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The cultural value of classical music by Anna Bull

Back in October 2014, I visited Cambridge for the first time, to do a presentation for a CRASSH event organised by the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Performance Network entitled ‘Creativity and Capitalism: Opponents or Allies?’. My answer, which drew on a project I had been working on for most of that year, in short, was ‘it depends whose point of view and interests you’re judging from’. On that very interesting occasion, I had the pleasure of meeting Anna Bull properly, after quite a long time of twitter interactions. Anna was then a PhD student nearing completion of her thesis, and I was fascinated by her research into youth music ensembles, and how they reproduce both class and gender. We had a chance to chat, and Anna mentioned an event that she had organized with a colleague which sounded so relevant to the debates hosted on this blog that I invited her to write a post about it. Anna’s response was (rightly!) that she had to complete her thesis first, but that she would blog about the conference once she was a free woman again, post-PhD. True to her word, Dr Bull has revisited for us the conference held last year thus allowing us to cover, for the first time on this blog, classical music in relation to cultural value.


How can we understand the cultural value of classical music? This description, from an examiner listening to candidates take their grade exams in early twentieth century South Africa, provides a starting point:

“An unbroken succession of obviously bullied candidates crawl apologetically before [the examiner] in a condition which can only be adequately described as dithering. [...] Without a word spoken the unfortunate little automatons instantly plunge into hectic finger exercises or scales. [...] it is not uncommon for children to begin weeping even before they start to play. And so, one after the other, hour after hour, these pathetic youngsters come and go, each with fear in his heart and strain upon his face [...]. His hatred for music is complete.”

– Reminiscences of Colin Taylor, British music examiner in South Africa in the early twentieth century, for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. (with thanks to Erin Johnson-Hill).

This was the description that opened the second of two one-day conferences at Kings College London which I organised with Christina Scharff in October 2014, on critical perspectives on classical music practice (programmes can be found here and here). The cultural value of classical music in Britain is, in this account, framed in terms of its history as part of the British colonial project. Music historian Erin Johnson-Hill from Yale University went on to describe how:

“most musicologists have habitually shied away from critiquing the cultural roots of the establishment of musical authority in Britain because so many of us, from Britain or the British Commonwealth, are a part of this legacy, and still buy into its prestige.”

Not only musicologists, but also ethnomusicologists and sociologists have also shied away from examining classical music, the colonial roots of its practices and institutions, and the inequalities that characterise it today. These two one-day interdisciplinary conferences, and the public panel discussion on classical music and inequality which followed them, brought together academics and non-academic partners to discuss these questions. We were interested in classical music practice – the social organisation, norms, values, inequalities, and bodies – which make up the somewhat closed and strongly codified culture of classical music practice. Research on amateur and professional music-making; on education; on inequality; on funding structures; on performance norms; on competitions; and more, was presented over the course of two days.


Galliard String Quartet: Photo by University of Hawaii – West Oahu Via Flickr Creative Commons


The theme of ‘civilizing missions’ (Beckles Willson 2013), as exemplified in the quotation above, recurred over the two days. Erin Johnson-Hill, Roe-Min Kok, Laudan Nooshin, and Rachel Beckles Willson spoke about classical music’s role in the British colonies, Sri Lanka and India, Iran, and Palestine. These debates around the apparent civilizing potential of classical music were brought into dialogue with current education practices in a panel on education with Mark Rimmer and Geoff Baker discussing research on El Sistema in Britain and Venezuela. I presented some of my doctoral research on young people playing classical music in England, showing that the apparent ‘social benefits’ of classical music are unevenly shared, and Douglas Lonie from Arts-Council funded charity Youth Music argued that the policy of ‘let’s give every child a violin’ has been tried and found wanting.

Rather than describing all the excellent, provocative, and varied papers (abstracts can be seen on the website) I want to open out this discussion to ask why sociology, and indeed ethnomusicology (with the exception of Nooshin (2014), have neglected classical music, and what this means for discussions around cultural value. While historical approaches or contemporary classical music have been examined respectively by Tia DeNora (1995) and Georgina Born (1995) (who gave a fantastic keynote to our conference), classical music in practice has elicited little attention from sociology, with the exception of an emerging body of work within sociology of music education, including Wright (2010) and Green (1997). And yet it is a rich lens through which to explore social practices. For example, Christina Scharff’s work looks at how early career female classical musicians can be read as the ideal entrepreneurial neoliberal subjects; my work uses classical music as a site for an ethnography of middle-class youth; Lisa McCormick spoke about her forthcoming monograph on negotiations between bureaucracy and the aesthetic in international classical music competitions; and Mari Yoshihara (2008) has written on the experience, identity and representation of Asian American classical musicians.

Johnson-Hill’s assertion that many of us still buy into the prestige of classical music is an important starting point in understanding why classical music as contemporary practice has largely escaped critical attention. A related factor is the powerful identity-forming work which classical music does, which makes those of us who are trained in it reluctant to confront it with a critical eye. However, Paul Atkinson (2006), in his ethnography of Welsh National Opera, argues that sociology’s neglect of classical music stems from a form of ‘inverse snobbery’, presumably meaning that sociologists want to study the cool kids who are playing pop music, not the geeky kids learning violin. Rather than ‘inverse snobbery’, I would re-frame Atkinson’s argument to suggest that it is the lack of revolutionary potential in classical music that makes sociologists turn away from it and study popular culture instead, where they hope to find resistance. However, for those of us who want examine how norms and values are reproduced rather than resisted, classical music is a good place to look.

Why is this conversation necessary for the debate around cultural value? Questions of inequality, hegemony, class, and education, which sociology specialises in, can illuminate the ways in which classical music carries cultural value, and what this value does. Therefore, bringing a sociological lens to bear on this world is an essential part of the cultural value arsenal (and indeed our conferences did hear from two Cultural Value projects: Mark Rimmer’s work on In Harmony El Sistema, as mentioned above, and Stephanie Pitts’ research into lapsed amateur musicians). Rather than simply asking ‘what is cultural value?’ this allows us to ask ‘what is cultural value, and for whom is it valuable?’ Classical music is not a neutral good which can be rolled out to (for example) ‘deprived’ children in the hope of rescuing them from a life of drugs and crime (as the El Sistema rhetoric would have it). Instead, its history is encompassed in its practices and its aesthetic; the hugely powerful performance norms which are strictly followed today constitute a palimpsest of this history.

As an increasing number of organisations are recognising, the musical practices themselves need to change in order to increase ‘diversity’ (that much-critiqued term). The difficult conversations about what this might look like are just beginning to happen.


NOTE: These two conferences were followed by a public panel discussion on classical music and inequality. The video can be found here. Christina Scharff’s report on ‘Equality and Diversity in the Classical Music Profession’ can be found here.



Atkinson, Paul. 2006. Everyday Arias: An Operatic Ethnography. Oxford: Rowman Altamira.

Baker, Geoffrey. 2015. El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. Oxford ; New York: OUP USA.

Beckles Willson, Rachel. 2013. Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Born, Georgina. 1995. Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press.

DeNora, Tia. 1995. Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical Politics in Vienna, 1792-1803. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.

Green, Lucy. 1997. Music, Gender, Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McCormick, Lisa. forthcoming. Performing Civility: International Competitions in Classical Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nooshin, Laudan. 2014. The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music. Routledge.

Wright, Ruth. 2010. Sociology and Music Education. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Yoshihara, Mari. 2008. Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.



Anna Bull recently completed a PhD in the sociology department at Goldsmiths, University of London, looking at how class and gender are reproduced among young people playing classical music. Her previous career was as a pianist and cellist. She has also been involved in feminist and anti-detention activist groups. Her twitter handle is @anna_bull_




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