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Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease

Previous Events

'The Female Ear: The History of Music as a Danger for Women's Nerves', Dr James Kennaway (Stanford University)

15th January 2008, 17:00, Durham, 48/49 Old Elvet, room 010

Joint seminar by the Centre for the History of Medicine and the Philosophy Department


The female ear has long been regarded as particularly susceptible to the physical stimulation of music, especially the “wrong kind” of music. Neo-Platonic and Puritan motifs of musical sensuality’s dangers to self-control and morality among female listeners are a persistent theme in the history of music. Crucially, this attitude took a more medical turn in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as ideas about female moral and physical weakness were associated with the nerve paradigm of understanding the body. The female ear became the entrance to a nervous system that could be damaged by music with dangerous medical and moral consequences, as this paper will outline.
First, I will look at the developments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that laid the foundations for anxiety about the nervous effects of music on the female ear. Then I will turn to the emerging idea of music as a threat to women’s nerves in the medical, literary and critical discourse of the nineteenth century, when nervous music emerged as a Zivilisationskrankheit. Finally I will consider the underlying cultural reasons that led to this and some of the continuities between anxieties about women’s nerves and older ways of thinking about music and gender.

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