Musical standards and middle-class affinities

I recently posted a brief introduction to my new book, Class, control, and classical music. The book draws on research with young people aged 16-21 in youth classical music ensembles in the south of England. In this post, I want to look at another aspect of my argument: how musical standards of ability contribute to retaining classical music in the UK as a middle-class space.

Previous research on middle-class identities in the UK has argued that the middle classes, while far from being a homogeneous group, tend to share ‘a strong commitment to education as key to middle-class cultural reproduction’ (Reay, Crozier, and James 2011, 19), and ‘an ability to erect boundaries, both geographically and symbolically’ (12). It is through these means, and others such as setting up institutions to pass on value through generations, that the middle classes preserve their status over time. One example of how the middle classes erect boundaries is suburbanisation – setting up/colonising areas where they can be with other people like them. Another is private schooling. Studying the middle classes is therefore the study of struggles over boundaries, of inclusions and exclusions to protected spaces, and of the formation of collective identities within these spaces.

So, in what ways (if at all) does musical ‘standard’ work as a middle-class practice of boundary-drawing, and storing value in a protected space? In the youth classical music groups in my study (a youth choir, two youth orchestras and a youth opera group) musical standards of ability were both an extremely important, but also somewhat nebulous and contestable concept. There was a common understanding among my participants that they played better when playing or singing with others who were more advanced than them. But alongside this belief in musical standard as variable, my participants believed in objective, individualised measures of musical standard such as grade exams.

Of course, these two ideas – standard as objective, and standard as variable according to who you are playing with – are not necessarily incompatible; you can improve incrementally but also be boosted in the moment by the musical company you’re keeping. However, the assumption that objective standards existed was a hugely important part of the common-sense understandings that shaped the social and musical worlds of the young people in my study and the idea that musical standard is quantifiable, individualised and hierarchised was overall given greater weight than the idea of musical standard as variable according to the standard of people you are playing or singing with. Furthermore, as other authors have explored (for example Lisa McCormick’s fascinating study of international classical music competitions (2015)) musical judgements are not as clear-cut as we might like to think.

However, among the young people in my study, the hierarchies that were formed through musical judgements also appeared to contribute to wider social hierarchies, including those around class. For some of these young musicians, being in a group where they were the best player and others were not as good as them was viewed negatively. This distaste appeared not to be solely about music, but also about the loss of hard-earned status; about how they perceived themselves and how others perceived them; and about who they were likely to socialise with. One of my interviewees talked about enjoying ‘being with such like-minded people’; this is of course something that most people can probably relate to, as it’s wonderful to find a social scene where you feel at home and you feel like you fit in – and this is perhaps particularly important for teenagers. But what isn’t necessarily always acknowledged is that such a sense of affinity – in sociological terms, a shared social space – is in part formed through class (and other social identity) likenesses. Indeed, studies from the UK show that both children and adults tend to make friends with those who share their class position and most people marry or partner with others from a similar class (Bennett et al. 2008, 220; Vincent et al., 2015). ‘Fitting in’ was therefore, in my study, not just about musical skills, but also about social affinity.

These shared notions of musical standards could affect classed patterns on a wider social scale. Although many of my research participants had started their music education within the public system, provided by local authority music services (now ‘hubs’), by around age 11 all of them were enrolled in private music education for one-to-one tuition. Many did participate in ensembles run by local authority music services but musical standards were a point of contention in relation to these publicly-run ensembles in various ways. This led young people – or their parents on their behalf – to ‘exit’ the public music services and join, or form, privately-run ensembles. The ‘common sense’ rationale for this from my participants was that they wanted to play in the best group, with the highest standard. Such stories describe the exit from public services by those who feel entitled to a higher quality of music-making than they are getting, and who have the resources, contacts and skills to make these groups happen without public support – very similar to private schooling.  However, these narratives also reveal assumptions behind classical music’s notion of musical standards: that it is important to sing or play with people at the same standard as yourself, rather than having mixed ability groups. Intermingling of people with different standards was not valued unless it was between teacher and student.

As well as avoiding mixed ability groups, another assumption that underlies these narratives is the that raising the musical standard or ‘excellence’ of the group is the most important overall aim. Working towards the highest musical standard was an unquestioned good, trumping any other considerations around access, affordability, representativeness, social mixing, or the importance of remaining within a public system. This common-sense idea of musical ‘excellence’ makes the assumption that widening access and increasing the diversity of participants will compromise the quality of musical product. However, this mode of thinking has been challenged by England’s national public arts funding body, Arts Council England, in their ‘Creative Case for Diversity’ policy (2011) which argues that diversity within the creative process produces artistic innovation. This approach would mean that making music with a group of ‘like-minded’ people of the same ‘calibre’ would in fact work against innovation and creativity, and in this way inhibit ‘excellence’ of outcomes.

In this way, musical standard can work on a wider political level when people come together to form musical groups on the basis of a shared sense of entitlement to a particular kind of musical experience for themselves or their children. This exit from public provision fits a broader pattern middle-class secession from public services such as education or healthcare. This process was about musical standards, but at the same time it was also, and equally, about class. In this way, musical standard and the social affinities that these reinforce can have a wider political effect that intersects with class structures. The ideals of musical ability and excellence that provide part of the rationale for this exodus appear to be separate from social processes because of assumptions that musical standard is the property of the individual. However, the effects are social as well as musical: they safeguard the ‘social mix’ of ‘like-minded people’ of similar ‘calibre’.

Classical music’s value is, in this way, upheld through a quintessentially middle-class practice: closing off spaces where its value is stored. However, unlike in other spaces of middle-class boundary-drawing such as private schooling or gated communities, the boundaries are camouflaged and denied. Rather than existing in physical space, the boundaries can be found in the aesthetic of the music which requires years of investment of time, money and effort to be able to successfully embody, and which is seen as ‘autonomous’ from the social world rather than doing this political work of exclusion. In this way, the music itself does the boundary-drawing work that retains classical music as a predominantly middle-class space.


Arts Council England, 2011. What is the Creative Case for Diversity? [accessed 24/10/2016]

Bennett, T., Savage, M., Silva, E.B., Warde, A., Gayo-Cal, M., Wright, D., 2008. Culture, Class, Distinction. Routledge, London.

McCormick, L., 2015. Performing Civility: International Competitions in Classical Music. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Reay, D., Crozier, G., James, D., 2011. White Middle-Class Identities and Urban Schooling. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York.

Vincent, C., Neal, S., Iqbal, H., 2015. Friendship and Diversity. Children’s and Adults’ Friendships Across Social Class and Ethnic Difference.


Musical standards and middle-class affinities

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