Uncertain capital: class, gender, and the “imagined futures” of young classical musicians

Anna Bull

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


    The classical music industry has high levels of inequality of class, gender and ethnicity (Scharff, 2015). This chapter focuses on how class and gender inequalities are reproduced in extracurricular classical music education. Drawing on an ethnographic study of young people aged 16-21 in youth music ensembles (two youth orchestras, a youth choir, and a youth opera group) in South East England, it describes how young people fall into three groups with differently imagined futures, which map onto their class and gender positions. The first group includes young men and young women from established middle-class families who, despite having high levels of musical ability, choose to go into professional careers outside of music. The second group is constituted of young men from established middle-class positions who choose to go into careers in classical music because they have been promised positions of prestige in the industry. The third group are young men from working-class and lower middle-class positions, as well as young women from all class positions. This group chooses to pursue a career in classical music, despite being highly uncertain as to whether they will succeed. They do not expect to inhabit positions of prestige, and of all three groups, their futures are most uncertain. This patterning of young people’s imagined futures demonstrates that classical music confers an uncertain type of ‘capital’ (Bourdieu, 1984). For those already in positions of privilege (e.g. middle-class young men), playing classical music works as an expression of their social position, rather than adding substantially to what they already have. For those coming from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds, it can work as a mechanism for social mobility, but this is highly uncertain. This example also demonstrates that class inequality in classical music only makes sense when examined intersectionally with gender. The chapter, then, will also show that despite the lack of anticipated rewards, the classical music profession is particularly appealing to young women and to lower-middle-class young people. This demonstrates another way in which classical music education fits with the ‘aspiration’ discourse currently circulating in the UK.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe Classical Music Industry
    EditorsChris Dromey, Julia Haferkorn
    ISBN (Electronic)9781315471099
    ISBN (Print)9781138203693
    Publication statusPublished - 28 Jan 2018

    Publication series

    NameRoutledge Research in the Creative and Cultural Industries


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