Legitimacy & Aesthetic Ideals

This post is written by Åsa Bergman.

The legitimacy of classical music in contemporary society has been debated by researchers for some decades and has also been described as weakened in relation to the past (Kramer 2007, Botstein 2013). In a discussion that recently took place in the Swedish daily press between representatives of concert institutions, journalists and musicologists, classical music was described as marginalised, compared to other music genres. This was furthermore pointed out as connected to how market discourses today permeate the concert programs and to how they are presented to the audience (c.f. Wallrup 2016, Brodej 2016).

However, based on an ongoing study of how symphony orchestras in England and Sweden present concert programs on their web sites, legitimacy seems to be obtained by maintaining a balance between constructing classical music in line with aesthetic ideals established in the 19th century and more contemporary music ideas. While the former discourse emphasises the music’s eternal values, and its potential to generate transcendent experiences (Bonds 2006), the latter emphasises classical music as an open semiotic space, whose meaning the listener is free to define on basis of needs and desires in a specific situation or context (Kasabian 2013, Nealon 2018).

One way to understand the two identified discourses is that a discursive struggle is taking place, another is that they are interconnected. Since, even if the romantic aesthetic ideals are less expressed in relation to the promoted concert programs investigated than experience-oriented and mood-enhancing meaning, and thus could be understood as being challenged by them, such ideals seem to remain uncontested as long as they are combined.


Bonds, Mark. Evan. 2006. Music as Thought. Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Brodej 2016 Så här kan vi rädda den klassiska musiken [This is how we can save the Classical Music] Expressen 2016-05-25

Kassabian, Anahid. 2013. Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

Nealon, Jeffery. T. 2018. I’m Not Like Everybody Else. Biopolitics, Neoliberalism and American Popular Music. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press

Wallrup 2016 Därför skiljer sig konstmusiken från poppen [Therefore, the Art Music Differs from the Pop] Svenska Dagbladet SvD 2016-06-21

Åsa Bergman is an Associate Professor in Musicology in the Department of Cultural Sciences at the University of Gothenburg.