Reproducing class?  Classical music education and inequality

Reproducing class? Classical music education and inequality

Image: The Cello Part for Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony

Anna Bull (Goldsmiths, University of London)


In recent years there has been a worldwide explosion of music education programmes which bring classical music to children in deprived areas, following the model of El Sistema, a Venezuelan music education project.  In the UK these ‘In Harmony El Sistema’ programmes have been set up in Stirling, Newcastle, Norwich, and Liverpool, and several other cities.  However, in the UK more generally classical music is overwhelmingly played and listened to by the middle and upper classes.  Does this gap between classical music’s usual suspects and its new recruits matter?

To answer this question, we need to examine the links between classical music and class.  Prevailing explanations for the dominance of the middle classes in classical music tend to be economic, suggesting that inequalities are simply a question of access.  Therefore, if we give all children access to instruments, good quality teaching, and clear progression routes, then class will no longer be an issue.

Clearly, economic barriers are very important.  Indeed, a recent report from the ABRSM (who run the grade exams) found that private instrumental lessons – especially on classical music instruments – are much more likely to be undertaken by those in what are called the AB social groups (i.e. middle and upper classes).  However, this study also found that the reasons that both children and adults give for choosing not to play a musical instrument is that they were not interested in learning, or that they have lost interest.  By contrast, the cost of lessons is only the seventh most important factor for those who have given up playing.  The biggest reason why people don’t play an instrument, according to this survey, is not because it’s too expensive, but because they don’t want to.

Given that classical music is mainly a middle-class taste, the reasons to do with not playing an instrument could also be associated with class.  This link between the middle classes and classical music becomes clearer when we look at the growth of the middle classes in Britain in the nineteenth century.  Classical music as a distinctive practice with the methods of rehearsal, performance, and education which we know today emerged in parallel with the bourgeoisie, and often through their efforts at institution-building.  This was distinct from the brass band and choral tradition.

In music education this is particularly visible.  The grade exam boards and music conservatoires which shape the musical lives of young musicians today were predominantly established between 1872 and 1893.  There is a surprisingly paucity of research into the history of these institutions.  However, new research by Erin Johnson-Hill shows that the class divide which was built into these institutions in the late 19th century was around people who read staff notation – what we would call standard notation, who were middle-class; and those who used alternative notation systems, such as the Tonic Sol-fa method, which was widely used for choral singing in the nineteenth century, who were predominantly working-class.  The major classical music institutions, the grade exam boards and music conservatoires – used staff notation.

What’s really interesting is that this divide between standard staff notation and alternative notations is still with us now, and this still appears to be a class divide.  Today, instead of Tonic Sol-fa, alternative notations might be guitar tabs, or music technology software.  This idea is borne out by unpublished research by Born, Devine and Taylor (presented at a recent conference on Music, Digitisation and Mediation) into those who study music at university, based on UCAS data.  They found that those who do music degrees are drawn more from the middle class, while those who study music production or music technology tend to be working-class boys.  Students who do music degrees are likely to have taken A-level music, which requires the ability to read staff notation.  This suggests that broadly speaking, there is still today a class divide around different forms of musical literacy.

Why might this be?  Partly as a result of this history, there is today a congruence or ‘fit’ between ways of learning classical music and middle-class culture.  Education sociologists have spent the last forty years asking why certain groups – the middle classes in particular – do better at school than others.  They have demonstrated how mainstream education privileges the middle classes over other groups because it is a system of education which is designed around the same models of interaction and language which the middle classes use at home.  It was in effect designed by the middle classes for the middle classes – school simply makes sense to many middle-class people.

Why is this relevant for contemporary music education?  Forthcoming research into the In Harmony El Sistema programme in Norwich, Newcastle, and Stoke on Trent demonstrates that this ‘fit’ between school culture and home culture that the sociology of education has described appears to be reproduced in classical music education.  The children who did well in these music education programmes tended to be those who also enjoyed school and did well at it.  This mirrors the link between those who do well at school being the middle class children.  This means that it is possible that the In Harmony Sistema programmes could be reproducing the same inequalities which mainstream education produces.

There are several similarities between classical music and mainstream education which might lead to both advantaging the same groups of pupils.  First, classical music, like mainstream education, is a model of learning where the teacher or adult has more knowledge and skill than the child or learner.  While this may be necessary in schools, music education is a space where the adult can be a facilitator rather than an authority, as the many successful programmes run by Youth Music  demonstrate.  Secondly, this is a mode of practice where there is a clear sense of right and wrong.  There is space for interpretation in classical music, but getting it right is a constant preoccupation, so there is less room to play around and experiment than in other genres.  This exacerbates the authority of teacher over learner, similarly to mainstream schooling.  And finally, the instruments used in classical music are beautiful, but difficult.  This means they need a long term investment of time and effort from a learner who is able to have belief in their future self as being able to do something their current self cannot.  This requires a way of experiencing time which is long-term and future-oriented – where either the parents or the children can imagine and invest in the future and that it seems worth doing so.  For those in less secure class positions, without financial security, housing security or job security, it makes a lot less sense to plan long-term.  Furthermore, sociological literature on parenting and class shows that it is middle-class parents who prioritise investing in their child’s future.  By contrast, working-class parents are less likely to be able to afford the time or money to do this.  They tend to be more likely to see the child as a fully-formed person in their own right, rather than investing in the person they are going to be.

These are just some of the similarities between mainstream education, which tends to reward middle-class children, and classical music education.  So for working-class or lower-middle-class children playing classical music, there is a particular future-oriented value-system which they need to buy into in order to progress.  My current research, looking at young people aged 16-21 who participate in youth orchestras and youth choirs, seeks to explore these links.  For the lower-middle-class young people in my study, classical music often was a route towards class mobility, or improving their class position.  For some, it was an escape route out of the area they had grown up in, and a way to learn how to be middle class.  However, they talked about the correction and improvement required in classical music almost as though it were correcting themselves – practising and working hard at classical music was a way to transform themselves into the ideal middle-class person that they saw as represented by this music.  The lower middle-class young people in my research were more likely to recount being bullied by music teachers, and to see this bullying as their own fault because they weren’t good enough.  They were trying to re-make themselves to fit into this world, but sometimes this took a considerable toll on their mental health and their sense of self.

What does all of this mean for music education programmes such as In Harmony El Sistema which bring classical music to ‘deprived’ or working-class communities?  It suggests that the benefits of classical music may not be evenly shared, but instead may be more easily accessible to those who already fit into a middle-class world.  In order to shift these ongoing inequalities, I would suggest that we need to change the musical practice itself by letting the music evolve and change more.  While some music conservatoires are still following the same formula they did a hundred years ago, others are changing their practices by getting students to play with musicians from other genres, improvise, and learn how to use music technology. This kind of experimentation will help with opening up this world to a more diverse and representative range of people.


Anna Bull is an ESRC-funded PhD student at Goldsmiths, University of London.  Her previous career was as a pianist and cellist. This article was presented at a public discussion event at the Arts and Humanities Festival, Kings College London, as part of a panel discussion on inequalities in classical music, called ‘What lies beneath? Exploring the hidden currents of the classical music world‘. This followed on from an academic conference called ‘Classical music, critical challenges‘ at Kings College London organised by Anna Bull and Dr Christina Scharff.