From the Parlor to the Bedroom: The Connection Between Women’s Parlor Music of the Late 19th Century/Early 20th Century and Bedroom Pop of the 21st Century

Ava Matasavage

In the late 19th to early 20th century, music shifted into private spheres as instruments were commonplace in upper to middle class homes. With better access to instruments, women had newfound roles in musical tradition. Parlor Music, a musical genre during this time allowed for women to perform and compose music for intimate settings as a form of domestic responsibility. The tradition of women creating music in their own homes persists still today but is less defined by societal expectations. The modern genre of Bedroom Pop emphasizes many of the qualities found in Parlor Music. By investigating these two genres in depth, the similarities and differences in lyrical themes, characteristics, and connection to societal expectations and experiences of women are revealed.

By the mid 19th century, pianos in the parlor began to be common in upper to middle class homes. With this development came the expectation that women would play and perform music for the entertainment of guests in their own homes. This music became known as Parlor Music. Parlor Music specifically refers to music “composed for domestic use from 1820 to World War I, consisting primarily of songs for voice and piano,” this music was “aimed at an amateur market and intended for performance in the home, primarily but not exclusively by females” (Key). As women were the primary performers of this music, some women began composing Parlor Songs to be premiered exclusively in their homes. Although it is clear women were a large part of this artform, Caroline Mosely explains that women were discouraged to excel at music; only competence was encouraged (Moseley 232). This expectation, along with less access to publishing, accounts for why not many Parlor songs by women were published or survive today. However, the parlor songs written by women that there are records of reveal the characteristics of this music. Many notable male composers wrote Parlor Songs during this period as well but thematically the music written by both men and women dealt with aspects of life associated with women during this time period. The lyrics of vocal Parlor Music would often speak of ”love, home, and children” reflecting the genre’s identification with women and the 19th-century “cult of domesticity” (Key). The music was largely sentimental, nostalgic and contemplative. Although the tropes and subject matter of the music is very specific, Parlor Music gave women during this time a platform to express their feelings and musical inclinations; albeit privately. As Susan Key explains, the Cult of Domesticity, the common belief that women’s place was in the home, is to blame for society’s unwillingness to let women publicly display their art. The music written by women during this time gives an authenticity and deeper meaning to this music. The contributions of published composers of Parlor Music such as Carrie Jacobs-Bond and Marion Dix Sullivan reveal the incredible works by women in this genre.

Carrie Jacobs-Bond is an incredibly accomplished composer of Parlor Songs. Her song A Perfect Day, published in 1909 by her own publishing firm, the first music publishing firm run entirely by a woman, was quite popular and expresses the traits typical of this genre (Dunbar 141). In Jacobs-Bond’s autobiography she explains the song was inspired by her time “motoring through Southern California with some nature-loving friends” she “wished [she] could express [her] thanks to those friends in some little way, just out of the ordinary; and almost at once came the words for ‘A Perfect Day’” (Jacobs-Bond 156-158). The piece is typically performed with piano and vocals, as is typical in Parlor Music, but in the original sheet music she had included a solo cello accompaniment for the piece as well. The lyrics are about longing to express gratitude to one’s friends for their company during a seemingly perfect day. The typical Parlor Music themes of sentimentality and nostalgia are very present in the lyrics of this song as well as the structure of the piece and the harmony. The music is quite slow and lingering and grows and falls in dynamics as the lyrics describe and reminisce about the wonderful day. As for the form of the song, it is two verses lasting around one minute and thirty seconds. The harmony of the song is sweet, consonant and in a major key; all indicative of a wonderful memory. Thematically this song is closer to the joyful themes commonly expressed in Parlor Music but this type of music could also express deep longing in the composer.

Marion Dix Sullivan’s vocal and piano piece Marion Day (1844) is an earlier example of Parlor Music. In this piece, Sullivan details a, perhaps autobiographical, cautionary tale. The lyrics describe the life of a woman, Marion Day, a musician who left her home to travel and play music in “the halls of the rich and gay” (Sullivan). The form is the typical multi-verse form of Parlor Music. Sullivan’s piece consists of six verses with each verse detailing more details about the growing sadness and longing for home in Marion Day. The harmony is, like A Perfect Day, major and quite happy and light sounding. The piece instructs the player and vocalist to perform the tune “playfully”. The melody and harmony of the piece is quite a contrast from Sullivan’s melancholy lyrics. However, this creates the typical sound of Parlor Music and serves as an example of how this genre can be quite restrictive in its harmonic construction. Despite its commitment to convention in terms of melody and form, lyrically this song is quite intriguing. Through the verses, Sullivan tells the tale of a woman who is able to get musical recognition and success outside of her home but finds it is not fulfilling for her; she soon longs for domesticity and the privacy of her home. This very much aligns with the ideals of the Cult of Domesticity. Linda K. Kerber explains that women of 19th century society were expected to remain within their own sphere of domestic responsibilities; their home. Most women of this time were very defensive of this position believing that the home “afford[ed] security from […] delusions and errors of every kind” (Kerber 11). Perhaps many women musicians during this time after having some success with their music; opportunities to perform and publish for the masses, felt they were not meeting the ideals of the Cult of Domesticity and retreated into obscurity. Thus explaining the lack of published works by women in Parlor Music despite their incredibly important position in the genre. The expectations of the Cult of Domesticity are not as strong in 21st century America, allowing for women to perform publicly and achieve fame, most notably in the popular music realm. However, the music industry and its treatment of young girls has led many women to seek empowerment and success in their music on their own terms in their own homes.

In the last 10 years, there has been an emergence of a genre in the west known as Bedroom Pop. This style of music is born from the newfound accessibility to home music recording equipment. The acoustic instruments that were once necessary in the home to make music are now “usurped by Wi-Fi, laptops, and home-recording software” to create a style of music “generated from self-imposed isolation” with the key phrase being, “self-imposed” (Battan). As the Cult of Domesticity of the past expected women to stay at home and not seek public recognition of their music, now women are making the independent choice to grow their musical careers and reach public recognition for their art from their own bedrooms. There they are allowed to write music that is intimate and personal, not commercialized by a major music label or studio. Bedroom Pop artist mxmtoon explains that “the independence and individualism of bedroom pop has meant that its artists have the freedom to explore their more personal and intimate experiences” (mxmtoon qtd. in Roos). Bedroom pop values intimacy above all else. The thematic content of most Bedroom Pop, like Parlor Music, is about love, longing, and nostalgia but the lyrical content is much more specific than that of Parlor Music. Without the limiting factors of strict societal norms, and much easier access to publishing, people from all backgrounds and musical experience can make music this way and use it to progress towards mainstream popularity. These factors are what makes this genre so appealing to amateur musicians especially women and other marginalized groups. Musician, Clairo, is an example of a female bedroom pop musician that has skyrocketed into mainstream fame.

Songwriter and music producer Clairo, or Claire Cotrill, is known to be the face of bedroom pop. Her song Pretty Girl which she wrote and recorded in her bedroom and posted online in 2017 went viral and she soon began to shift into the mainstream. She was signed to a major label and began touring. In an interview with New Musical Express magazine she explains that even with her commercial success she “always felt like something was missing” which she later concluded was “domesticity” (Cotrill qtd. in Daly). Her understanding of domesticity is creating a place in which you feel safe to create and work through your inner thoughts. Her story seems to mirror that of Marion Day’s but there is a distinction; Clairo’s desire for home is fueled by her independent desire for self discovery, growth, and balance while Marion Day is bound by societal expectation. After making this realization, Clairo took time to live with her family in her childhood home and write an album there. The single from this album, “Blouse”, details her experiences being sexualized by male music executives. As Julie Dunbar explains, women in the modern music industry are often viewed through “the male gaze […] in which a woman’s body is objectified by the empowered male watching her” (Dunbar 175). The language used in the lyrics of this song is very different from Parlor Music, however, like Parlor Music the content discusses something most if not all women can relate to. The first line of the chorus, “Why do I tell you how I feel when you’re too busy looking down my blouse?” is stark and raw (Cottrill). It omits the flowery language of Parlor Music and as such it feels much more personal and private. As for the musical form and harmony, this song is in verse chorus form and in a minor key but the melody is sweet like Parlor Music. The instrumentation is just her voice, a guitar, and a small string section. Everything about the piece feels incredibly private and small despite the severity and weight of the issue she is discussing. It seems as if the perfect setting for performing this song would be in a bedroom or living room with close friends, family members, or even just yourself. However, this song has almost 21 million streams on Spotify only a year after its release. It is clear it has transcended the intimate setting it was originally written in.

Parlor Music of the 19th and 20th century, was a genre born of a domestic responsibility for women. With access to instruments in the 19th century, women could compose and perform music but only within the confines of their own home. This genre mirrors the modern genre of bedroom pop; a genre defined by the ability of amateur musicians to compose and record music in their own bedrooms. The two genres share many similarities such as its themes relating to women’s issues and playability by amateur musicians but they have differences as well. While Parlor Song musicians such as Carrie Jacobs-Bond and Marion Dix Sullivan composed music that told the stories of women, modern female bedroom pop musicians such as Clairo are able to discuss women’s issues that would have been considered too taboo such as objectification. The classification of home as a venue and place in which to create music and art has morphed and changed since the 19th century. Time and technological advancements have made the home into an environment where musical success in the mainstream can occur. With these changes, the home can now be a safe space devoid of societal expectation; a space in which people of all identities can create art. I sincerely hope that it continues to be that way.

Works Cited

Battan, Carrie. “Clairo and the Fuzzy, D.I.Y. Sounds of Bedroom Pop.” The New Yorker, 19 Aug. 2019, Accessed 23 Oct. 2022.

Cottrill, Claire. “Blouse.” Spotify.

Daly, Rhian, and Claire “Clairo” Cottrill. “Clairo: ‘I Was Too Scared to Think Domesticity Could Be Something I Crave.’” New Music Express Magazine, 16 July 2021, Accessed 23 Oct. 2022.

Dunbar, Julie C. Women, Music, Culture: An Introduction, 2nd ed., Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, New York, 2021, pp. 141, 175.

Jacobs-Bond, Carrie. A Perfect Day. Carrie Jacobs-Bond & Son/The Frederick Harris Co., Chicago, 1909. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, .

Jacobs-Bond, Carrie. The Roads of Melody, Arno Press, New York City, New York, 1980, pp. 156–157.

Kerber, Linda K. “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History.” The Journal of American History, vol. 75, no. 1, 1988, pp. 9–39. JSTOR, Accessed 23 Oct. 2022.

Key, Susan. “Parlor Music.” Grove Music Online. 25. Oxford University Press. Date of access 23 Oct. 2022,

Moseley, Caroline. “Music in a Nineteenth-Century Parlor.” The Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 41, no. 3, 1980, pp. 231–242. JSTOR, Accessed 23 Oct. 2022.

Performance by Patricia Hammond, A Perfect Day – Carrie Jacobs Bond, YouTube, 20 June 2017, Accessed 23 Oct. 2022.

Roos, Olivia, and Mxmtoon. “What’s Bedroom Pop? How An Online DIY Movement Created A Musical Genre.” NBC News, 6 Feb. 2020, Accessed 23 Oct. 2022.

Sullivan, M. C, and C Converse. Marion Day. Oliver Ditson, Boston, monographic, 1857. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, .