Class, Control, and Classical Music

I’m delighted to announce that my book, Class, Control, and Classical Music, is now out with Oxford University Press. Please contact Alyssa Russell at OUP on if you would like to obtain a review copy.

I recently gave a very short introduction to the book at the Congress of the Swiss Sociological Association. The talk is below, in case you want to get a brief idea of what the book is about. This introduction was aimed at a sociological audience so it focuses on some of the ideas that I thought sociologists would be interested in. I’ll try and blog something about the book for a general audience and a musicology/music education audience as well as soon as I get a minute.


I’ll start by outlining the problem this book seeks to address. In the UK, as with many other countries across Europe as well as the Global North, cultural production and consumption is heavily stratified by class position – and yet despite this, the vast majority of public funding for culture goes towards those forms of culture consumed by the middle and upper classes. Music is, in the UK, the most divided form of cultural consumption across class and classical music is much more to be played and listened to by the middle classes – for example, Mike Savage (2006) found that those with a bachelor’s degree were six times more likely to listen to classical music than those without. Despite these patterns, sociology has, until recently, neglected classical music as an object of study. However, as I have argued in my book, it is a fascinating lens through which to examine the institutions and subjectivities of modernity. The question the book seeks to answer is why these patterns persist – why does classical music[1] remain the preserve of the white middle classes?

I focus on cultural production, drawing on my own background as a classical pianist and cellist. In the study I drew on my musical skills to carry out an ethnographic study with four extra-curricular youth classical music ensembles in the south of England, carrying out interviews, focus groups, and participant observations with young people aged 16-21.

One of my key arguments is that inequalities in cultural production need to be understood through examining the practices that are used to create the aesthetic. Against earlier approaches in the sociology of music that focus on the social relations of producing culture, such as Becker’s ‘Art Worlds’, I draw on new directions in sociology of culture that that include the aesthetic of the cultural object in a social analysis (eg Banks, 2018; Born, 2010). Classical music has a very distinctive form of aesthetic beauty; it is primarily produced from a written score, without amplification, and requires high levels of technical skill to be able to play its instruments and its canonic repertoire. Musicians in my study aimed to ‘faithfully’ reproduce the intentions of the composer, and in order to do this they needed to cultivate precision, attention to detail and technical ability.

These demands create what I call an aesthetic of ‘getting it right’, as classical musicians have a clear sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ despite discourses of the creativity of the performer. There are particular social and embodied practices that are needed to create this aesthetic. It requires a long-term investment of time, money and effort that is more possible, and makes more sense for middle- and upper-class families. But the clear ideas of right and wrong around the aesthetic of classical music, as institutionalised in British music education, mean that any questions of how the aesthetic itself might contribute to reproducing inequalities are disallowed.

Through defending these aesthetic norms, which create social barriers, classical music allows the middle classes to construct symbolic, cultural and economic boundaries to around their protected spaces – whether cultural spaces within cities, educational spaces, or imagined communities. But because the discourse around the ‘autonomy’ of the aesthetic is very strong in classical music – the music is seen as outside of any social concerns – it camouflages this boundary-drawing so it is seen as ‘natural’. We can also see in music education further quintessentially middle-class practices – reproducing privilege through education, and storing and passing on value within institutions. These practices of creating the distinctive aesthetic of classical music requires particular embodied dispositions and the formation of these can be examined through studying education sites.

I’ll finish with a brief example from my fieldwork that demonstrates the acquisition of this mode of embodiment, and shows how it was linked with the aesthetic of the music itself. In one of the youth orchestras in my study, I was playing the cello as a participant observer, as we rehearsed a piece by Shostakovich. A professional conductor was leading the rehearsals, and he was giving instructions to the orchestra. One of these instructions he gave was to play with ‘a disciplined balance of control and excitement’. The music needed to sound more ‘exciting’, he said, but we were never to lose control; we had to cultivate a disposition of ‘controlled excitement’.

This comment made explicit one aspect of the mode of embodiment that was required to create the distinctive aesthetic of classical music. Indeed, this juxtaposition of measurement and emotion calls to mind Elias’ ‘controlled de-controlling of emotional control’ (2000). Mike Featherstone (2007, 80) has taken up this idea to argue that this ‘controlled de-control’ is an attribute of an emerging middle class self in the late twentieth century. In fact, I demonstrate that this disposition has a longer history by tracing it back to accounts of classical music rehearsals during the 1830s, while also linking this aesthetic and embodied ideal to norms of whiteness through the ‘controlled, compact, and concise’ embodiment that Christy Kulz and her participants at an academy school in London identified (Kulz, 2018).

This is just one of the ways in which I use my ethnographic data to trace what I call an ‘articulation’ or a ‘contingent connection’ between middle-class dispositions and subjectivities in the UK and the practices and norms of classical music. If you can’t get hold of a copy of the book, please feel free to email me on and I can send you pre-publication copies of any chapters you are interested in.

If you’re teaching this material, you may want to introduce some of these ideas via the short film (4 mins) I made for The Sociological Review about the gendered and classed authority of the conductor in classical music, in conjunction with the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain.


[1] In the introduction to the book I critically discuss my use of the term ‘classical music’. To sum up, I use this term as it is the vernacular term my participants used. However, I acknowledge that conceptualisations of classical music in relation to theories of genre are underdeveloped.


Banks, M., 2017. Creative Justice: Cultural Industries, Work and Inequality. Rowman & Littlefield International, Lanham.

Becker, H.S., 1982. Art Worlds. University of California Press, Berkeley, California; London.

Born, G., 2010. The Social and the Aesthetic: For a Post-Bourdieuian Theory of Cultural Production. Cultural Sociology 4, 171–208.

Elias, N., Dunning, E., Goudsblom, J., Mennell, S., 2000. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Wiley, Malden, MA.

Featherstone, M., 2007. Consumer Culture and Postmodernism. SAGE, Los Angeles, California; London.
Kulz, C., 2017. Factories for Learning: Producing Race and Class Inequality in the Neoliberal Academy. Manchester University Press, Manchester.
Savage, M., 2006. The musical field. Cultural Trends 15, 159–174.
Class, Control, and Classical Music

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