Classical music as genre

I’m delighted that my co-authored article with Christina Scharff, ‘Classical music as genre: Hierarchies of value within freelance classical musicians’ discourse’ has been published, open access, by the European Journal of Cultural Studies. Christina and I started thinking about this article as a result of an invitation to the Copenhagen Workshop on Genres in June 2018, hosted by Ana Alacovska and Dave O’Brien. Ana and Dave then invited us to submit an article to a special issue on the sociology of genre. While Christina and I had already written extensively about classical music and inequalities, one of the concerns that I had come across during this work was thinking about how to delineate classical music as an object of study, and how to justify our terminology of ‘classical music’ against the until-recent dominance in musicology of the term ‘Western Art Music’. In my book, Class, Control, and Classical Music, I included a short defence of my use of the term ‘classical music’, as well as drawing on Laudan Nooshin’s critique of the term ‘Western Art Music’. I argued that ‘classical music’ was the vernacular term the young musicians in my study used, and it denotes a recognisable phenomenon within everyday discourse.

At the same time, in my book I also drew – sometimes tacitly – on theorisations of genre that I’d been introduced to by Georgina Born when studying sociology at the University of Cambridge, where I did a sociology BA and M.Phil as a mature student (having quit my career as a freelance classical musician). Georgie introduced me to theoretical work on popular music, soap operas, and romance literature as a way of understanding how genres – whether in music, TV, or fiction – can ‘materialise’ identities, drawing together groups of people in shared fan-dom of a particular type of culture. But also, and crucially for theorisations of culture, this work explores how the cultural artefacts themselves can act back on these identities – for example, women’s fiction creating a safety valve where the emotions generated by living under patriarchy can be safely expressed. And perhaps most fascinatingly, while cultural institutions – publishers, record labels, or production companies, for example – may attempt to control the possibilities for the cultural artefacts that are produced, the audiences/fans/consumers, and the cultural producers themselves, re-work, re-imagine, and play with the aesthetic and social conventions of the genre in ways that can produce unexpected results.

This explanation starts to get at some of what I think is fundamental and generative to theorisations of genre: it draws together institutions, audiences, producers, and the aesthetic ‘texts’ themselves by looking at how aesthetic and social conventions circulate between them. This word ‘conventions’ does a lot of work in theories of genre – although Steve Neale expands this to ‘“orientations, expectations and conventions” (Neale 1980: 19), and in my book I found it helpful to ask what the ‘conventions’ of classical music are (for example, playing off a written score; non-amplified sounds and limiting use of sound production technologies; divisions of labour between performer, composer, and audience; etc).

One crucial thing that our new article does, building on this previous work, is to start to think about what happens when you draw on theorisations of genre – hitherto used almost exclusively to understand popular forms of culture (although see Jennifer Lena’s work) – to theorise ‘high’ culture. Indeed, the term ‘genre’ is even seen as antithetical to high culture, as Steve Neale observes in relation to literature:

Within a great deal of modern writing on literature, the kind of fiction exemplified by disaster novels and science fiction is often the only kind labelled as generic. The rest is ‘literary fiction’ or simply ‘literature’ proper. The latter is the province of ‘genuine’ literary art and ‘authentic’ authorial expression. The former, by contrast, is usually considered formulaic, stereotypical, artistically anonymous, and therefore artistically worthless. (2000, 19)

The resonances with discourses of classical music being a universal language, outside of any social concerns, where genius can express itself without constraint, are clear. Therefore, as part of Christina’s and my mission to re-locate classical music within the cultures that produce and consume it, theorising it as a genre in which particular social and aesthetic conventions circulate, is a helpful analytical step.

Of course there are important differences when drawing on theorisations of genre from popular culture when thinking about a ‘high’ cultural form. The most obvious and immediate difference is the role of institutions. In popular culture these are more likely to be commercial (although as David Hesmondhalgh describes in relation to ‘indie’ music (1999), the institutional form does not dictate the aesthetic outcomes), while in classical music in the UK, at least, these are more likely to be state-funded. What role do high cultural institutions play in the ways genres reproduce themselves? For example, how do the institutional logics – eg cultural policy imperatives (at least on paper) towards diversity shape the ways in which aesthetic forms develop? Genre theory can also, we suggest, help to make visible the ways in which inequalities are reproduced – or not – within cultural production and consumption.

Therefore, in this research, interviewees (18 early career female classical musicians, in a follow-up study to Christina’s research for her book) were simply asked whether they played any other genres in addition to classical, how they would define classical music as a genre, and how, if at all, classical music was different from other genres. A limitation of this research is that we were only speaking to cultural producers – and a distinct subsection of them – rather than drawing on voices from the different groups that genre theory draws together (producers, consumers, institutional leaders, funders, educators, etc). Nevertheless, the findings suggest there is definitely something to explore here as they both bore out and extended our previous analyses of classical music as a genre.

Indeed, one of our research participants, Felicity, made explicit the contrasting identity associations between a popular genre – punk – and classical music, as a high cultural genre:

It’s weird that [classical music’s] hard to define. Because, um, other, even much sort of smaller genres – because classical music is quite a wide genre, find themselves easier to define. And I think part of that is to do with audience because, for example, like punk rock defines itself by like sort of who – it’s an identity thing. And that identity is, also has edges of this is who we are and that’s who…That is who we’re not. Whereas classical music claims to be for everyone, in which case it’s a lot harder to find the edges of what it is and what it is not. But there are also sort of…I suppose part of it is just instruments and notation and concert practice, but even outside of that concert practice, it’s. You know, I guess it’s a thing built on tradition and, and therefore we know what it is because it’s [laughter] it’s part of our tradition.

We discuss this quote in more detail in the article, but here I will just highlight the idea Felicity tries to express, that classical music is ‘beyond’ identity – or at least, it is a ‘wide genre’ that it’s hard ‘to find the edges of’, and it isn’t tied to a narrow identity in the same way that punk is. Other interviewees also commented on this tension in classical music between its supposed universalism – i.e. not being tied to a particular social identity – and its stereotypical associations with whiteness, masculinity (particularly in the form of the ‘great’ composers) and middle-class-ness. I was particularly interested in these associations as when I was writing my book I struggled to find evidence for the fact that classical music is (still) seen as a universal language. One of the reviewers for my book pushed back against my argument that classical music is seen as universal, arguing that this idea is no longer current. I felt strongly that this is indeed still a commonly-held position but I didn’t have much evidence to make the argument, so it was interesting and validating to see that these young classical musicians recognised and reproduced (to some extent) the idea of classical music as universal.

Another affordance of making explicit classical music as a genre, and asking people to reflect on it, was that its value in contrast to other genres, and how this value is reproduced, could be made visible. This project of making visible the ways in which classical music – and the identities associated with it – are valued more highly than other genres has been a thread through Christina’s and my work, and in our 2017 article we also point out the way that disproportionate funding in the UK goes to classical music institutions (Bull and Scharff, 2017). In this article, the hierarchy of genres was made visible in other ways as well. One way was that non-classical genres were seen as ‘easier’. Molly argued that:

there definitely is some, some attitude. You know, like, ‘Oh, she plays with a band, that means that she’s playing really easy music’. And, you know that means, you know, she’s just, sort of accompanying someone who is, you know the big deal and, you’re just, sort of, in the background playing.

Here, the aesthetic-technical value whereby ‘playing with a band’ is assumed to be less skilled, also becomes a judgement of social worth. This supports Lucy Green’s findings that ‘complexity’ is one of the qualities valued within classical music (2003) – but of course, it is complexity of a specific kind, and forms of complexity or nuance that are valued in other genres, such as timbre, use of technology, or improvisation are devalued.

These attitudes went alongside a clear hierarchy of value within classical music. This is one of those ‘common sense’ findings that everyone knows, but which sociologists document anyway and in doing so get a reputation for pointing out the obvious. In this quote, Ruby makes it explicit:

There’s this hierarchy which is, you leave music college and if you are amazing you are a soloist and you’ve definitely won life. And if you’re quite good, you know, really meaning exceptional, you might get into an orchestra or you might be auditioning for orchestras or having a trial, and that’s… So that’s going quite well. If you’re not doing very well, I guess you’re freelancing, but who knows what that means, lots of question marks. So, really, you’re probably teaching, which is like ‘Oh, shame, good for you’. And then if you’re doing really badly you’re, like, not even working in music, in which case, like, well […]. So, yeah, pop, well, sits in this, like, weird, funny freelance bracket which no-one really knows what it is.

Crucially, however, this hierarchy is also a gendered hierarchy, whereby women are more likely to be working in teaching roles, while men dominate in the more prestigious conservatoire teaching roles (Scharff, 2017).

This leads onto our final, and perhaps most important point. Institutions – and in this data, we found that higher education institutions were particularly formative – play a crucial role in reproducing genre conventions and in maintaining genre boundaries. We found, similarly to Dawn Bennett (2008) that the musicians in our study all played across a range of genres, even if classical music was their ‘home’ genre. And yet, music colleges pigeon-holed musicians into a single primary genre – not always classical, as some described the possibility of music theatre or jazz pathways. But learning a variety of skills to be able to play across genres was not the norm, and the hierarchy of genres, with classical – and specifically orchestral playing – at the top, appeared to be upheld by these musicians’ experiences. Some of them even described dismissive or derogatory attitudes towards playing other types of music from their teachers at music college, with one interviewee, Juniper, describing that “My teachers are brilliant, but […] they always joke about this sort of theatre stuff being kind of what the drunks do and stuff, which really makes me cross “. Similarly, Molly felt that “everyone is slightly pushed into having to think that they are gonna, they need to play sonatas and solo repertoire all the time when they leave Music College, you know”.

This is particularly interesting given that the interviewees were mostly in their late 20s, and so would have graduated from music colleges within the last five to ten years. While it is clear that music conservatoires and music degrees have made, and are making changes to their curricula, the genre hierarchy of values actually resulted in musicians having a more limited education and poorer training for a musical career (thank you to Reviewer 2 for encouraging us to draw out this point more clearly).

You can read the full article here. We would like to thank the editors of the special issue, Dave O’Brien and Ana Alacovska, for the opportunity to publish in this special issue, as well as the two anonymous reviewers who both made some excellent points, not all of which we have managed to incorporate into the final version. To conclude, reflecting on these reviewers’ comments, there is a lot that we couldn’t do in such a short space in an empirical article. Most notably in future work – and as I have done to some extent in my book – we need to go further in drawing out the way the texts and aesthetic conventions of classical music are mobilised and play a role within the reproduction of genre hierarchies. However, in the meantime if readers want to think more about genre and music studies, I’d recommend David Brackett’s excellent book (particularly the introduction); Georgina Born’s work, especially her 2010 article (and I am hoping she is going to write more in this area); Jennifer Lena’s work, and David Hesmondhalgh’s and Simon Frith’s work, as well as Christabel Stirling’s brilliant PhD thesis, as detailed below.


Bennett, D.E., 2008. Understanding the classical music profession : the past, the present and strategies for the future. Ashgate, Aldershot.

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

Brackett, D., 2016. Categorizing Sound: Genre and Twentieth-Century Popular Music. University of California Press, Oakland, California.

Bull, A., 2019. Class, control and classical music. Oxford University Press, New York.

Bull, A., Scharff, C., 2017. ‘McDonalds’ Music’ Versus ‘Serious Music’: How Production and Consumption Practices Help to Reproduce Class Inequality in the Classical Music Profession. Cultural Sociology 11, 283–301.

Green, L., 2003. Why ‘Ideology’ is still relevant for critical thinking in music education. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 2, 1–24.

Hesmondhalgh, D., 1999. Indie: The Institutional Politics and Aesthetics of a Popular Music Genre. Cultural Studies 13, 34–61.

Frith, S., 1996. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Lena, J.C., 2019. Entitled: Discriminating Tastes and the Expansion of the Arts. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Lena, J.C., 2014. Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music. Princeton University Press, Princeton; Oxford.

Neale, S., 2000. Genre and Hollywood. Routledge, London.

Scharff, C., 2017. Gender, Subjectivity, and Cultural Work: The Classical Music Profession. Routledge, London.

Stirling, C., 2019. Orbital Transmissions: Affect and Musical Public-Making in London. University of Oxford, Oxford.

Classical music as genre

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