A Revolutionary Soundscape: Musical Reform and the Science of Sound in Early America, 1760–1840
Abstract

American colonists initially encountered music in community settings, during worship services and public performances, as well as at dances and other social functions. The rise of singing schools in the 1720s and the growing accessibility of music in the mid eighteenth century, however, cultivated a wider appreciation for music as an individuated art. Early promoters in fact strongly advocated for music’s expansion in the United States by turning to the science behind sound; they argued that music’s impact on and engagement with bodily functions uniquely positioned music as a revolutionary aesthetic, capable of communicating to and regulating the emotions of its listening public. While scholars have described in detail the changing landscape of musical practice in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, no study has addressed the relationship between music’s description as an embodied aesthetic and a revolutionary rhetoric that centralized the body’s importance to the national venture. This essay thus examines how eighteenth and early nineteenth century discussions on music were linked to the political aims of independence through a shared discourse of sensibility. Influenced by music’s origins as a sacred art and an Enlightenment rhetoric interested in bodily functions, Americans living and working in the northeastern cities of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York employed a revolutionary rhetoric that advocated for the aesthetic as a method of reform, accenting music’s potential in safeguarding national harmony and, in the nineteenth century, producing social concord.


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