From Music to Noise: the Decline of Street Music

Cambridge University Press (CUP)
Publication Type:
Journal Article
Nineteenth-Century Music Review, 2018, 15 (1), pp. 67 - 78
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The history of live street music is the history of an endangered species, either suppressed or trivialized as little more than ‘local colour’. Five hundred years ago the streets of Elizabethan London were rich with the sounds of street vendors, ballad-makers and musicians, and in general the worst that might be said of the music was that the same songs were too often repeated – what we would now call ‘on high rotation’. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the poet Wordsworth and advocate of the ‘common man’ was describing street music as ‘monstrous’, and throughout that century vigorous measures were being applied to suppress such sounds, which were now categorized as noise. By the twenty-first century, live street music has been virtually silenced but for the occasional licensed busker or sanctioned parade. Paradoxically, this process of decline is intersected by a technologically sustained ‘aural renaissance’ that can be dated from the late nineteenth century. This article explores the reasons for the gradual extinction of live street music and the transformation of the urban soundscape. It argues connections with issues of class, the rise of literacy, the sacralization of private property and the formation of the politics of modernity.
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