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Dr Helen Barlow

Profile summary

Professional biography

Helen Barlow comes from South Wales and grew up in in Merthyr Tydfil and Cardiff. She read English and American literature with art history at the University of Kent, Canterbury, where she went on to write a PhD thesis in art history.

On returning to Cardiff in 1993 she joined The Open University in Wales as a tutor, and has taught a number of art history and interdisciplinary modules. Since 1995, Helen has worked in academic management at The Open University in Wales, where she is a Staff Tutor. 

In something of a divergence from literature and art history (though perhaps not as great as it might seem), she is also a Research Fellow in the Music Department. She is currently the Postgraduate Student Co-ordinator for Music. If you are interested in studying for a PhD in Music with the OU, you can contact her at 

Research interests

Helen's research interests in music began in 1995 when she started working with Professor Trevor Herbert as the project manager for numerous publications including The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments (Cambridge University Press, 1997), The British Brass Band: A Musical and Social History (Oxford University Press, 2000) and The Trombone (Yale University Press, 2006).

Their collaboration on the AHRC-funded project ‘Military sponsorship of music in the nineteenth century and its relationship to the musical mainstream’ resulted in their co-authored book Music and the British Military in the Long Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). A number of their projects have been brought together in the website Cultures of brass.

Helen researches into the social and cultural history of music in Britain and particularly Wales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and into music iconography. She is most at home with an interdisciplinary approach, and finds that her background in literature and art history offers different perspectives on music history.

Since its inception in 2012, she has been a member of the Listening Experience Database (LED) project team, which researches historical accounts of people’s experiences of listening to music, with a particular interest in the listening experiences of 'ordinary people'. Helen’s LED research has focused on music and Welsh identity through the accounts left by listeners. It examines the idea of Wales as a uniquely musical nation within the framework of 'invented tradition', and looks at some of the ways in which music has been used, often contradictorily, both as a defining characteristic of independent Welsh identity, and as an agent of social cohesion. The project has received two AHRC grants and has involved collaboration between The Open University’s Music and Literature Departments and its Knowledge Media Institute (KMi), the Royal College of Music and the University of Glasgow.

She is a contributor to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism, the Encyclopedia of Local History and the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Brass Instruments.

Externally funded projects

Listening and British cultures: listeners' responses to music in Britain, c. 1700-2018
RoleStart dateEnd dateFunding source
Co-investigator01 Mar 201628 Feb 2019AHRC Arts & Humanities Research Council

The study of music has typically focused on the work, the composer and the performer. More recently, interest has focused on the listener, but generally from the perspective of psychology or reception studies, which draw their evidence from experimentation, interview or musically informed critical opinion. The approach of this project is different: it places the listener at the heart of musical experience in Britain in the period c.1700-2018, emphasising the written testimony of the impact of music on 'ordinary' people. Typically the material is drawn from diaries, letters and memoirs. The evidence is all the more potent for being personal and often musically 'uninformed' or naïve. The team believes that such evidence facilitates a new way of studying how and what music communicates, and that it can, when gathered as a mass, inform novel approaches to musicology. The project will address three research questions: 1. What can personal accounts of listening to music in Britain tell us about how listeners recognise and identify with a common culture through music? 2. What can these accounts add to our understanding of the place of music in broader aspects of personal, community and national life in Britain? 3. What more can listeners' accounts tell us about the place in British musical life of particular repertoires and their associated performing and listening practices? The project aims to combine empirical research methods effectively with digital research methods. It does not aim merely at gathering 'big data', but sets out to use that data to support a traditional strength of humanities research - close reading of texts to underpin the writing of historical narratives. It builds on the AHRC-funded Listening Experience Database (LED) project (2013-15,, which established a methodology for collecting accounts of listening experiences in any period or culture, and a tool, in the form of a Linked Open Data database, for its storage and analysis. The objectives are: 1. To capture a mass of primary source evidence, and to make it available for analysis through an open-access database. 2. To use this data to inform new understandings of the place of music in British cultural life. 3. To develop a clear methodological framework for using digital content in humanities research, and an effective methodology for the mining and analysis of social media as primary source material for responses to music. 4. To develop the ways in which the database supports entry and analysis of data, and to use the database as a case study for research into the application of Linked Open Data. 5. To disseminate the findings to academic and non-academic audiences through a range of means including publications, social media, knowledge exchange events, seminars and a conference. New insights into the experience of listeners have the potential to inform not only historical musicology but also other research within and beyond the academic community - for example, in performance practice, social and cultural history, religious studies, Celtic studies, area studies, psychology and health studies, sociology and media studies. The project will benefit museums, libraries and archives - in particular, specific institutions with which the team will be working – by informing understanding of and increasing exposure to their collections. It will develop and document a clear methodology for using digital content in humanities research, including large-scale data sets such as social media archives that are currently difficult to use. It will establish data modelling practices transferable to other projects and create data assets of value to both academics and other users such as the media (for example, rich data about a wide range of music).