musty letters from great-auntie Kate about the first time she listened to the radio or a gramophone recording, they may have found their home (at the moment the project is on a 3-year trial basis during which time entries are only accepted in English, but the organisers hope to be able to expand this to other languages in the near future.)

Not unsurprisingly, the overall effect of browsing through these entries online is exactly like to peeking through a stranger’s diary: you feel that you shouldn’t, but somehow you can’t stop.  In the meantime, your imagination is firing in all directions.

Whether this experiment will work and produce some quantifiable results in the long term is anyone’s guess, as so  much will depend on the amount, range and quality of the submissions provided by us, the general public.  So far, the seeds are sown for an intriguing, searchable archive of human experience that offers much in the way of inspiration for creative storytelling at the very least.

How to add your submission: http://led.kmi.open.ac.uk/node/8/

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