Classical upper echelons of society” (, 2017). This definition

Classical music has been around for
centuries and is the foundation on which most music genres has been built upon,
but does this make it elitist? The
definition of elitist is “a person having, thought to have, or professing superior intellect or talent, power, wealth, or membership in the upper echelons of society”
(, 2017). This definition gives the basis of social and economic
issues that have affected classical music’s popularity greatly. It is important
to understand the relevance of these affairs when speaking of classical music
as they have impacted the pre-eminence of classical music immensely since the
unveiling of alternative genres.

Bourdieu’s theory explains that the “concept of
cultural capital refers to the collection of symbolic elements such as skills,
tastes, posture, clothing, mannerisms, material belongings, credentials, etc.
that one acquires through being part of a particular social class.” (,
2017). Cultural capital can be broken down into three states; embodied,
objectified and institutionalised. The embodied state refers to knowledge that
resides within us – the more knowledge you have, the higher your capital. Objectified
state refers to materialistic things – for example owning a mansion gives you
higher capital than if you own a 1 bed flat. Institutionalised state is judged
on your qualifications –  someone with a
PHD has a higher capital than someone with a National 5. I feel it’s important
to understand cultural capital when discussing classical music and elitism as
many people go to classical concerts to boost their capital instead of going to
enjoy the experience of live music and gain an appreciation for the talent these
musicians possess.

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Before the 20th
century classical concerts were fun social occasions where people would share
the experience of being emotionally moved by an orchestra, various other
ensembles and solo performances. One would get dressed up in fancy dresses and
tuxedos with family and friends as it was a special occasion. This gave the
opportunity for audience and performer to connect in a way other forms of media
do not allow. “But all of that changed in the
20th century when “rules of concert etiquette” began incorporating
themselves into performances.” (Albright, 2017), meaning clapping between
movements would be returned with a disapproving look. Coughing during pieces
was frowned upon by regular concertgoers that were very familiar with concert
etiquette and other rules like improvisation slowly stopped being taught and being
scarcely ever used. Due to concertgoers becoming ‘snobby’ about these unspoken
rules, classical concerts became very formal. Not knowing the correct concert
etiquette was simply unacceptable which began to discourage young people
attending classical concerts as it puts a lot of pressure on them to know what
to do and what not to do. Catherine Bradley’s report on ‘National Classical
Music Audiences’ states “The modelled age breakdown suggests that classical
music audiences nationally are much more likely to be in middle and older age
groups. 42% of are likely to be aged 41 – 60 and 37% aged over 61. Just 7% are
likely to be aged under 31.” (Bradley, 2017). Proving that audiences are
getting older and with younger generations rapidly losing interest due to the
elitist nature associated with classical concerts, the professional classical
world is losing more members than they are gaining from the youth of today. Therefore,
over time classical concerts have decreased in popularity which means slowly
classical music is dying out.


Peterson and Kern’s journal
article – ‘Changing highbrow taste: From
Snob to Omnivore’ – discus how music tastes have changed in the 20th

in the 1950s, however, young White people of all classes embraced popular
African American dance music styles as their own under the rubric of
rock’n’roll (Ennis 1992), and by the late 1960s what was identified as the
“Woodstock Nation” saw its own variegated youth culture not so much
as a “stage” to go through in growing up but as a viable alternative
to established elite culture” (Peterson, R. and Kern, R., 1996).

Rock ‘n’ roll music came from
African American dance music, both genres are not subjected to strict guide
lines or rules which means their music is much more free, improvisational and
out of control. Unlike baroque music, for example, which was originally
composed for church choirs back in the 16th century and is very
strict in the sense that it has many compositional rules that must be followed.
Because rock ‘n’ roll music is more rebellious in comparison to classical music
the youth of that era could find it more relatable and began to create their
own elitist views within the rock ‘n’ roll culture. Therefore, over time the
younger generations have become more and more disinterested in classical music
due to   lack of understanding for classical music. Rock
‘n’ roll concerts were also much more enjoyable for younger people as they are
a louder and have a more adrenaline filled atmosphere where you can dance and
sing along as loud as you want. The very opposite of classical concerts where
you sit in silence trying not to cough in fear of getting a dirt look from
another audience member.

 Several measures have been taken to encourage
more audience members in concerts as it can be very intimidating going to a
classical concert not knowing much about it. Many people presume all
concertgoers are condescending toward people who don’t know much about
classical music, but it’s usually the opposite. Everyone in the classical music realm is
trying desperately to encourage more people to come along to classical concert,
even the Proms is trying to incorporate more modern music into their
repertoire, “Prom 36 on August
11 finds Jamie Cullum offering new
takes on well known pop songs with a full big band.” (McAloon,
2016). The Proms used to be a very elitist event, tickets would sell out and
were fairly expensive, audience members would dress formally, and everyone
would know the right concert etiquette. Whereas now you could show up in jeans
and a t-shirt on the night and get a ticket for £6 to watch “DJ Mr Switch
remixing snippets of canonical works” (McAloon, 2016). This shows one way that classical music has
changed its approach to their target audience – encompassing a younger
demographic and challenging the elitist connotations that come with many classical

In Lebrecht’s book, ‘who killed classical music?’, he reminds
us that “Classical musicians represent some of the finest talent on Earth. They
spend a lifetime working tirelessly to perfect their craft. They should
celebrate that phenomenon, making classical events a special, elite experience.” (Lebrecht, 1998). Lebrecht
points out the demanding amount of work and dedication it takes to become a
professional classical musician and feels this should be celebrated in an
elitist manor. Rather than making the concerts cheaper and more accessible to a
wider audience, why not make it a more selective audience? By making concerts
smaller but more outstanding than ever, making it a bigger event for a more
selective amount of people that are willing to pay a little more for a
phenomenal experience, this could re-invigorate the classical music audience. However,
do musicians want to be praised by people who attend concerts for their cultural
capital or by people who genuinely care about and understand the music?
Considering the relentless work musicians put into their music every day, you would
presume the later. Furthermore,
you could argue that the audience should be made of the elite as they would be
in a better position to understand the music that has been so relentlessly
written by the composer. This then also links back to the concert etiquette.
Part of the reason that people may self-enforce the silence during performances
and upholding the respect towards the musicians is not for the musicians at all
but rather to respect to composer – dead or alive.

Composers will start most pieces with a structure like sonata
form where there is an exposition, then development and then recapitulation.
Next the composer comes up with a melody, harmonies, cadential points, varying
orchestration and after working incessantly, it develops into an incredible
piece that pulls you in from the first moment and every time you listen to it you
can hear something different, whether it’s the percussion, double basses or
clarinet. In Daniel Barenboim’s video, ‘How to listen to music’, he talks about
the journey you go on when listening to classical music and states “Music never
laughs or smiles. Music never cry’s. It always smiles and cries at the same
time.” (Barenboim, 2014). By this he means, you could be
playing a very heartfelt, sorrowful piece – like Schindeler’s Listz – but still
enjoy playing it and take pleasure out of this experience even though it is a
sad piece.

Classical music is less elitist than it once was which is
shown through album covers. In figure 1 an old record cover for Mozart’s piano
sonata. The focus is the name of the composer and the piece with a rather regal
border, inspired by a classical design decoration – It’s something you could
imagine finding carved into a wooden fireplace in a manor house which – this is
an added extra that only the elite would notice. The composers name is in bold,
times new roman style writing which is a more formal font to use.

If we now look at figure 2, a more modern cd cover of
Mozart’s work, where the composers name is still in bold writing but is in a ‘silly’ font perhaps to appeal to a
younger demographic by making the overall appearance less intimidating to the
laymen that is approaching classical music for the first time. Then in the
middle background the focus is the performer as she’s smiling holding her
violin above her head as if to rejoice in joy. In general, everything about
this cover is less professional in comparison to figure 1, from the haphazard
font to the open and whimsical stance of the performer. This relates a lot more
to popular music album covers nowadays and again shows how classical music is
having to change its approach to bringing in the younger generation.

Album covers these days are not so
much focused on the music but more on the appearance of the artist which is
obviously show in most album artwork nowadays. For example, Adele’s album
entitled “21”. The whole cover is a black and
white picture of her head resting on her hand as she looks away from the
camera. This shows it’s a melancholy album. Her name is the next thing you
notice in the bottom left corner in a bold white wiry writing font and the you
notice the name of the album which is slightly harder to notice as it has a
subtle opacity.


I believe classical music is
elitist compared to popular music because as a performer you are always trying
to be the best in your field. Musicians work tirelessly learning how classical
music works to perfect the craft of learning an instrument. To be a classical
musician you must dedicate your life to it, practicing 4 hours a day,
researching old composers and performers, learning music theory to understand
the music you’re playing and more… There are so many various aspects to
classical music and that’s why some musicians will argue it is elitist because
of how much work they’ve put into trying to learn, understand and their own
interpretations of everything to do with music, only to realise there is still
so much more to learn. 


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