Classical music for a mediatized world: visual and audio-visual representations of Western art music in contemporary media and society

Research project
Active research
Project size
11 040 000 SEK
Project period
2018 - 2022
Project owner
Department of Cultural Sciences, GU

Swedish Research Council

Short description

This project examines how ideas and beliefs about classical music are produced and communicated through the dissemination of visual and audiovisual representations in a variety of contemporary locations and media. Combining discourse analysis with methodological approaches taken from audiovisual studies and visual-culture studies, the project is realized in the form of five separate but mutually supporting sub-studies. Each sub-study examines representations of classical music in a specific media context, focusing on principal forms of media such as film, television and the Internet as well as on marketing and advertising discourses associated with established cultural institutions like opera houses and symphony orchestras. The project will run for four years and involve five researchers with complementary scholarly qualifications.


The place and relevance of classical music in a world marked by increasing cultural diversification, commercialization and mediatization is a subject that has received considerable attention recently. Internationally, the topic has been a recurring theme in both the scholarly literature and in broader public discourses. In Sweden, an animated discussion broke out in the daily press last year with critics, scholars, composers and musicians debating the present state of classical music. During the last decade, discourses on classical music have also become progressively more visible in public space and in mainstream popular culture. While such discourses have certainly had a long-standing presence in public media – cinema, newspapers, radio broadcast, telecasts, etc. – they have lately been increasingly disseminated through diverse visual and audio-visual representations related to newly emerging advertising strategies of concert institutions, record companies and streaming sites, as well as to on-line social media and widely popular TV-series and fiction films. Thus, a vigorous negotiation is taking place in a variety of contemporary locations and media. At stake here is not only the cultural status and significance of classical music but, more radically, the very idea of what classical music is. This situation calls for research that addresses the broader meaning-making processes surrounding and shaping our conceptions of classical music today.

Purpose, aims and research questions

The purpose of this project is to develop a comprehensive understanding of classical music as a contemporary cultural and mediatized phenomenon. This is done by examining how ideas and beliefs about the genre are produced, negotiated and communicated through the dissemination of visual and audio-visual (and accompanying verbal and written) representations in present-day Sweden and elsewhere. The project has two aims: (i) to identify, delineate and describe major mediatized discourses of classical music in contemporary society; and (ii) to show how these discourses are informed by and reflect wider cultural currents. These aims are closely connected to the four research questions guiding the project: (1) What are the predominant conceptions of classical music advanced by present-day mediatized discourses of the art form? (2) How, by what means, are these conceptions produced and communicated in contemporary media texts and representations? (3) How do media texts and representations of classical music relate to broader ongoing discourses on art, subjectivity, identity, gender, class, aesthetic experience, artistic value and cultural status? (4) How, and to what extent, are contemporary media representations of classical music implicated in a “politics of representation” by either reinforcing or challenging subject positions and regimes of representation traditionally accompanying the presentation and performance of classical music?


The project builds on the hypothesis that today’s mediatized discourses of classical music are involved in an increasingly complex negotiation between older aesthetic ideologies and a widespread popularization of the genre, with an ensuing marketization, as well as erotization, of the musicians and performers associated with it.


The project is structured around five separate but mutually supporting sub-studies. Strategically designed in relation to the project’s purpose and aims, each sub-study focuses on one or several media contexts, with a “media context” being understood as a particular discursive domain identified by its affiliation with a specific institutional site and/or media format. (See also the section “Theory and method” below.) The sub-studies are as follows:

(1) The first sub-study examines representations of classical music in contemporary mainstream cinema and related screen media. (Tobias Pontara)

(2) The second sub-study examines representations of classical music as they appear in the marketing strategies and advertising materials of leading concert institutions. (Åsa Bergman)

(3) The third sub-study examines representations of classical music advanced by national and international record companies and streaming sites. (Thomas Bossius)

(4) The fourth sub-study examines representations of classical music as they appear in on-line social media such as YouTube and Facebook. (Sverker Hyltén-Cavallius)

(5) The fifth sub-study examines representations of opera in a variety of contemporary popular media, such as film, TV commercials and the advertising materials of leading opera institutions. (Johanna Ethnersson Pontara)

In this project we define “classical music” as the canonized Western art music (including opera) of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and the focus of our study is on present-day mediatized discourses and media representations of this music. However, in addition to representations of the music itself, we also study the discursive construction of principal subject types or subject positions (performer, conductor, listener, etc.) that arise in connection with such representations. By addressing the research questions in different media contexts the five sub-studies jointly contribute to realizing the project’s purpose and aims as described above.



Tobias Pontara (University of Gothenburg),

Åsa Bergman (University of Gothenburg)

Thomas Bossius (University of Gothenburg)

Johanna Ethnersson-Pontara (Stockholms University)

Sverker Hyltén-Cavallius (Musikverket).