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Special issue of Cultural Sociology:
Producing and consuming inequality: A Cultural Sociology approach to the cultural
‘McDonalds’ music’ versus ‘serious music’: how production and consumption
practices help to reproduce class inequality in the classical music
This article draws on two empirical studies on contemporary engagements with classical
music in the United Kingdom to shed light on the ways in which class inequalities are
reproduced in practices of production and consumption. It discusses three ways in which this
occurs. First, classical music was ‘naturally’ practiced and listened to in middle-class homes
but this was misrecognised by musicians who labelled families as ‘musical’ rather than as
‘middle class’. Secondly, the practices of classical music production and consumption such
as the spaces used, the dress, and the modes of listening show similarities with middle class
culture. Thirdly, musicians made judgements of value where classical music was seen as
more valuable than other genres. This was particularly visible in studying production. In
data on consumption, musicians were careful about making judgements of taste but described
urban genres as illegible to them, or assessed them according to the criteria that they used to
judge classical music, such as complexity and emotional depth. This hierarchy of value
tended to remain unspoken and uncontested. Studying production and consumption together
allows these patterns to emerge more clearly.
Keywords: Classical music; social class; class inequalities; production; consumption; United
Kingdom; education; value; taste; family; socialisation; legitimacy; listening; musical genres
Inequalities in the cultural industries have come on the agenda in the United Kingdom in
recent years. Academic research, but also debates in the media and the cultural sector have
for example highlighted the lack of diversity in the cultural workforce and stratification in
cultural consumption. As Kate Oakley and Dave O’Brien (2015) have however shown, the
fields of cultural production and cultural consumption tend to be considered separately in the
context of research on inequalities. While research has traced and explored inequalities in
production (Allen et al., 2012; Banks and Oakley, 2015; Conor et al., 2015; Gill, 2014;
Hesmondhalgh and Saha, 2013; Taylor and Littleton, 2012) and consumption (Bennett et al.,
2009; Friedman et al., 2015; Miles and Sullivan, 2010; Tampubolon, 2010), the interplay
between these practices and the ways they contribute to or alter existing inequalities has been
rarely explored. By focusing on production and consumption in contemporary classical music
practice, this article adds to our understanding of inequalities in the cultural industries more
widely, and the ways they manifest themselves in the interplay of production and
consumption more specifically.
There is a range of inequalities in cultural production relating to gender (e.g. Conor et al.,
2015), race (e.g. ACE, 2014), class (e.g. O’Brien et al., 2016), and disability (e.g. ACE,
2014). Studies of cultural consumption and arts participation show there are large inequalities
in relation to class, race, and disability, while consumption and attendance by gender is more
equal (Consilium, 2014). Of course, other axes of differentiation, such as age, also affect
practices of production and consumption (ACE, 2014; Consilium, 2014) and often, these axes
intersect with each other in complex ways. Our focus in this article is on class inequalities.
By drawing on two distinct, empirical studies on contemporary classical music practice, we
aim to shed light on the ways in which class inequalities manifest themselves in practices of
production and consumption. As such, we do not intend to explore different forms of
inequalities in contemporary classical music practice; elsewhere, we have focused on the
ways in which class, race and gender affect experiences of music education and professional
careers (Bull, 2015; Scharff, 2015a, b). Instead, we limit our inquiry to class in order to
contribute to qualitative inquiries into class inequalities in the cultural industries (e.g. Allen
and Hollingworth, 2013; Ashton and Noonan, 2013; Burke and McManus, 2009). Our
research - both in terms of the empirical cases that we discuss and the scholarly debates that
inform our analysis - is embedded in the United Kingdom and thus specific to a particular,
There is a dearth of critical, empirical sociological inquiry into classical music practice (for
some notable exceptions in other national contexts, see Baker, 2014; McCormick, 2009;
Yoshihara, 2007; Wagner, 2012; 2015). When we embarked on our separate research projects,
we were surprised to find that there has been comparatively little research on classical music
practice and even less of an emphasis on inequalities. By focusing on the classical music
sector in this article, and by shedding light onto class inequalities in the production and
consumption of classical music, we add to a cultural sociology approach to understanding and
researching the cultural industries. In order to make this contribution, we firstly outline the
existing literature and research on inequalities in the production and consumption of classical
music. Second, we discuss the research methodology that underpins this article, paying
particular attention to the ways in which we brought two separate studies together. The main
part of this article analyses our empirical data to foreground the ways in which class
inequalities manifest themselves in the production and consumption of classical music. More
specifically, our empirical analysis consists of three sections, which explore the role of family
socialisation, practices of performance and listening, and hierarchies of value in the context
of class inequalities in contemporary classical music practice. As we show, the value of
classical music is often uncontested, both in practices of production and consumption. This,
we argue, is one of the key ways in which class inequalities manifest themselves in
contemporary classical music practice.
Producing classical music
In recent years, there has been a flurry of writings on the lack of diversity in the cultural
sector workforce in the UK. Academic research (e.g. Allen and Hollingworth, 2013; Conor et
al., 2015; Gill, 2014; Taylor and Littleton, 2012) as well as cultural sector and policy reports
(ACE, 2014; DCMS, 2015; Warwick Commission, 2015) have shown that gender, racial and
class inequalities continue to exist, particularly in relation to access to the cultural sector
workforce as well as under-representation of women, ethnic minorities, and individuals from
working-class backgrounds. In relation to class, there is excellent qualitative research on the
interplay between socio-economic background and aspiration to pursue a creative career (e.g.
Allen and Hollingworth, 2013; Burke and McManus, 2009). However, statistical data on the
class backgrounds of cultural workers is only now beginning to be analysed. A study of the
class composition of Britain’s creative workforce using data from the 2014 Labour Force
Survey (O’Brien et al., 2016) found a general under-representation of those from working-
class origins across the sector, which is especially pronounced in publishing and music.
A similar picture seems to emerge in the context of the classical music sector. Whilst there
has not been a wide range of research on the lack of diversity in classical music, some studies
have documented gender inequalities, which for example relate to the under-representation of
women in prestigious orchestras and in leadership positions (Osborne and Conant, 2010;
Scharff, 2015b). Wider research on the UK music industry has also shown that ethnic
minorities are under-represented (ACE, 2014; Scharff, 2015b). In relation to the socio-
economic background of classical musicians, we are not aware of any studies that contain
statistical data other than O’Brien et al.’s data on the music sector as a whole.
However, more research on how participation in classical music varies by class background is
available in relation to education and training. To briefly outline the UK educational context,
instrumental and vocal music lessons are provided both privately and by publicly-funded
local authority music education services, established between the 1950s and 1970s. The
growth of the community arts movement in the 1970s encouraged local authorities to run
participatory music schemes, among other projects (Higgins 2012). Local authority music
services provided free instrumental and vocal lessons within schools and ran centres where
out-of-school music education took place including ensembles such as bands, choirs and
orchestras (Cleave and Dust 1989). This system was entirely separate to the mainstream
music curriculum delivered in the classroom (Pitts, 2000, p. 214). It is also precariously
funded; whether parents should be charged for instrumental and vocal lessons has been a
point of contestation since the 1970s (Cleave and Dust 1989), and today there are very few
local authorities that provide free or subsidised lessons (Rogers and Hallam 2010; Griffiths
2014). In 2012 with the introduction of the National Plan for Music Education, local authority
music services were reconfigured as ‘hubs’ which commission rather than provide services,
and government funding was cut (Hill 2014). As a result, many young musicians take
instrumental and vocal lessons privately outside of school and take grade exams run by
Trinity College London or the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), a
system which was established in the late 19th century (Bull, 2015). It is not surprising, then
that a report by the ABRSM (2014)found that children from lower socio-economic groups are
under-represented in music education.
These findings seem to suggest that class differences in classical music are in part about
provision, but it appears that there is also a link between classical music education and
middle-class culture. Bull’s (2015, 2016a, 2016b) study of young people playing in youth
classical music groups argues that this link is evident in the long-term investment over time
required for classical music; the embodied norms of restraint and control; and the formal
modes of social organisation such as deference to authority. This link is significant because
most classical musicians have to commence training at a very early age in order to compete
professionally, as Wagner’s (2012; 2015) transnational research has shown.
The middle-class culture of music education is also visible if we look at higher education.
Many classical musicians enter the profession after having attended a conservatoire, which
offers education and training in the performing arts, including music. Notably, the
backgrounds of conservatoire students are predominantly middle-class (Scharff, 2015b). In
the year 2012-2013, 3.9% of students came from a ‘low participation neighbourhood’
whereas almost a quarter of students had attended a private school (see also Born and Devine,
2015). Whilst we do not have any statistical data on the class background of professional
classical musicians, as mentioned above, the importance of early music practice, coupled
with the middle-class culture of music education, suggests that musicians from a middle-class
background are over-represented in the sector. In the context of the classical music profession
in the UK, higher education, but also early music education, seem to play a key role in
creating and maintaining unequal access to the sector.
Consuming classical music
In addition to the production of classical music, consumption also plays into creating and
sustaining inequalities in the sector. Much of the literature on cultural consumption in the UK
follows Bourdieu to theorise the links between culture and inequality (Oakley and O’Brien,
2016). For Bourdieu, culture can be a form of capital that allows the dominant class to
maintain and legitimise its position (Bourdieu, 1984). Patterns of taste and consumption are
therefore important in so far as they work to legitimise the status of the dominant class. In the
UK today, cultural tastes, and the consumption practices that are shaped by these tastes such
as arts participation, are highly divided by social group, particularly class (Warwick
Commission, 2015: 33; Miles and Sullivan, 2010).
Musical taste is one of the most strongly divided forms of cultural taste (Bennett et al., 2009).
As we discuss below, this can feed into production through the influence of parents’
consumption practices on their children’s musical taste and practices. Within this, classical
music has particularly distinctive patterns. Savage (2006) found that it is actually a relatively
popular cultural taste, particularly as regards 'light classical' as represented by the radio
station Classic FM. Despite this popularity, he still found strong correlations with particular
social groups, both when asking about classical music as a genre, and about named musical
works. Most notably, those with a university education were six times more likely to indicate
a liking for classical music than those without..
While it seems to be clear that classical music consumption in the UK is associated with the
middle classes, the question of whether this contributes to hierarchies of musical taste –
certain genres of music having more value than others – has attracted a considerable
literature. Savage concludes that musical taste remains 'highly divided' and that 'classical
music emerges as still the clearest marker of ‘educated’ musical taste' (2006: 173). Chan and
Goldthorpe (2007) support this link with education, but add the caveat that there is no 'elite'
taste visible in their sample; those who consume highbrow culture tend also to consume
popular culture. This evidence supports the 'omnivore' thesis (Peterson and Kern, 1996) that
cultural consumption is now primarily divided between 'omnivores' who consume a wide
variety of culture, and 'univores' who consume narrowly, with these divisions occurring along
class lines. However, Tampubolon (2010) demonstrated that omnivores do not consume all
forms of culture equally; they are aware of different forms of culture being differently valued.
Other authors have similarly rejected the evidence for the omnivore thesis (Prieur and
Savage, 2013; Atkinson, 2011). The question of how hierarchies of musical taste can carry or
confer value therefore requires further exploration. Furthermore, many of the studies cited
above take a quantitative approach to studying cultural consumption, focusing on large-scale
patterns in tastes and/or consumption practices. This body of work has been criticised as
reductive, in failing to examine how people consume or interact with cultural objects (Prieur
and Savage, 2013). While we appreciate the quantitative studies for their ability to trace
large-scale patterns of tastes and consumption, the qualitative focus of our article sheds light
on the ways in which value is constructed and attributed in classical music practice today.
The empirical data presented in this article is based on two distinct studies of classical music
practice in the UK, namely Bull’s (2015) research on classical music education and Scharff’s
(2015a, b; 2017) study of the classical music profession. Whilst the two studies were distinct
in focus, we believe they can be usefully brought into dialogue to explore common themes
around class inequalities in practices of producing and consuming classical music.
Bull’s (2015) study explored classical music education, focusing in particular on the ways in
which gender and class are reproduced among young people playing classical music in
England. Her empirical data, collected in 2012-13, is based on an ethnographic study into
young people aged 16–21 involved in youth classical music groups in the south-east of
England: a youth choir, two youth orchestras, and a youth opera group. Bull participated as a
musician in the two youth orchestras and the youth opera group and observed rehearsals and
performances with the youth choir, over a period of 18 months. In addition, she carried out
37 semi-structured interviews and three focus groups with young people1, as well as
interviews with nine of the adults involved in running these groups. Participants in these
groups were aged between twelve and early twenties, but interviewees were all sixteen or
over due to ethics considerations. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed
verbatim with permission. Thematic analysis was carried out in dialogue with fieldnotes from
observations and participant observations.
Scharff’s (2015a, b) research on the classical music profession explored various
contemporary issues, such as the subjective experiences of precarious work, how urban
contexts affect cultural work, as well the ways in which musicians negotiate inequalities. The
main part of her study was based on 64 semi-structured in-depth interviews with female,
early-career classical musicians. The interviews covered a range of issues, such as music
education and training, precarious work, and inequalities. The research was conducted
following research ethics guidelines and analysed by using discourse analysis (Taylor and
Littleton, 2012). Research participants came from a range of national backgrounds, but all
were based in London (n=32) and Berlin (n=32) at the time of interview to explore how
artistic lives are experienced in different urban contexts. In relation to many of the key
themes explored in the wider project, including the negotiation of inequalities as discussed in
this article, national differences did not strongly come to the fore (for a more detailed
discussion, see Scharff, 2017). Most research participants were in their late twenties/early
thirties at the time of interview in 2012 or 2013. The sample consisted of musicians who
played a range of instruments, as well as singers, conductors, opera directors, and composers.
Reflecting the under-representation of working-class and black and minority-ethnic players in
the classical music profession, the sample was overwhelmingly white and middle-class2. As
such, the research participants represented a comparatively privileged group.
As this overview indicates, our article is based on empirical material that was collected at the
same time (2012-2013) and in overlapping places. Whilst Bull did not conduct research in
Berlin, both of us collected qualitative data in the Southeast of England. Furthermore, both
studies were critically concerned with contemporary classical music practice, animated by
similar theoretical frameworks, and embedded in current debates about inequalities in the
cultural and creative industries in the UK. Both studies focused on younger people who were
either currently or recently engaged in classical music education. This allowed us to reflect on
the role that education plays in the reproduction of inequalities in classical music. Of course,
there are also differences between the two studies. Bull’s research drew on the voices of
young women and men who were involved in classical music training, but Scharff only spoke
to female musicians. And whilst both studies were mainly qualitative in orientation, Scharff’s
research was interview-based and Bull’s study was ethnographic, including observations,
interviews and focus groups.
Similar methods were used across both studies to categorise participants by class, drawing on
both subjective and objective measures of class. Participants were asked for self-definitions
of their class position and data was also gathered about parents’ occupations. Bull also
gathered data about parents’ education and type of school attended, and drew on Reay et al.’s
(2011) typology of new versus established middle class to identify class fractions. Limitations
of this approach include its relative synchronicity as it does not take into account a family or
individual’s class trajectory over time, as well as the issue that British people tend to deny
class (Savage, 2001; Skeggs, 1997). However, by triangulating self-definitions with parental
occupation we have minimised this issue.
Despite the differences between our studies, our extended conversations over recent years
have brought to the fore common themes. In drawing on two distinct studies, we do not
believe that all of our findings can be integrated seamlessly. Instead, we focus on similar
patterns that we discerned in relation to negotiations of class inequalities in classical music
practice and consumption. In order to bring our two studies together, we have made one key
methodological choice: We only focus on the interviews which Scharff conducted in London
in order to allow for more comparability between the geographical location of our research
participants. This methodological choice firmly embeds this article in the contemporary UK
Finally, we use the term ‘classical music’ (rather than, for example, ‘Western art music’) as it
reflects the terminology used by our participants. Gilmore (1987) helpfully creates a typology
of three classical music ‘subworlds’ in New York in the 1980s, characterised by ‘repertory’,
‘academic’ or ‘avant-garde’ practices. This typology, if amended to include the early music
scene as described by Wilson (2013), appears to be a good description of the classical music
subworlds in the UK. Our studies sit firmly within the ‘repertory’ practices he describes,
which encompass the major orchestras and venues in Manhattan where musical practices are
‘highly conventionalized’ (p. 214). Across both studies, the majority of repertoire played was
19th and early 20th century Romantic music; in Bull’s study, the composer most often named
as a favourite was Gustav Mahler. This article therefore does not encompass practices relating
to early music or new/contemporary classical music.
1) Growing up in a “musical family”: producing and consuming music at home
In Scharff’s study, the ways in which class plays out in the production and consumption of
classical music came to the fore in the research participants’ discussion of their families’
attitudes towards classical music. There were strong contrasts between the accounts of
research participants who came from a so-called ‘musical family’ and those who did not. The
former felt that playing an instrument was somehow natural and could count on their parents’
support. The latter, by contrast, often had to struggle to pursue classical music professionally,
against their parents’ will. Crucially, these accounts mapped onto differences in class
background: those who were from a musical family were middle-class whilst those who were
not described their backgrounds as lower middle-class or working-class. Being from a
musical family meant that classical music – both as an active pursuit but also as a form of
consumption – was valued, often in unspoken ways. By contrast, the opposite seemed to
apply to the experiences of research participants who came from lower middle-class or
working-class families. In presenting this analysis, we do not argue for a direct relationship
between class and musical taste. By contrasting the findings of Scharff’s study with Bull’s
research at the end of this section, we aim to offer a nuanced approach to analysing the links
between class background and the value attributed to classical music.
When I (Scharff) asked Kelly about her family background, she told me that she “grew up in
a musical family. My mom teaches piano and when we were younger she used to do the
recorder groups at the primary school I was at, so music was always part of my upbringing.”
Also talking about her family background, Rose said:
I come from a musical family, so it just – I always thought it [playing a musical
instrument] would be part of my life, so it didn’t seem like something I had to make an
extra effort to be, to really try and get good at. I just thought it was one of the things I
had to do.
Similarly, Faith told me that she had started playing the piano at age three:
I actually don’t remember how music started. I think because I was kind of born into it,
in the sense that my parents would encourage – like music was always on in the house,
and my mum would always be singing to me, so it was quite natural.
In these accounts, music is presented as a part of one’s upbringing or life and as something
“quite natural”. These research participants were surrounded by and exposed to music from
an early age. Crucial to our argument, this engagement with classical music was perceived as
something natural and therefore uncontested.
Kelly, Rose, and Faith were all from middle-class backgrounds and their accounts contrasted
with statements from lower middle-class or working-class research participants. In telling me
how her parents felt about her pursuing music professionally, Isabella stated: “I don’t come
from a musical background. Nobody understood why I wanted to do that. Nobody supported
it because it is not a safe profession”. Isabelle described her class background as “lower
middle-class: my parents are educated, but they do not have much money”. As opposed to
some of her middle-class peers, music was not a natural part of Isabella’s upbringing. In fact,
she stated that her dad had actively tried to stop her from playing the violin: “Actually, my
dad did everything for me to quit the violin, for a very long time. Not because he hates music,
but he just doesn’t understand it and mostly he is just worried that it’s a very unsafe
A sense of not understanding classical music, as well as concerns that being a classical
musician is not a secure job seemed to make some working-class parents uncertain about
supporting their children’s aspirations. June had told me that her parents “weren’t well off.
They were hard working, working-class type”. Reflecting on the different ways of getting
into classical music, June stated:
And often, again, it’s families who are quite familiar with classical music, that sort of
thing. My parents didn’t want me to go down this road. They were very worried about it
because it was unfamiliar to them. They wanted me to get a real job, and be secure.
Elaborating on her parents’ unfamiliarity with classical music, June said: “The classical music
world was just so – they had not grown up with anything like that, so it was a bit – my first
proper classical concerts, they were a bit like ‘What is this? We don’t understand this’”.
Comparing Isabella’s and June’s statements with the stories of the research participants from
musical families demonstrates that classical music was valued differently in their upbringing,
and that this difference mapped onto different class backgrounds. In the middle-class, musical
families, classical music was part of life, whereas it was quite unfamiliar to lower middle-
class and working-class families.
The different value attributed to classical music also came to the fore when research
participants’ reflected on their parents’ consumption practices. Emilia had described her
background as middle-class and when I asked her whether she was from a musical family, she
said: “No, my mom is like tone-deaf. And my dad really likes classical music and he listened
to it a lot when I was younger”. Some parents of middle-class research participants had
actively honed an appreciation of classical music and sometimes this intersected with ethnic
background. Liz’ father had grown up in India, but came to London to study medicine:
When he came to London to pursue medicine, I guess he wanted to fit in with western
culture, and he became very very interested in western classical music. So although he
can’t really play a note himself, he is very passionate about some western music […] So
as a young person I was introduced to a lot of things, and sort of told ‘Come and listen to
The aspirations of Liz’ father to “fit in with western culture” meant that she was exposed to
classical music at an early age. Similar to her middle-class peers, consumption of classical
music formed part of Liz’ upbringing.
By contrast, several research participants from a working-class or lower middle-class
background stated that their parents did not listen to classical music. According to Daniella,
her family “listened to nice music, but not classical. It’s hard to really start appreciating and
really understanding that music”. Eve’s upbringing in terms of music consumption was
similar: “My family enjoy music, and there’s quite a lot of relatively different styles going on.
It all seems to be quite mainstream and based around pop”. In a similar vein, June told me
that her father’s taste in music was “a whole eclectic mix from country music right through to
Rock & Roll. But actually, very little classical. In fact, none, almost none.” According to
these research participants, classical music was not played at home.
Arguably, a link between class background and the value attributed to classical music
transpires in several ways: for the middle-class, musical families, classical music was part of
life. And for those middle-class families that were not musical themselves, classical music
was still appreciated as a consumption practice. By contrast, classical music was unfamiliar
to most of the parents of the working-class or lower middle-class research participants. Based
on these accounts, attributing value to classical music seems to be a classed practice.
Interestingly, the classed aspects of this practice often remained unacknowledged, with
participants referring to ‘musical families’ rather than ‘middle-class families’, thus adding to
the often unstated value of classical music.
In analysing and discussing these patterns in Scharff’s data, we do not suggest that the value
attributed to classical music is congruent with class position. Bull’s study, for example, found
that young men from established middle-class or upper-middle-class families chose to go into
professional careers outside music, due to higher earning potential and status (Bull,
forthcoming), engaging with classical music as a form of ‘serious leisure’ (Stebbins, 1982:
251). Some of their female peers, by contrast, did opt to pursue a career in classical music.
The link between class background and the value attributed to classical music – in terms of
pursuing it professionally – is, therefore, not a direct one, but tenuous and, in this case, also
intersects with gender.
2. Beyond the home: practices of classical music production and consumption
Once musicians move outside of their family spaces and into the wider classical music world,
there are strongly codified practices of both producing and consuming classical music that are
required of performers and audiences at classical music institutions.Researchers have
documented the confidence and ‘assured optimism’ into which middle-class and upper-class
young people are socialised into both by their families and through elite schooling (Bourdieu
1984; Forbes and Lingard 2013). While O’Brien and Oakley (2015) suggest that higher
education is a key site where consumption and production come together to reinforce
inequalities, we would suggest that in classical music, it is not only higher education
institutions but cultural institutions more generally that perform this function.
One practice associated with both classical music production and consumption is being
comfortable in the grand spaces in which classical music tends to be performed. For the
young people in Bull’s study, this was not simply a one-off chance to visit the Albert Hall, but
a long-term process of becoming habituated to spending time in venues associated with
legitimate culture such as large concert halls, cathedrals, churches, and other prestigious
venues. As Skeggs (1997) and Hoggart (1957), have described, this right to inhabit space
without being challenged, and the sense of entitlement to be present in such spaces, is less
available to working-class people.
As well as gaining the right to these spaces, what links production and consumption in
classical music’s spaces are the practices of classical music. These of course only apply to
live classical music; we discuss private listening below. Practices of attending classical music
concerts such as knowing when to clap have frequently been cited as putting off the non-
initiated from classical music attendance (Molleson, 2013). Also important is the reverent,
still and silent listening (Levine, 1990). This forms a contrast to working-class cultural
consumption, which has been described as prioritising pleasure, irreverence, informality, and
give-and-take with performers (Bailey, 1978; Barrett, 2016; Dueck, 2013).
The highly ritualised production practices within these spaces have associations with class.
One clear example are the requirements of dress for classical music performers. Standard
concert dress is dinner jackets for men (which includes black dress trousers, white shirts and
black leather shoes), and ‘long black’ for women, which means wearing black clothing such
as ankle-length dresses, skirts or trousers, covering elbows and knees. While Charles Rosen
(2002, 118) suggests that this dress code draws attention to musicians’ historic status as
members of the servant class, we would suggest that these associations have changed over
time and now have a different signification. In particular, for women, classical music’s mode
of dress makes visible the associations of respectable middle-class femininity with classical
music, as described by Bull (2016a). For example, during a concert in which Bull was
playing with one of the youth orchestras in her study, the young women all wore modest
clothing except one young woman who stood out for having very high wedge heels and
bright peroxide blonde hair. These differences operated as transgressions within this social
environment because they are signifiers that are attached to working-class femininity
The unspoken value of classical music was also apparent in the modes of consumption
described by the young people in Bull’s study. These varied across genres of music, revealing
a ‘hierarchy among the omnivores’ (Tampubolon, 2010). The most important narrative of
consumption of classical music, which demonstrates its unspoken value, was discourses of its
emotional ‘depth’. Brass player Owen, from a lower middle-class family who did not listen to
classical music at home, described why he started playing classical music: “I think the fact
that you could actually respond to the music in terms of the depth of the music, emotional
depth […] It's quite a personal thing, I think”. Another violinist, Jenny, couldn’t understand
why people listened to commercial pop music, saying ‘I think people love it so much but
really there's no depth to it. I don't necessarily now think that's a bad thing because it's for
enjoyment, so if it brings joy to people then fair enough, but when it's really deep music…’.
Jenny is suggesting here that classical music, because of its depth, is about more than simply
enjoyment. Instead, the ‘depth’ of this music connotes a seriousness and an importance
which enjoyable music such as pop music do not allow.
Other studies on classical music and listening confirm this link (McCormick, 2015). DeNora
(2000) describes how one woman listens to Schubert in private to remember her father, who
loved this music and who has passed away. DeNora contrasts this with other musics whose
‘affordances’ lend themselves to embodied activity such as aerobics. Similarly, among Bull’s
participants, pop music genres were linked to embodied modes of listening; one young
woman described how she listened to ‘offensive’ (i.e. sexualised) rap while she was running;
another young man described how he only listened to pop music when he went out dancing.
As well as a discourse of ‘depth’, some young people described listening to classical music as
‘work’ and said that they did not listen to it for pleasure. What we would add to DeNora’s
account, therefore, is an attention to the differential value attributed to genres through these
listening practices, in which ‘deep’ emotional experiences are associated with classical music,
while embodied activity or enjoyment was associated with other genres. These discourses of
seriousness and depth that are used to describe people’s experience of classical music
demonstrate its unspoken value; rather than being consumed for leisure or enjoyment,
classical music allows access to a mode of selfhood of ‘inner depth’ which, as Skeggs (2003)
describes, has historically been afforded to the middle class rather than the working class.
3. Hierarchies of value in production and consumption
In Bull’s study, judgments of taste and value emerged in data on both production and
consumption. Hierarchies of musical value were clearly visible within production practices.
While young people’s judgements of value in relation to taste were more circumspect, they
nevertheless revealed different types of value attributed to certain genres of music over
Hierarchies of value were clearly visible in rehearsals and discussions of repertoire around
the young music groups in Bull’s study. Young people saw ‘serious’ or ‘proper’ music as
distinct from ‘cheesy’ or ‘jazzy’ music, a boundary-drawing practice which worked to
safeguard the value and legitimacy of classical music (Bull, 2015). One example of this came
from rehearsals during a summer holiday orchestra course. The conductor, Olly, had chosen a
programme of film music, including music from Spiderman and Pirates of the Caribbean.
During rehearsals, Olly gave examples of how film composers had drawn on classical
composition techniques, thus dignifying this music with a lineage that drew on the classical
canon. Nevertheless, he made it clear to the orchestra that film music was not part of this
canon, referring to it a couple of times as ‘McDonalds’ music’ because it had ‘no nutrition
value’. It was therefore acceptable to play film music as long as it was underpinned by a
healthy diet of weighty, canonic orchestral repertoire; we had played Vaughan Williams and
Shostakovich on the previous course.
By contrast, in discussing their own musical taste and consumption practices, the young
people were careful about making value judgements, seeming to have an awareness of the
complex moral politics involved in making judgements of musical taste. While many of my
participants described their ‘omnivore’ musical tastes, this broad palette had limits. A large
minority, around a third, reported that they would not listen to rap or urban genres, similar to
the number that Savage (2006) found disliking urban genres in the UK population. What is
significant therefore is not the fact that they said they would never listen to it, but the ways
they narrated this. A common caveat was to narrate their preference as 'not understanding'
urban music, with one young woman explaining that ‘I just don't understand rap. I don't feel
like I'm equipped to enjoy it, I can't really appreciate it’, and another simply explained 'I don't
get rap... I can't listen to it'.
An elaboration of this position came from one young man, Adam, who was embarking on a
successful career within classical music after having attended a top UK state school. He
described his musical tastes as eclectic but said that he wouldn’t usually listen to rap. He
Sometimes I think that that sort of music is sort of aggressive without there being any
benefit. There's no purpose to it. Aggressive for the sake of it. I mean, that's quite an
uncritical thing to say, but I don’t know, sometimes I feel that – aggression is driven by
passion I think, and if you listen to someone like Eminem, see that, I think he's a very
clever guy, you can hear the passion in the lyrics, and even if it is an aggressive sound,
you're sort of willing to take it, because it's... justified, it has some sort of... I don't know,
it has reason to be there, and therefore it's moving. I guess it's an emotional connection
that I look for.
While tastes for rap and urban musics are also racialized (Rose, 1994), we focus on the
dimension of class here. Bourdieu (1987) draws on a relational understanding of class
whereby actors are distributed according to their varying degrees of capital to suggest that
remoteness in social space can lead to aversion or lack of understanding of those who inhabit
that space. People make classifications according to their own subjective positions. Adam’s
lack of understanding of the kind of ‘aggression’ he hears in urban music suggests that this
emotion is illegible to him. By contrast, Eminem’s music is valued by Adam because Eminem
is a ‘clever guy’. The lack of understanding of rap that Adam and others describe is a
classification shaped by their distance in social space from those who predominantly produce
and consume urban genres.
While Warde (2011) found that cultural dislikes such as this were generally not strongly
marked by class (with some exceptions, including classical music), this example shows how
classical music’s value is shored up by comparison with other genres. First, the social
distance of some of these young people from groups who consume urban genres renders this
music illegible to them. But more importantly, there is a process of valuing going on, which,
as Green (2003) describes, takes ways of assessing classical music and applies them to other
genres. In this case, the value of complexity or being ‘clever’, which is important for judging
quality in classical music, is used to negatively assess music from a different genre. A further
example that we add to Green’s taxonomy is the discourse of ‘emotional depth’. Adam notes
that he is looking for an ‘emotional connection’ with the music, and finds aggression justified
when it is linked with ‘passion’. This links into the discourse of ‘depth’ and ‘serious music’
described above, pointing towards a particular mode of bourgeois selfhood of ‘inner depth’
(Taylor, 1989: 111).
These examples demonstrate that despite reluctance to describe their musical tastes in terms
of value judgements, the higher value accorded to classical music in production practices
carries over into consumption. Examining production and consumption together, in this
instance, helps to make visible the ways in which the more careful judgements of taste and
value among the consumption data mirror stronger patterns in the data on production.
This article has focused on class inequalities in contemporary classical music practice. By
drawing on empirical data from two separate research projects, it linked inequalities in
production and consumption in three ways. First, we explored the role of family socialisation
in classical music production and consumption. For middle-class research participants,
classical music was practiced and consumed at home. Engagement with classical music was
perceived as ‘natural’, suggesting that classical music was valued, and that the attribution of
value was uncontested. By contrast, research participants from working-class or lower
middle-class backgrounds reported that classical music was unfamiliar; it was not listened to
at home and research participants struggled to garner their parents’ support. By discussing
their families’ attitudes towards classical music, the research participants talked about class
differences, even if these often remained unnamed. Crucially, we contrasted this analysis with
the finding from Bull’s study that young men from established middle-class or upper-class
backgrounds opted not to pursue a career in classical music. In doing so, our analysis has
foregrounded the complex relationship between class background and the value attributed to
As the second empirical section showed, class inequalities also come to the fore in practices
of performing and listening to classical music. Feeling comfortable and confident in grand
spaces, as well as wearing appropriate dress is not something that seems to be equally
available to musicians from different class backgrounds. There is continuity between middle-
class culture, the spaces that classical music tends to be performed in, and the dress code,
especially for women. This also highlights the role of cultural institutions as spaces where
inequalities of production and consumption may influence each other and be reinforced.
Thus, class inequalities also manifest themselves in the consumption of classical music. As
we have demonstrated, the attribution of depth to classical music, and the resulting distinction
between different genres constitutes a further way in which practices of consuming classical
music are classed. The research participants’ value-judgements, which we discussed in the
third empirical section, revealed hierarchies where classical music was, through non-explicit
mechanisms, situated at the top. While the young people in Bull’s study often had
omnivorous musical tastes, this did not mean they valued all genres equally. Furthermore,
those who preferred not to listen to rap music described this was because they did not
understand it. This appears to be because rap cannot be evaluated by the same criteria as
classical music. However, this hierarchy of value often remained invisible. Arguably, this
hierarchy is so taken for granted that individuals do not name it explicitly.
In discussing our empirical data, we foregrounded the unspoken and uncontested value of
classical music and how this seems to map onto middle-class culture, albeit in non-direct and
complex ways. Classical music was ‘naturally’ practiced and listened to in middle-class
homes where the status of classical music remained uncontested, even if it was not pursued
professionally. The attribution of depth to classical music gestured at a seriousness and
importance that differed from other genres. The unspoken value of classical music came to
the fore in listening practices, where classical music was not consumed for fun or for
embodied leisure practices such as jogging, but was associated with people’s identity and
sense of self. Lastly, classical music was frequently and implicitly valued more highly than
other genres, both in the production and the consumption of classical music. Young musicians
were taught to see less value in ‘McDonald’s’ music such as film music, and some described
how other genres were illegible to them, and therefore they could not see value in them.
Based on these examples, we argue that the uncontested status of classical music plays a key
role in the ways in which class inequalities manifest themselves in its production and
There are several ways in which we could take our arguments further by, for example,
exploring how the classed practices we described intersect with race and gender. But for the
purposes of concluding this article, we continue with the theme of the uncontested status of
classical music and broaden it out to classical music funding. Historically and today, classical
music has received highly disproportionate levels of state funding compared to other genres
of music (Laing and York, 2000; Monk, 2014; Hodgkins, 2013). Analysing the value of music
in London at the end of the last century, Dave Laing and Norton York (2000) showed that
classical music attracted 90% of the available public subsidy, whilst only accounting for 10 –
15% of total annual ticket sales. Since then, there seems to have been little change with
82.7% of total Arts Council portfolio funding for music in 2015-18 allocated to orchestral
music, opera and music theatre (Monk, 2014). In this context, we find it notable that – to our
knowledge – the high levels of state funding for classical music are rarely critically discussed
in media and public debates. Arguably, this opens up the wider question about the potential
links between the uncontested value of classical music in practices of production and
consumption on the one hand, and its seemingly unchallenged status as recipient of public
funding on the other. Crucially, this is not just a broader point about public funding and
cultural policy in the UK. The question about the beneficiaries of public funding relates back
to our concern with inequalities and the communities who are being served and excluded
through cultural policies. If the value of classical music remains uncontested, existing
inequalities in classical music production and consumption may grow even greater.
1. The young people were mainly white and established or second-generation middle-class,
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participant (drawing on Reay et al.’s (2011) definitions). One was from a working-class
family, four from lower middle class families, 28 from middle class families and four from
upper middle class families. All were white except one who was South Asian but had been
adopted into a white family.
2. 44 musicians identified as middle-class, 7 as working-class, and 2 as lower middle-class.
11 were not sure how to describe their socio-economic background, which resonates with
broader arguments that popular awareness of class seems to wane (Bennett et al., 2009). 56
described their racial background as white, 4 as mixed-raced, 2 as East Asian, 1 as black
and 1 as Asian.
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