Representations of Classical Music Listening and Constructions of the Self in Post-Millennial Cinema

This post is written by Dr. Tobias Pontara.

Depictions of classical music listening in post-millennial European and American cinema can be seen as perpetuating a conception of the listener that has been dominant in Western society since at least the beginning of the nineteenth century. Variously described by writers such as Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Eduard Hanslick, Theodor Adorno and, more recently, Roger Scruton, this is a listener that relates to music as an enchanted, psychologically withdrawn and existentially self-sufficient experiencer. As Judith Becker (2010) points out, however, taken-for-given assumptions of ‘an inwardly focused, isolated listener [are] inadequate’, insofar as such ‘portrayal[s] of listener and listening present a set of unexamined ideologies and presuppositions that would not apply for most of the world’. Moreover, even within the Western classical music tradition such assumptions are problematic, since they do not do justice to the manifold ways of listening that exist in relation to classical music. The image of the silent, immobile and inward-directed listener is misleading because it acknowledges only one of many ways of musicking (Small, 1998) that people engage in while listening to classical music in everyday life (cf.  DeNora 2000; Lilliestam 2020)

It is nevertheless an image of the listening subject that ties in with broader conceptions of the self in the modern Western world. In Charles Taylor’s seminal book Sources of the Self (1989) one of the central constituents of the modern Western identity is a deep experience of inwardness and the resulting sense of a strongly detached self. In the history of aesthetics, this self is presupposed already in Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgement and his claim that pure aesthetic pleasure is defined by a disinterested approach to the contemplated object. And this in turn is what underwrites most (if not all) accounts of classical music listening. With regard to cinema this is evidenced by recurring tropes relating to classical music listening throughout the history of Western filmmaking, such as depictions of solitary listening in public and private settings. Whether the focus is on overwhelming experiences in the concert hall, on technologically mediated listening or on personal memories in relation to music listening, contemporary cinema’s portrayal of classical music listening builds on these tropes. In doing so it at the same time draws upon and reproduces the Western idea of an inwardly constituted detached self.


Becker, Judith (2010) “Exploring the Habits of Listening: Anthropological Perspectives” in Patrik N. Juslin (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Music and Emotion: Theory, Research, Applications. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 127–157.

DeNora, Tia (2000) Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lilliestam, Lars (2020) Lyssna på musik. Upplevelser, mening, hälsa. Göteborg: Bo Ejeby Förlag.

Small, Christopher (1998) Musicking. The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Taylor, Charles (1989) Sources of the Self. The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Professor Tobias Pontara works in the Department of Cultural Sciences at the University of Gothenburg.