Music Street Music
Paul Watt, Daniel Bacchieri
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0292


For centuries, street musicians, or buskers, have been plying their trade the world over. However, the study of street music and musicians is an emerging field of research. It is richly interdisciplinary and reaches into many fields, including anthropology, art history, cultural studies, ethnomusicology, human geography, law and legal studies, marketing, and musicology, as well as tourism and urban studies. The topics on which scholars write largely include noise and regulation, protest, aesthetics of space, and studies of street musicians in particular cities and countries on every continent. The genres of music include street cries and brass bands, along with studies of solo instruments such as the harp, violin, voice, and accordion. The literature on street music can be categorized into three overlapping areas: historical, ethnographical, and philosophical and social. Historical studies are concentrated on street cries and street singing. Ethnographical studies are evident in a range of historical studies but also in contemporary accounts of artists from New York to Moscow and Rio de Janeiro to Melbourne. Encounters with buskers provide not only insight into the reasons they perform, but also the repertory they play and the influence of audiences and technology on their performance. Where and how musicians perform also tell us about the precarious place street musicians occupy in the cultural economies of place, especially in relation to the use of digital culture and e-commerce as a means of making money and publicity. Philosophical and social inquiry asks questions about the nature of the space street music occupies; the ways in which it is and owned, shared, or a contested space; and the psychology of creativity in the moment of performance for both musician and audience. At the heart of much of the literature on street music is the way street sound and music has been captured over the centuries. Early modern studies rely on texts—and textual analyses—to speculate on the style or mode of singing that street criers and performers used to disseminate their messages or to perform. Studies from the late 18th century rely on artworks such as woodblocks, engravings, etchings, and oil paintings to depict the sound. In the 19th century, musical transcriptions begin to appear as a way to approximate the sound of the street (usually sounds created by solo performers), but today transcription is less of a requirement. Video-recording and other forms of digital imaging are capturing the sounds and music of street musicians and their sometimes international careers. Some studies adopt theoretical approaches drawing on the work of such writers as Michel de Certeau, Erving Goffman, Henri Lefebvre, Jacques Attali, and Richard Florida.

General Overviews

General overviews consist of the sole history of busking, Cohen and Greenwood 1981, in addition to key reference works such as Maniates 2001, Oliver 2003, and Watt 2020. Bennett and McKay 2019 concentrates on recent literature and public policy, while Watt 2020 offers a larger frame of reference to historiography and suggestions for future research. Collectively, the overviews are rich examples from many disciplines and from various parts of the world.

  • Bennett, Elizabeth, and George McKay. From Brass Bands to Buskers: Street Music in the UK. London: Arts and Humanities Research Council, 2019.

    Takes a long view and spotlights the literature on street music and its public policy. Examines the cultural value of street music and explores some of the music performed in the streets of the UK. The report presents studies under multidisciplinary views, including musicology, historical geography, cultural geography, urban planning, performance studies, and law. Includes an annotated bibliography.

  • Cohen, David, and Ben Greenwood. The Buskers: A History of Street Entertainment. London: David & Charles, 1981.

    Argues that streets are neglected sites of importance in studies of society and history. Considers buskers from the 1st century CE to the late 20th century. Chapters cover topics such as goliards and troubadours, comedians, fairs, and showmen. The emphasis is on particular individuals and occasionally their instruments. It is richly illustrated.

  • Maniates, Maria Rika “Street Cries.” Revised by Richard Freedman. In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    A historical survey of the history of street cries with attention paid to Italian, German, and British origins of street vending. Discusses cries as early forms of trademarks and explains how over time cries are edited in various musical codices, compositions, and theatrical and musical productions. Available online by subscription.

  • Oliver, Paul. “Street Musician.” In The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World. Vol. 2, Performance and Production. Edited by John Shepherd, David Horn, Dave Laing, Paul Oliver, and Peter Wicke, 71–72. London: Continuum, 2003.

    Describes the concept of the street musician in the context of music-making as a worldwide phenomenon. The author places the existence of street musicians as early as the creation of streets. Analyzes its association with collective acts (music parades) and the music performed by solo artists or small bands in the streets. It also discusses different styles of performers throughout the centuries, from minstrels in the 13th century in England to Andean panpipe groups in Peru in the 1990s.

  • Tanenbaum, Susie J. “Street Performers.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    A brief history of street performers and their various crafts, and the problems of writing the history of the subject. Concentrates largely on examples from North America. Links are made to busking and issues of politics, demography, and gender. Available online by subscription.

  • Watt, Paul. “Music.” In The Routledge Handbook of Street Culture. Edited by Jeffrey Ian Ross, 38–47. New York: Routledge, 2020.

    An overview of the current trends in scholarship considering the study of street music and musicals through scholarship in (1) documentation, illustration, and transcription; (2) instruments, bands, parades, opera, and audiences; (3) aesthetics and politics of space; (4) regulation and the law; and (5) advocacy. The article concludes with desiderata for future research in the area.

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