Music in the past – drama in a quiet world

Jez Smith plays a key role in delivering living history at the Museum, especially in the field of historical music. Here he describes its importance to the people who lived in and around our building exhibits.

“The auditory aspect of the past is often overlooked in socio-historical interpretation, but at its broadest it includes all the noises that a person or a society would have considered part of everyday life, known as a ‘soundscape’. Music would have been an important part of this sonic environment.

An interest and appreciation of music appeals to all levels of society, and is not governed by social status. Evidence of musical instruments goes far back into the archaeological record, present since the earliest civilisations. We need to be careful to avoid the common academic pitfalls of imposing our own cultural filters and values onto people from the past – they would have heard, listened to and played music in a different way to us.

For example, we must first remember that the world would have been a much quieter place than it is today. That is not to paint a false picture of idyllic, peaceful rural life – there was noise and disturbance but not to the same decibel level or consistency that can be achieved now. During the battle of Solebay in 1672 the gun fire from the ships in the North Sea could be heard 100 miles inland in Northamptonshire: that would not have been possible today! The incessant hum of the modern world would have been unknown to them.

Music was also less accessible than today. A person may have only heard their favourite tune a handful of times in their lifetime. This would have made hearing music far more dramatic, and the listener far more discerning.

Drums, trumpets, bagpipes, fiddles and flutes would have been the most common instruments that people would have heard. Bagpipes were known all over England and were closely associated with shepherds and rural society. Probate inventories have provided evidence that the lute was played by yeoman, and was not purely the domain of the privileged few. On market days you may have heard the town waits playing their shawms in the streets, or the hollering of broadside ballad sellers singing their latest tunes.

Itinerant musicians did exist but they were more marginal than we would expect, largely due to the vagabondage laws. This legislation singled out minstrels as a form of beggar, subjecting them to harsh punishment. As a result, professional musicians did travel but they did not wander, as the romantic stereotype of the medieval minstrel would have us believe.

On a domestic level people would have owned instruments for their own entertainment. Local carpenters would have been able to make basic versions of instruments that were affordable for much of society. Even a complex instrument such as the hurdy gurdy became associated with beggars in 17th and 18th century England.

By including music, and the wider auditory culture of the past, we can broaden our understanding of the lives of the people who once lived in the buildings at the Museum.”

Jez can often be heard playing historic instruments around the Museum site – we hope that you enjoy his performances.