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Fay Guiffo

Elitism and classical music in today’s society: between reality and fiction (part 1)

March 12, 2020


When I talk to non-musicians about my practice, I witness different reactions: some imagine a violinist playing in front of a snobbish assembly, some associate classical concerts to a boring activity, others (mostly those who have practiced classical music when they were children or teenagers) seem impressed and evoke the difficulty of committing to the practice of an instrument. Most of the time, people who have practiced classical music can picture a more complete vision of the classical music world. However, a certain cultural perception of classical music seems to be difficult to challenge: the idea that classical music is associated with a specific social class is certainly deeply rooted in today’s Western societies. Thus, classical music world is perceived as elitist, ‘elitist’ being defined by the Cambridge dictionary as practice ‘organized for the good of a few people who have special interests or abilities’ (Cambridge University Press, 2020). In this essay, I would like to question this assumption. Why and in what ways is classical music perceived as elitist by society? By engaging in this research, I will critically evaluate a wide range of literature and research resources which underpin the cultural landscape of music practice context. Also, I will critically analyse, evaluate and synthetize social and economic issues which are at the forefront of my art practice contexts such as the lack of diversity in the classical music world, and how some people can be discouraged from practicing music because of their background.

 First, I will explore the concrete reality from the musician’s and the audience’s perspective: How does the lack of diversity manifest itself? How is this elitism also reflected by the composition of audience? Then, I will try to define some catalysts of this cultural perception: what is the place of classical music in a Capitalist system? How does the fabric of today’s society influence its perception of classical music? Finally, I will evoke the impact on musicians themselves and what they can do to help change how classical music is perceived by the society.


  • A lack of diversity in classical music profession

According to the online dictionary Merriam-Webster, diversity is ‘the inclusion of different types of people, such as people of different races or cultures, in a group or organization’ (Merriam-Webster, N/A). The classical music profession does not seem to respond to the appellation in terms of ethnicity or financial situation. Music studies are long and the ‘pathways to a career in classical music rely on early exposure, access to instruments, and inspiring teachers and role models, along with the financial resources to pursue serious study over many years’ (Orchestras Canada, N/A). Thus, these criteria exclude people from more socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Indeed, by lack of financial resources (and time), these people hardly have access to music education. We also witness a lack of diversity in terms of ethnicity. In America, only 4% of the members of major orchestras are ‘Black or Latino’ (Classical MPR, 2016). In UK, although almost 15% of the population identify as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, the diversity is far from being represented in orchestras (LeGendre, 2016).  From my experience as a French music student who studied in Paris, I can say that France faces the same issue with the lack of diversity in conservatoires. Some organizations such as Demos in France, El Sistema in Venezuela and Big Noise in Scotland offer a music instruction to children living in disadvantaged areas. Although these educational systems offer opportunities for children to learn by playing in orchestras, it could be argued that the impact is limited. Indeed, classical music education demands a lot more so that young musicians can turn into professionals (one-to-one lessons, chamber music, music theory, etc...).

From this perspective, we could be argued that music tends to be elitist. But what about the audience attending classical concert? Is there a relation between the elitism demonstrated by the profession and the category of people listening to classical music?

  •  An audience reflecting elitism

As we have seen above, classical music training is a practice mainly reserved for people who have the financial resources and the time to commit to the practice. However, listening to classical music does not seem to belong to a social category… in theory.

According to Leonard Tan, classical music as a product has never been so accessible: ‘classical CDs are often cheaper than the latest popular albums, YouTube videos render classical performances of orchestras available free of charge, and many music colleges around the world offer free concerts…’ (Tan, 2014, p.67). From this perspective, classical music is no longer elitist.

However, the audience of a classical music concert hardly represents the social diversity of today’s society. The absence of the young generation in classical concerts alarms the classical music industry. In Australia, the proportion of twenty five- to thirty-four-year-olds attending classical concerts ‘declined’ over the years 2005-2010 (Strahle, 2017). ‘It has become axiomatic for orchestras the world over: faced with aging audiences, they need to market themselves to young people to ensure their survival’ (Strahle, 2017).  In France, the industry doesn’t only face the ageing of the public, but also the characteristic unicity: the average wage of the people attending classical concert is “around 5600 E”, they usually work as ‘engineers, teachers, practitioners and lawyers’… (Hillériteau, 2015). And from what I have witnessed during the multiple concerts that I have attended in France and in the United-Kingdom, I dare say that the audience hardly reflects ethnic or age diversity.

Once again, the working class and ethnic minorities seem absent from the music scene. Moreover, the audience for Classical music concerts faces a lack of diversity in terms of ageing and that can cause an important issue over the years... People from the middle class (who can afford a classical music training) appear to be the main audience for classical concerts. As we have seen, the elitism demonstrated by the classical music audience it is not just a question of money (a lot of classical concerts are affordable for anyone). If it’s not just a financial problem, is cultural perception a factor to take into account?


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