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The Big C Word; Class and Classical-Music
James Hazel

[First published in Limelight Magazine (2020)]

As a composer from a working-class background, I am deeply interested in how forms of socioeconomic stratification, disadvantage and affect the ways in which certain groups gain access to music and arts culture. My own music education was anything from straight-forward, however, due to my mother’s passion for music, I was fortunate enough to receive piano lessons for periods in my youth, which were made possible by my parent’s sacrifices. My mother told me that she felt compelled for her children to learn music, after an experience in her 30s when she found a cassette of Beethoven in an op-shop. After that, she began to listen to his work, almost religiously; and whenever Beethoven is mentioned she often waxes lyrical about how she thinks so many people actually miss the point of his music, with all of the pomp and circumstance that surrounds it.

Outside the piano lessons, the early encounters I had with classical music were ones that were quite inhospitable to the nuances of working-class life, socio-linguistics, and culture. There is a clarity to viewing social processes when one is not embedded with the middle-class rituals that surround Western-art music – and that is what motivates my research in this area. For despite there being radical creativity and talent in working and under-class cultures, disadvantaged young people are so often denied opportunities to pursue creative interests.

There is a continuing sense of invisibilisation in this area, because our working and under-class cultures are continually stigmatised and delegitimised. These communities are generally ignored on the level of the political, or mocked within popular media – and the high arts seem to be only concerned with them in terms of thematic or narrative abstraction. To counter this, in my more idealistic moments, I sometimes escape into the idealised fantasy of viewing a working-class opera, attended by working-class people. A work comprised of the thick soundscapes of working-class environments: ecstatic drum and bass subwoofers which resonate long into the early hours; the fine-tuning of front-yard car and boat motors; religiously immersive heavy-metal and punk shaking the foundations of a fibro house; home-made hip-hop and train-station rap improvisations; and by all of this, I mean an aesthetic or compositional approach that sits, beyond novelty, but within the experiences of working-class life – revealing and transposing these into unique and experimental forms – however, in the meantime, this article will have to fulfil this gap.

Class Murmurings

Refreshingly, in some pockets of media there has been a re-emergence of discussion on these ideas. In 2018, the ABC Radio National released the podcast Class Matters which explored these and other related ideas; and this July, a highly original Australian publication was released entitled: Fields, Capitals, Habitus: Australian Culture, Inequalities and Social Divisions. This examines cultural participation and audiences across the range of socio-economic stratum. In an interview with ArtsHub, lead researcher Tony Bennett summarises some of the patterns that emerged from the study. With respect to working-class participation in the arts, he said: “for many people in working-class occupations, they clearly play little part in, or have little interest in, the publicly funded arts and culture sector and its offerings.”

This is a sobering statement to read within a society that, for the most part, believes itself to be egalitarian, and class-less. And, while the study revealed that music taste “is more sharply divided by age,” the survey did find “the rates of liking both jazz and classical music […] increase with level of education to peak among postgraduates at 17 per cent and 26 per cent respectively.”

Not only is post-graduate education still primarily the realm of the privileged classes, substantial music education is as well - and this has a profound effect on audience diversity. Four years ago, The National Opera Review (2016), drew attention to this in one of its recommendations (8.9) and suggested that the state governments ought to better “strengthen and fund” music education to grow future audiences.

The lack of accessibility to the high-arts is due, in no small part, to deficiencies across both public and private sectors, as well as the pre-tertiary and higher education systems. For unlike countries such as the UK, whose arts-cultures, at least, have growing sense of the prevalence of class barriers in accessing cultural material, and opportunities, Australia is certainly behind the eight-ball in this regard.

Class(ist)cal Music?

Within the broader classical music culture, class issues are seldom discussed. For instance, there are not really any targeted tertiary classical music programs that aim to support disadvantaged students; nor is socioeconomic disadvantage a generally recognised criteria encountered in grants applications – or considered an urgent issue to be addressed in terms of greater audience participation– despite it being a part of the Cultural Ministers Council (2011) criterion for recognition of the status of major performing arts company.

The barriers to audience and practitioner participation are manifest in multiple ways. Scott Caizley, a PHD researcher at Kings College (London), who is from a traditional working-class background in the North of England, summarises these issues well:

“The biggest barriers many face when accessing and participating within art forms such as classical music is the economic cost. Not only this but the social cultural practises of classical music can also be seen to be elitist, stuffy and overwhelmingly white. This has been built upon throughout history and what we see in our concert halls today is just the tip of iceberg in regards to the social and cultural barriers in which the music reinforces.”

These issues are all the more problematic, because the social and cultural practices within classical-music culture are viewed as natural, and seldom questioned by practitioners and audiences. For instance, think of spaces such as the Opera House or City Recital Hall - or any recital hall for that matter. These spaces are entangled in and around particular systems, and practices that engender highly codified forms of speech, behaviour and attire, which are inherent to, and/or associated with particular upper-social-class practices. These, in turn, preclude the legitimacy of other forms of behaviour, or practice.

As Anna Bull elucidates in Class, Control and Classical Music (2019) not all classes have the same cultural styles of engagement, stating: “studies of working-class music’s and cultures, historically and today, describe more dialogic, informal modes of participation” – within performance spaces that engender humour, ‘informality’ and ‘banter, among participatory performance styles. In contrast, “many middle-class forms of culture are characterized by clear distinctions between audience and performers, and cultural venues that are not only socially but also sonically sealed from the bustle of urban life, mirroring middle-class boundary-drawing processes more generally.”

How is classical music so highly class stratified? Well, we can attribute this to an ongoing historical process. For instance, prior and up to the nineteenth-century, opera, for example, was relatively more class accessible in America. As paraphrased in the article Expecting Rain, by John Storey (2002): from 1825-1850 a conceited effort was engineered by elite social groups to rigidly edify opera in New York through parallel “social strategies” to distance opera from other forms of popular entertainments. This was attained through measures such as architecture; and the establishment of strictly codified behaviour, such as dress code requirements for attendance.

Opera is not the only culprit for demanding, and reinforcing upper-class-specific (not to mention anglo-centric) codes of behaviour. Symphonic performances (and by extension ensemble, and soloist performances) are primarily middle-class oriented in terms of the rituals and audiences they engender. And while access to classical music has changed due to distribution through media channels, the actual concert experience and repertoire are still very much rooted in systems from the distant past.

In Performance as Ritual (1986), the musicologist Christopher Small argues that the symphonic concert has evolved into a ritual to maintain the set-apart, sacred-space of the concert hall. This arena is akin to the Catholic mass, and designed for the enactment of middle-class cultural values within an ongoing sacralised history of those classes. This is a process that venerates and privileges particular aesthetic lineages of composers; and obscures the labour of performers - as well as workers who maintain the performance space. All of these aspects contribute to an anchor of “stability” in a world that is increasingly critical of the elite values that high culture entails.

This preservation of archaic socio-cultural structures is a critical issue today, particularly because Australia’s major orchestras and opera companies tend to not perform music from a vibrant cross-section of society. The independently-conducted Living Music Report (2020) by Ciaran Frame revealed that Australian orchestras only play 9% Australian repertoire. Moreover, only 3% of works performed are by women; 0.45 by CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse); and a mere 0.05% by First Nations composers. These revelations, in addition to the class issue (in terms of audiences, access to music education, and artistic participation) are all the more discouraging in a society that purports to believe in the “fair go”; the meritocracy; and the shared commons.

Myriad forms of socio-cultural exclusion are amplified within the high-arts world. The lack of a concerted and strategic effort on all fronts to clearly discuss and understand how disadvantage operates and is maintained, socially, institutionally, means that a very significant and valuable percentage of society will be continually locked out of meaningful engagement with what is supposedly a shared cultural asset.

The Big C**** Word

Why are we so silent on questions of class within classical music, Australian arts-cultures, and society as a whole? In Youth and Social Class (2019) the authors suggest that the very collective imaginary of Australia and, indeed, aspects of legislation rest on the idea that class stratification does not exist in Australia. This assumption arises from prevailing social ideals such as “the fair go” – which were constructed in response to the overcoming of adversities – such as those encountered in the early penal colonies, and the horrors of WWI. In this and other ways, the very notion that we are a classless state in Australia “remains influential in shaping public discourses of class inequality.”

The denial of class also goes much higher than this. As explained in Youth and Social Class, the Australian government does not measure the specifics of class-based disadvantage in terms of “social-class group” but, rather, the term “low-SES” (low-socioeconomic-status) is the primary index for this.

On the level of pop-culture, the myth of classlessness is also reinforced by politicians, media, and popular discourse. One is often astounded at how class-vilification goes by unchecked, as reflected in derogatory terms such as ‘bogan’; programs such as the SBS produced Housos; and the whole cadres of prime-time current affair program who make no apology in their undermining of working and under-classes communities, and individuals

Due to the widespread complexity of this issue, we also neglect to discuss within our political discourse, how other critical intersections, such as race and gender intersect with class. For instance, First Nations youth start out life the most severely disadvantaged, due to myriad ongoing structural and historical issues stemming from the destructive effects of colonisation - as numerous sociological studies have attested. There are also other groups that are at risk of being disadvantaged by class factors: older women are less socio-economically equal to their male counterparts, and thus more vulnerable to poverty; and working-class kids, across the board, have lower educational outcomes. Where, indeed, is the presence of the “fair go” in these contexts?

Much like the UK, Australia is still a classed society. This was dissected in a 2015 study entitled Class, Capital and Identity in Australian Society (Jill Sheppard and Nicholas Biddle), which established the connection between social-class and the divided distribution of social, cultural, and economic capital in Australia, in terms of six classes whose descriptions speak for themselves. They are: ‘precariat’, ‘ageing workers’, ‘new workers’, ‘mobile middle’, ‘emerging affluent’, and ‘established affluent.’

Class stratification can be affected by and, in turn, contributes to a host of factors, such as mortality, employment and health determinants. It also plays a big role in access not only to higher education, generally, but also the costs of rigorous music education.

Myriad Dis/advantages

In 2019, a three-part ABC documentary was released (Don’t Stop the Music) about a Perth primary school in a disadvantaged area, who were engaged in a serious music program facilitated by Musica Viva and the Salvation Army. This program revealed the profound effects this had on the young participants; and drew attention to the fact that many Australians lack access to substantial music education.

In the past twenty years, this has been a pressing issue, as two major studies have been conducted; one in 2005 on the federal level (National review of school music education: Augmenting the diminished) and another in 2013 by the Victorian parliament (Inquiry into the extent, benefits and potential of music education in Victorian schools).

Both studies examined the social distribution of music education, and what these outcomes were. They both called for increased government funding to bridge inequities in music education, because large numbers of students do not have access to this. For example, in terms of “access and equity,” the 2005 review remarked, with respect to the evidence collected:

“Country and rural students [and] students from low socio-economic circumstances also are often disadvantaged. There is also the possibility that some students with identified gifts and talents in music miss out on realising that potential.”

Access to publicly funded, quality music education in primary, and high-school is a necessary aspect of formative musical education; it also has wider educational benefits. If this is not available, then parents who wish for their children to study music will just pay for it privately. This translates to a clear disparity between those who can afford lessons and those who cannot. Music education, in this capacity, then becomes an inherently class-stratified domain.

It is also a prevailing falsehood that formal music study is something that only the privileged classes are interested in. Parents across all socio-economic strata value music education. Yet, the reality is that independent schools have significantly more programs, and better access to music education resources, as the GPA conducted Tertiary Music in Australia; Task Force Report (2011) summarises:

“88% of independent schools have such music programs, compared to just 23% of public schools [and] 88% of parents believe that all school children should have the opportunity to study music.”

It is not only parents who want to see students learn music; the students also want to learn. A 2015 study entitled Motivation to study music in Australian schools reveals that children from low-SES backgrounds desired to learn an instrument “in the greatest percentage” in “upper-primary-school.” However, due to lack of educational resources over the schooling years, only 20% of low-SES students ended up actually learning music. This study also found that, by the latter end of high school, low-SES students “valued music the least.” This, the authors speculated, could be attributed to a “disillusionment with school” - but this link is not clearly established, and I suspect this lack of engagement could be due to more complex reasons regarding lack of clear pathways and cultural infrastructure. The lack of support for students from low-SES backgrounds who want to learn music is disappointing, because music and arts education is clearly documented to improve interpersonal and educational outcomes – it can even provide the pre-training for a career.

When we step outside of the classical-music world, a similar picture of inequity emerges within professional contemporary music. As the Music Australia (2013) Survey of Successful Contemporary Musicians - determined from the range of participants:

“Half said their primary schools had poor, or no (23%) music programs. In many of those cases, their music education nevertheless proceeded via their music lessons […] it is almost certain that parents had to pay — a possibility not available in families that are not affluent.”

This is indeed a startling statement, and along the general lines of issues discussed in both of the aforementioned federal (2005) and state (2013) studies. The reality for classical music is more disparate than this; if one can infer that the majority of contemporary musicians are from middle-class backgrounds, then the socio-economic diversity of classical musicians is just as unequal.

What then happens if one does manage to overcome the many hurdles to be accepted to study music at a tertiary level? One would hope that if students from disadvantaged backgrounds are accepted to our major music conservatoriums then there would be concentrated support.

With respect to Australia’s elite conservatoriums (regional ones generally do a bit better), even if students are lucky enough to attain tertiary education, they are still met with other barriers. There is considerable evidence to show that low-SES students face barriers at university in general, in terms of systemic difficulties, pertaining to factors such as application processes; ATARs; and drop-out-rates. And if the UK is anything to go by in terms of participation, the UMELB Participation in Equity (2008) review quoted that the “specialist institutions” for music and art had a profoundly insubstantial number of disadvantaged students.

In terms of financial support, the limited and competitive “equity” grants that universities offer are not wholly sufficient to counter and remedy the array of issues, which are summarised in the aforementioned Tertiary Music Education in Australia Taskforce Study (2011). It states that “equity of access to tertiary music study remains problematic,” and that there needs to be financial facilitation for the students when they get to universities, as well as prior support in terms of pre-tertiary education so they have more successful applications.

School music education “is not resourced by higher education” - but the limitations in this area - “are a major impediment for many students to move into tertiary music training.” The study also adds that the lack of substantive music education at school, means that the “private sector” will occupy this area, through programs which aim at recognising and supporting “talent” – a sector which disadvantaged people, typically, are not able to readily access.

What does the private front look like, broadly, in terms of educational support? Well, there are several philanthropic arms of major classical music companies which purport to enact outreach programs. Yet, there is not any publicly available data to qualify the impact of these programs on disadvantaged students - and unfortunately, the occasional concert and workshop are at risk of being novelty, and should not be confused with ongoing, substantial pedagogical programs.

It is also important to add here, that music education cannot rest on damaging 19th century educational assumptions that education can “improve” the financial and moral conditions of the poor - who do not need to be ‘improved’ - as Vincent C, Bates suggests in Critical Social Class Theory for Music Education (2017). They merely ought to be treated as legitimate learners in their own right, just like their privileged counterparts

Optimistically, there are organisations making real strides. The Australian Children’s Music Foundation (ACMF) provides instruments, and facilitates free music tuition weekly, for a selection of disadvantaged schools. Recently the Australia-based Symphony for Life organisation was established. This is modelled on the Venezuelan, publicly-funded, El Sistema program (est. 1975) – itself a very successful organisation for providing free access to music and instrumental education. There are also a host of productive community-oriented music organisations on the level of popular music, song-writing and production.

A substantive study will reveal how these programs will affect the next generation of Australian artists, and if indeed a representative cross-section of classical musicians and professional musicians emerge within our high arts and contemporary music fields – though, the odds do not look good. The complex task of accessible music education cannot be left to a small collection of private organisations with limited resources. It is not reasonable to expect that they can encompass every disadvantaged school or student; the federal and state governments must do more, as per the recommendations of multiple reviews and studies. For as the Song Room, who have worked with hundreds of disadvantaged schools, attest on their website: “our work reaches only a fraction of those children who are disadvantaged by income, distance, poor health or cultural difference.”


We have reached a situation whereby only the economically privileged (or the very lucky) tend to have access to substantial music education, resulting in a cultural space composed of, and perpetuated by a certain social milieu. The 2005 (National review of school music education) encapsulates one of the primary issues, which is still pertinent 15 years later: “there are deficits in opportunities to participate and engage in continuous, sequential, developmental music education programmes.”

There is the crucial need of a collective strategy to counter the nuances of class-based disadvantage in classical music, and music education more generally – across the public, and private sectors– as well as targeted grants, and programs. Not to mention, more effective efforts to include marginalised groups across all intersections, and resist coloniality and classism in our arts and music institutions.

Regarding educational access, Scott Caizley offers some suggestions:

“Do not wait for underrepresented groups to come to you - we have to take the music to them. Another way would be for institutions such as conservatoires to stop passing the blame onto the schools, take control of their diversity crisis and implement outreach programmes in disadvantaged areas and to early years students. The community building and outreach programmes need to work alongside one another as both students and parents need to be included in the process.”

Time will indeed reveal what the costs are for continuing to relegate classical-music (new music and the high-arts in general) to the socio-economically privileged. For how are we eroding our egalitarian hopes and futures of our music culture when we speak of Australia’s national composer, or orchestra, curriculum, or performer? Who, in this way is, the ‘we’, when we talk about classical music? Whose stories are being told and by whom? And, if the answers to these are the same time and time again, then ultimately, whose shared cultural assets are they really?