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Classical music and the middle classes: how practices produce the aesthetic

Dr Anna Bull (King's College London)

Why is classical music predominantly the preserve of the white middle classes? Despite decades of investment in outreach programmes and education schemes to broaden its appeal, classical music remains a taste and a practice of this particular social group. In this talk, I suggest that the aesthetic of classical music may play a part in this pattern. I draw on Bourdieusian notions of practice in order to theorise ways in which the aesthetic of classical music can be linked with the dispositions required for its production through exploring how historical legacies of the aesthetic shape its socialities today. Drawing on an ethnographic study of middle-class young people playing in classical music groups in the south of England, I describe ways in which the aesthetic ideals of classical music such as accuracy, precision, and fidelity to the written score require particular social practices which fit with the dispositions and values of the middle classes. These include long-term investment, intensive parenting, formal modes of social organisation, and a disposition of bodily restraint and 'controlled excitement'. Many of these practices, which are integral to the aesthetic of classical music, were institutionalised and codified by the European bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, and therefore contribute towards a continuity of modes of sociality within the middle-class fractions who participate in classical music. Boundary drawing around classical music as a taste and practice that confers distinction is therefore not separate from the aesthetic of the music, but intertwined with it.