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What sets classical music apart from pop music?

During a recent conversation with a student of mine during class, I talked about the timelessness of classical music. Specifically, we were talking about Tallis' "If Ye Love Me" and how people have been singing it for over 500 years, and will continue to sing it for 500+ more. The same goes for many classical composers. They will always be around and will always be appreciated by people in our profession.
My student spoke up in defense of contemporary pop music. Eager hear ANY opinion from the class on the matter, I encouraged her to go ahead and explain. Her thoughts on it were that the main reason why it is still around and famous is because it's inherently "classical" music. Her opinion would be the same for a number of other pieces or composers. Her thought process seems to suggest that the only thing that sets classical music apart from modern pop is that it's... well, "classical".
My thoughts are as follows:
  • Pop music seems to be engineered for the moment, not to be a timeless work that will be valued hundreds of years from now.
  • I would argue that the vast majority of people producing pop music are not musical geniuses on par with Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, etc. (This is not to say that they are not skilled at what they do. They obviously are because they make far more money than I ever will. Obviously someone values what they do.)
  • I'll give pop music credit for addressing themes that are, if nothing else... current? People my age and younger seem to be identifying with what these artists talk about. Moral/Religious values aside, this stuff reaches people. Maybe not on the most positive level, but it communicates something.
  • I don't think the themes they address will reach out to people years and years from now. As I said, this music seems by nature to be temporary. It hits hard, burns bright, and then for the most part, it's gone.
  • Pop music does not reach me the way classical music does. I don't think Katy Perry will ever affect me on the same level that Bruckner does.
  • All this in mind, I think there is something deeper than genre that separates music. This is more than classical vs pop. There are many modern/contemporary composers, singer songwriters, bands, etc that I would argue create art of a very high order. This subject is complicated by the radical differences between these artists. (Beethoven opening the doors of romanticism. The Beatles and rock'n'roll. People like Eric Clapton, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and many artists and bands far more current whether they be Grammy winners or obscure "indie" artists)
I think perhaps the thing that sets music apart is the difference it makes in peoples' lives, the musical world, and the world as a whole. I would LOVE to hear opinions on this subject from professionals in our field. Please do share your opinions on what sets our music, or music in general apart from what we would regard as a lesser art.
Replies (29): Threaded | Chronological
on April 2, 2012 10:48am
My thoughts;
It is not that “classical music has survived and will survive,” but “music which has survived is classical music.”
So-called classical music was trendy, up-to-date, pop songs or pieces in their time of creations. Like there are countless number of songs /pieces and composers from A-Level to Z now, there were songs and composers from A-Level to Z back then. But we know of A-Level people or compositions now.
The popularity in their time doesn’t always ensure the popularity in the future time.
Time, trends, technologies change over time, but what we care most doesn’t change much from time to time, culture to culture.
I usually tell my studuents that after 60 to 100 years of the death of composers or singers, it is safe to test the timelessness of them or pieces. 60 to 100 years is the time required that people who grew up listening those pieces die out.
on April 2, 2012 12:38pm
"Classical music" is, I think, quite different from "classic music."  I grew up listening to classical music (as I understand it to be defined); my father had an extensive LP record collection of all the great symphonies and orchestral works, although no opera that I can recall.  There were some string quartets and other combinations of classical instrumental music, and perhaps some solo instrumental works, as well, although I can't remember exactly now.
Perhaps part of the definition of classical should be "unchanging," in terms of the instruments used (including the voice) and the manner in which the music is performed--at least unchanging over a long enough period of time that one generation to the next would recognize a piece of music as being essentially the same.  This may be in contrast to "folk music" (which I think may include much pop music) which may be more fluid and open to variation over time, as the musicians and singers often learned the folk music "by ear" rather than by reading an unchanging score--something akin to oral history versus written history in any culture.
Then there is the question of what basic types of music, or combinations of notes, or sounds of instruments, "reach" and "touch" the human brain in ways that other music simply does not.  Is there some set of basic combinations of notes, basic rhythms, or particular sounds of particular kinds of instruments (including the voice), that sets off patterns of "hearing" that we recognize as "classical"?  Is there something so fundamental about the way classical music simply sounds that we can recognize it as such?  I don't know.  I sometimes wonder if music that most closely mirrors the tempo and rhythm of heartbeats, or breathing, or other "natural" sounds may somehow be considered more "classical" than other types of music.
And there clearly is, or at least was during certain periods of human history, a socioeconomic influence regarding what is/was and is not/was not considered to be classical music, and this cannot be ignored.  Patrons (including churches) who could afford to pay composers to produce the music, and pay musicians to perform it, were able to enjoy it.  And has it not always taken a great deal of money and support from somewhere in order to become a professional musician, as well?  Basic economics has clearly played a large part in what we consider to be classical music.
Then there is the cultural aspect.  What pieces of Chinese music do people in China, for example, consider to be classical in their culture?  Iranian music in Iran?  Kenyan music in Kenya?  Or is "classical music" only a term recognized and used by "western" cultures, and only those of European origin? 
Then there is the question of how, during human history, written music was stored and retrieved.  Music which simply survived on paper through the ages is likely to be considered "classical" now, even if it may not have been so during its production and early lifetime--when at least some of it would have been considered "pop music," at least by some--as Kentaro mentions. 
In order to try to formulate a reasonable definition of "classical music," and have an intelligent conversation about it, I think that it's important to generate some criteria that would separate "classical" from "classic" music so as to not confuse the issue.  There are folk classics, and pop classics, and jazz classics (yes, I know that many of you consider that jazz falls under the "classical" umbrella, but I'm not so sure...), some of which will continue to be performed long into the future, and which will be recognized by future generations (I think "Imagine" falls into this category, and how about "As Time Goes By"?).  But if we try to use subjective definitions of basic quality, or difficulty, or emotional timelessness, becomes difficult to generate helpful criteria that would enable us to clearly separate "classical" from "classic" music.  How do we generate helpful criteria without simply going around in circles?
And perhaps, in the end, the basic question is truly a fairly artificial and irrelevant one.  We humans have a strange perspective in that we often assume that what is now always was, and always will be--as it is all we know.  I sometimes wonder what pieces of music people a few centuries from now (if the human race survives that long) will consider to be "classical music," or if that definition or category will even be recognized as such. 
Thanks for posing an interesting question!     
on April 2, 2012 2:44pm
A long time ago I had a group of senior high school music students working for their final exam (which in my country is very academic and includes history/theory/analysis of music).    The question came up as to what is the fundamental difference between enduring classical music and popular music.
They were a pragmatic group of boys and the only way to answer it was to demonstrate it.  
I took Beethoven's simple Fur Elise for piano (the only thing I could play and talk at the same time) and bar- by - bar - showed them what was happening with the themes and modulations and harmonies -  the discord and resolution - how Beethoven was taking a little idea here and developing it there and joining up another idea here...   
We then took a current popular tune which I think at the time was something ABBA was singing (hey- I said it was a long time ago!) - and analysed it in the same way.   The simplicity of the music was self-evident.   Like most popular music it was based on patterns using I V and IV and never really traveled anywhere.   It became apparent to the boys that in lieu of the lack of musical development, popular music relied on words and a strong backbeat to appeal to the general population.
The concept of tiny ideas - maybe half a dozen notes in a melodic patter or rhythmic pattern or both - developing into major themes and how it was all worked out harmonically within a structure - was a light bulb moment for all of the boys and they still talk about it decades later.  
The answer to what sets classical music apart from pop music lies in the music itself.
on April 3, 2012 5:57am
"We then took a current popular tune which I think at the time was something ABBA was singing (hey- I said it was a long time ago!) - and analysed it in the same way. The simplicity of the music was self-evident. Like most popular music it was based on patterns using I V and IV and never really traveled anywhere."
That's because you picked an ABBA song. Try the same exercise with, for example, "Close To The Edge" by Yes, and your conclusion would have to be different
on April 3, 2012 8:20am
Close to the Edge isn't exactly pop music though is it?  It's one side of an entire album with many different sections.  It's great, but I don't think it would qualify as "pop" as in a top 10 record.
on April 3, 2012 6:46am
Pop music is song and song form  (A-A-B-A or more often than not A-B-A-B).  Though there are wonderful examples of simple forms in classical music (dance suites), the great classical composers were able to write extended forms and music that lasted longer than 3 minutes.  It is much more challenging to sustain a work for 15 minutes than 3 minutes.  That is where the real work of the composer lies.  Most seed ideas, are the god-given part, elaborating and maintaining interest from the energy of the original idea is where the craft come in.
I tend to see the pop song as compared to a good magazine article whereas the classical symphony would compare to a novel.  This is not to downplay the importance of a well written article.  A good miniature has all the elements of good composition, no waste, balance, interest. 
The other thing is that today's pop songs seem to rely much more on the charisma of the performer than the quality of the song.  If you look at the pop music of the 30s-40s, these songs have been covered by 100s of artists.  The song stands by itself and can be interpreted by many different types of artists.  The standard song repertoire has been covered by artists as diverse as Miles Davis to Rod Stewart.  Even Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" has been sung by myriad artists.  Today's songs don't seem to have that kind of utility.  They become hits for the performer, often written by the performer, but that's as far as they go.  I think U2 songs, some of them, end up making good covers.  I don't think I've ever heard a Hip Hop hit record covered by another artist.  
on April 3, 2012 7:25am
I am uneasy with the distinction being drawn between "classical" or "enduring classical" and "pop" music.  I would like to offer something perhaps radically different as a viewpoint.
First of all, let's define the genres (broadly) as "classic" and "transient" - I don't think that's being unfair, based on what my definitions will become.
"Classic" music is that which endures not only over time but over approach.  For example, let's look at "Don Giovanni" - a great opera which is still being performed today as well as having been performed in Mozart's time - therefore meeting one part of my definition of endurance over time.  Take, more specifically, "La ci darem la mano" as a duet within the work.  It has been reworked as piano variations, wind variations, and probably more different ways than we know - and it's still enduringly "La ci darem la mano" melodically.  In other words, a "classic" work is tougher than whatever we throw at it - the patina of age or the rough handling of variation work.  There are also current works which can handle this - I just attended an all-Beatles program, any number of which works were arrangements of the originals - they, too, have stood the test of time and handling - and are likely to continue to do so.  I understand and appreciate Jane's approach of defining it on the basis of structural and intellectual direction; but I think that narrows the discussion unnecessarily.  While it may be true that the I-V-IV pattern is the basis for much contemporary music-making, that doesn't of itself eliminate the music as of "enduring" value - and here's where I draw the next distinction.
"Transient" music, quite bluntly, is forgotten in a week, or a month, or even in a year.  It has no "legs" - it cannot stand reworking in any way, nor is the general public's interest in it enduring.  If, however, it's brought back in 20 or 30 years and people are interested in listening to it - aha! it's now "classic."
Ken makes a number of valid points, which need to be kept in mind:  that the "classical" music of today was considered the "transient" music (possibly) of yesterday.  Did anyone in Mozart's time really think that of the flood of music he produced in 30 or so short years, that a good deal of it we would still be listening to today?  I doubt it.  What fools us today is that there is a definite drive to bring back the works "lost" these several centuries and re-introduce us to composers whose works may be of enduring value - or deservedly tucked away in some library or monastery not to be noticed for a couple of hundred more years.  Tastes also change - another point Ken makes - in that a work "popular" in one era may be utterly incomprehensible or boring to people born 100 years later.  Some people were absolute taken by Iannis Xennakis' music (who, I hear you cry?) - but is anyone listening to it today?  No.  Although the form may have been intended to be "classical" it is not "classic" music - it has not endured - or at least, not yet.
Jane's definition of the setting apart of classical vs. pop music being within the music itself - i.e., a structural approach, as I understand her - would thereby argue that the more complex, the more "classical."  I don't think so.  "Ah, vous dirai-je maman," the set of variations by Mozart on what we in the Anglo-Saxon world know as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," takes a very simple tune, and through an increasingly complex (structurally) series of variations, turns this into a quite remarkable work.  The variations and the structural construct Mozart created around the tune would then, by Jane's approach, be "classical" - but the original tune is hardly that, if analyzed.  However, both the original tune AND the variations are "classic" - they've endured over both time and handling.  Kids are still singing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" as they have been for a long time, and are likely to continue to do so.
We have the same problem in any of the arts, plastic or performing.  Shakespeare's work is "classic" (enduring in terms of time AND handling - the Bowdlerization of Shakespeare in the 19th century comes to mind in terms of handling), but is the most contemporary play?  We'll see.  Michelangelo's "Pietà" is "classic" - but is the stuff in the Metropolitan Museum of Art?  Dunno; it'll take time.  While I understand that the structural basis of a piece of music MAY make it "classical," it does not ipso facto make it "classic" - and that's where our discussion should go.
As for some of Christopher's observations, here are a few counters:
1.  Pop music is engineered for the moment - so were the "Tafelmusik" of Telemann or the Divertimenti of Mozart - for a specific time and event.
2.  Von Weber, after hearing Beethoven's 7th Symphony, commented that "Now Beethoven is ready for the loony bin!"  Genius depends not only on results, but how we see genius - the line dividing genius and madness is disconcertingly thin.
3 & 4.  Thematic address - the matters within pop songs:  love, loss, confusion, etc. - are the same themes found in 16th century madrigals, or 19th century Schubert lieder.  It may not be said or presented as elegantly - but it's still the same stuff.
5.  Okay, Katy Perry isn't your thing, but Bruckner is (for me as well!).  However, can you say the same for all "classical" composers?  No - I very much like Richard Wagner's orchestral music, but cannot sit for more than a minute without some serious squirming through any of the vocal stuff in the operas.  It doesn't reach me - but that doesn't make it "non-classical."  Individual taste is not the best measure.
6.  The real issue, though, is as you say:  there is something about music - whether instrumental or vocal - that reaches something intimately profound in each of us.  I pity, truly, the man or woman who has NO musical love - whether it's Appalachian folk music, the Beatles, Beethoven, whatever - because that is a person who is worse off than one missing an arm or a leg.  Thank God (literally!) that is a gift each of us is given.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 3, 2012 8:40am
This is just an observation and a friendly reminder from your ChoralNet Moderator du Jour.
This is a valuable and interesting discussion, but the thread is getting farther and farther away from the realm of choral music. I don't want to discourage the discourse, but I suggest adjusting the focus just a bit so that we move back into the choral area.
Thanks for your help.
on April 3, 2012 9:51am
I, too, am finding this thread a valuable and interesting discussion.  The points being made are not only intellectually interesting, but relevant to decisions we make as we program music for our choirs, and touching on how we present and talk about music with our choirs.   The question of pop/classical particularly pertains in educational settings.  I have really enjoyed the thread thus far and am especially appreciating how articulate each contributor has been.  I am finding this discussion as it is extremely valuable as I am programming a new season for my choir. Thanks again, ChoralNet!
on April 3, 2012 6:24pm
Dean and colleagues:  I've been holding off and enjoying the responses on this question, not because I have nothing to say but because I may have too much to say!  It touches on what I now see as a minor crisis in my own life, and what I gained from it.  And Dean, it quite definitely applies to choral music, just not exclusively to choral music.
I've always been inovolved in "classical" music (always being a rather long time now, and I'll get to the quotation marks in a bit).  But I also spent 20 years as an entertainer before getting off the road and into the hothouse atmosphere (and benign brain-washing) of grad school.  Which means that once in grad school I was more or less immunized against the prejudices that are so often and so unthinkingly taught there (and which I'm sorry that I've also seen in this discussion).
I'd like to suggest (and recommend) the approach taken by Dr. Alan Gowans in the book that helped me through the period when I was trying to reconcile my years in entertianment with the lofty world of grad school.  Dr. Gowans is (or more likely was) an art historian, with a special interest in the kind of common arts usually known as crafts.  And his book is "The Unchanging Arts," which posits that while the FORMS of art (ALL the arts, not just visual arts and certainly including music) quite clearly change over time, the FUNCTIONS of art in society do not, and have remained amazingly similar through history in all but bare subsistence cultures.
Speaking of the visual arts (and extrapolating this to the musical arts is my own idea), Gowans posits that there is a continuum of "art" in society, not just a dichotomy of this or that, good or bad, popular or unpopular, or whatever.  And he suggests labels for that functional art, running from Low Art designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator and to the largest number of people to High Art created with special genius, perception and craftsmanship.  But any given art work can appear at any point along that continuum, not just at one end or the other.
Just for comparison purposes, think of Bach's music for his church services as representing High Art, and the fiddler who plays in the tavern down the street the night before as representing Low Art.  The former requires creativity, expert craftsmanship, and benefits from genius.  The latter requires knowing a repertoire that may remain the same throughout that fiddler's life and may have grown out of folk traditions that have been around for years.  But his point is that BOTH ARE EQUALLY FUNCTIONAL in society, because there is a need for both and a ready market for both.  And so is Telemann's dinner music (thank you, Ron!), and Corelli's church sonatas, and the catches sung by convivial gentlemen as they sample the latest barrel of ale!
But Dr. Gowans goes further, because he has apparently had less than favorable runins with the "Fine Art Establishment."  In the visual arts this means the galleries and museums that collect and either exhibit or sell paintings and scultures, treating them not as functional art but as commercial properties to be used to generate money, and of course to the artists who populate and use such galleries instead of creating art that has an actual function in society.  (In music, I would suggest while hoping not to insult anyone, the equivalent would be writing music which is specifically NOT intended to make money but is written "because I simply have to," and which is written with no interest in pleasing or even developing an audience for it.  And regarding this kind of "art" Gowans says, "There is a name for something which no longer interacts with or responds to its surroundings; it is called a corpse!"  "I write for an audience of one" has a nice ring to it, but what it really does is define a hobby rather than a commercial business that produces music for which there is a need and a market.  And there's nothing WRONG with music or even composition as an enjoyable hobby, nor would I suggest that there is.
Gowans' examples of Low Art include comic books and cartoons, some of which can actually be quite sophisticated and convey rather profound meanings, as well as the "crafts" that produce useful but similar objects like sets of dinnerware or matched sets of chairs.  The obvious equivalent in music would be popular music (which IS written in order to make money, no matter how high class the writers may want to sound!), but to be honest a better analog might be both computer game music (some of which is becoming QUITE sophisticated) or everyone's real favorite, elevator or background music.  Film scores are somewhere in between, always functional, occasionally rising to High Art, but always written to fulfill a need and a market.
So let me suggest that we drop the term "classical," at least for the purposes of this discussion.  Technically it refers to the European culture of the late 18th century, which in turn was a period of renewed interest in the art and philosophy of "Classical" (i.e. ancient) Greece and, to a lesser extent, Rome.  Since little or nothing was known about Greek music, Mozart and the others adopted the ideas of balance and proportion from Greek visual arts and writings, and reflected them in their music.  And I'd suggest dropping the term "art music" as well, for reasons given below.
Now it's quite true that prior to the 19th century the musical arts had essentially two functions in society:  entertainment (at all levels of society) and the enhancement of ritual (at all levels of society).  Gowans breaks it down further, but there are still a finite number of functions.  What we now think of as "classical" or "art" music was in fact either the entertainment of the wealthy upper classes, who could afford to maintain staffs of musical servants and pay the most popular composers, or the ritual music of the churches that could afford to do the same.  Better musicians and better composers resulted in better music, no argument about that.  Concerts were entertainment, and recongized as such.  And no composer in his right mind expected his music to last beyond next year's social season or to outlast its immediate popularity (and yes, they were going for popularity, because that put money in their pockets!).  The thought that we'd still be singing or playing it 250 years later would have blown their minds!  Sound familiar?  It should.  It's exactly the situation with pop music today, and you can go right down the checklist on each and every point.  Theater people understand this reality.  Draw in audiences and put bodies in the seats or your show closes, quickly and abruptly.  Musicians tend to be less in touch with reality.
So I'd like to suggest for your consideration the conclusions I came to.  Functional music is part of its culture and comes in a great many different flavors, but music that ignores its culture lacks any useful function, and "art for art's sake" is a meaningless phrase.  I know others will disagree, and that's their priviledge.  But anyone who is composing for posterity must live in a different universe from mine--and that's OK, too.  The dichotomy between classical and pop music is largely a 20lth century artifact, and drawing examples only from that century isn't especially helpful.  In fact it's been suggested that before the rigid social structure or society broke down and mass communications became available, there was really no popular music and no way there could be.  There was the folk music of many different cultures, but no universal "music of the people."  But High Art and Low Art, yes, that seems to make sense.  And really explains some of the ongoing discussion here that do focus on choral music, like the tension between traditional choir music and "praise teams."  BUT ...
I strongly feel that all art is entertainment, and fails as art if it fails as entertanment (but please, I have a rather broad definition of entertainment and not the deliberately limited definition that too many people are satisfied with).  And that all entertainment is art, and fails as entertanment if it fails as art.  Which means that there is both Low Art and High Art in music, and unfortunately Fine Art as well.  And it also follows that while it's easy and fun to judge one level of art using the criteria applicable to some other level, it is not and never has been a valid exercise.  Each kind of art has its own esthetic, its own focuses and criteria, and they do NOT cross from one kind to another the way our grad school teachers want us to think they do.  Even back when I was learning the trade of musicology and choral contucting in grad school, it occurred to me that the music scholars will be studying in 200 years is unlikely to be today's "art" music, which touches so few lives, but the music that actually DOES touch people's lives and both reflects and affect their thinking.  And it wouldn't surprise me to find Elvis, Lennon, and McCartney on that list, not because they had any intention of creating "great art," but because in spite of everything they actually did, AND made money doing it!
All the best,
on April 3, 2012 12:26pm
A great thread for sure. If I may add some thoughts that will further the discussion and also bring it back to a choral center.
I recently programmed an evening of Beatles songs for my vocal jazz group. All nine of the selections were what I called "re-imaginings" of the original tunes. They took the simplicity of the original songs and built a more complex, yet still musically satifsying structure. It lead me to re-confirm what I've always felt about music in general. It isn't only the music, but it's what the composer or arranger does with it that gives it elevation to "classic" status. Examples:
A simple chant melody becomes the Dies irae movement in Verdi's Requiem or Victoria's O magnum mysterium.
A folk melody becomes the basis for many settings of Renaissance masses. (Missa l'homme arme)
A minor nine cluster chord becomes the "Fire chord" in Lauridsens' Fire song set.
Fool on the Hill, a basic simple strophic "pop" song by Paul McCartney becomes a harmonic and melodic theme and variations in the hands of Gene Puerling and the Singers Unlimited.
On one level, comparing music of 500 years ago that has endured to current works is unfair. It is impossible to say what will endure from our present era. I think it's equally unwise to assume that Beethoven and Mozart and Tallis, etc. will endure for another half-millineum. I agree that what makes the music timeless is its ability to reach people on a fundamental level because it deals with basic human feelings and experiences. But whether or not it reaches us is a matter of subjectivity and cultural perspective. Although it wasn't expressed by anyone here, choral music is essentially a Western art form, although it exists in other cultures, it is largely influenced by what we know as the Western tradition involving a set of 12 possible tones and all of the accepted forms of employing those tones in harmonic settings. Who's to say whether our western music will survive or be suplanted by the music of India or some other cultural tradition? Let's not forget that the music of ancient Greece employed the use of microtones and probably would sound very different to our modern ears. That little of it survives is not due to its lack of artistic value but because it is simply too ancient to even really know what it sounded like, and there are only a handful of notated examples by which to reconstruct it's aesthetic qualities. For all we know, there were many Mozarts and Bachs in the ancient era whose works are lost to time.
All of this means nothing of course in the context of what Christopher's student was defending. Whether or not a current pop song or artist endures is impossible to say, but if it speaks to us, it is just as valid as the final Alleluia from The Messiah. Pop music can be a gateway to the classics. I would argue that's true for most of us. My love of choral singing didn't start in church or in the school choir. It started with songs like "This Boy" by the Beatles, "Aquarious, Let the Sun Shine In" by the 5th Dimension and "Monday Monday" by The Mamas and the Papas. All of these were just pop songs on the radio when I was a kid. Who knew then whether they would stand the test of time? So far, they have to a degree, but that's mostly because the Baby Boomers are all still around. The point is, they reached me and encouraged me to explore further choral works. I would argue that we as educators should become more aware of the actual music that our students consume that has a choral flavor or component and encourage them through that venue. That could mean anything in 2 or more parts. I also think we should avoid categorizing one type of music or another as "art." It's either all art or it's not. It was created by someone. Art is in the eye... Perhaps it's better to call something like Wagner's "Ring Cycle" simply "more sophisticated" due to its unparalleled complex use of leitmotif as musical narative as opposed to "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" which is a triadic jazz piece written over a 12 bar blues progression just for fun using the bugle call "reveille" as the theme. They both tell a musical story. It's like comparing 2+2 to E=mc2. One is a basic formula, the other is infintely complex, but both represent a mathematical calculation and both are important. Music is the same. Who cares if it's Brahms' Liebeslieder or the Backstreet Boys? It's a group of singers, harmonizing together. How can they both be anything but beautiful?
on April 4, 2012 8:11am
Fascinating discussion. 
I strongly resist categorizing music.  It seems limiting.  Each song, or work, is a combination of rhythm, pitches, and expressive elements (accents, phrasing, dynamics, etc.)  The composer chooses what works for her/him to express the idea.  Many pieces have qualities that may remind us of other pieces - I believe that is where we get the idea that we want to categorize [pigeon-hole!? :)] music.  I affirm Duke Ellington's statement that he is/was "beyond category".
In the classroom, or private studio, I encourage the discussions to involve specific musical/compositional terms such as form, staccato, legato, various intervals, chord structure/progressions, rondo/verse-refrain, fugue/round/canon, sequence, melodic contour.  I see this as learning to describe, and discuss, but not to type.   Any composer of any era can "pick up" any of these "tools" and use them. 
I have no problem discussing and demonstrating trends for students, "During ___time period, ____technique was often used, and became popular."   But since there are always qualities that are used in many eras or "styles", I don't like to type the music too much.  Discussing the elements can help to draw parallels, give wider vocabulary/understanding, counter-act myopic value judgments; ("It's cool/not cool." ), and give a delightfully varied palette of musical colors to paint their own performances and compositions.
I strongly resist categorizing choirs, ensembles and soloists for similar reasons.  Versatility improves us by stimulating our awareness.
"Variety is the spice of life!".  Instead of defining whether it is "classic/classical" or "popular", why don't we look at what went into the musical recipe, ponder the composer's possible reasons, and just enjoy the meal?  :)
on April 4, 2012 9:05am
Thank you SO MUCH for all of the responses thus far! This is exactly the kind of discussion I was hoping would arise! I appreciate the feedback from this community. Special thanks to those who disagreed with any of my opinions. I look forward to any future responses!
What a wonderful exchange of ideas!
on April 5, 2012 11:54am
So to jump in the deep end feet first with lead weights attached. First while most of us realize that when we say "classical" music to refer to the entire body of music out there, it is actually incorrect. My advisor in college (I was once a music history and lit major a millenia or so ago) always corrected any student who used that term. "Classical" music the genre should be referred to as academic music. Classical was a stylistic period.
So Christopher, your student was both right and wrong, as were you. Remember There have been millions of pieces of music written, yet not all of them have survived through into the 21st century. In our world look at the dichotomy between J.S. Bach and a man who was considered a rock star during the same period of music history, Telemann who was know across Europe. His music was played everywhere, he got the plumb positions etc... Yet today although Telemann is know, he has been eclipsed by Bach. We can see this with so many of those that we consider to be the "GREATS" that they acheived some success during their lifetimes but nothing compared to what they have now. 
The same is true in Pop music. My Mum lives to say that the floatsum sinks and the Gold rises to the top. Look at those Popular Songs that have withstood the test of time. They seem to find their way out of the pack, the thousands of songs that are published and recorded every year. Someone used the example of a YES song, but others quibbled that it was only a B-track and therefore didn't qualify. So "Owner of  A Lonely Heart" another YES song was an A side, as was "Horse With No Name" (although I think that's America) One came out in the 1980s another either the late 1960s or the 1970s. My Theory 4 prof used them as analysis pieces. They are neither simple, nor easy. Another group which might surprise you as not as simple and easy as they sound would be the Beetles. Their music always incorporated the trend of simple chordal structures, repetitions etc.. but they used something from their youth to change things up a bit: anglican church modes. 
The choir I'm in is doing a new cover of a Radiohead song No Surprises that is amazing. It has as many similarities melodically and texturally to something crafted and arranged by Vaughan-Williams or Holst or Copland. I would venture to say that what you should have told your choir is that every generation leaves a legacy behind for the future. What that legacy is we can never be sure of, because WE are not the ones who will make those choices. One advantage that future generations will have over the past is with the glut of technology that is in use today, hopefully nothing will be lost.
This is my humble opinion. MParry
on April 5, 2012 4:25pm
Marilyn:  I have to say that I disagree with your professor.  While "Classical" is indeed a time and stylistic period, the word has been preempted to refer to "art" music in general.
"Academic," on the other hand, can only really be applied to much of the "art" music of the 20th century, written in fact by academics (i.e. composers whose day job is teaching, not composing).  It certainly doesn't apply to what is today considered the "classical" or "art" music of previous centuries, which for the most part (with exceptions, of course) was written by people whom we can only consider to have been commercial musicians who had every intention of earning a living from their music.  You know, people like Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven.  THOSE commercial musicians.  Who just happened to be VERY good at their jobs, but were certainly not "academics" in the modern sense (even though Bach did have to teach Latin!).
I happen to believe that choirs SHOULD be singing today's music (as in the full range of pop, show, jazz, rock, AND "art" music) as well as the wonderful heritage of our cultural past. But I've written about that elsewhere.
All the best,
on April 5, 2012 2:49pm
Although I understand where Lucy is coming from, I think there is some danger in her view that one should resist categorizing music of various composers or judging various types of music since "variety is the spice of life."  I would just point out that most people would agree that the music of Mozart is superior to that of his contemporary Salieri.  Perhaps we should look again at Alfred Einstein's now almost forgotten book "Greatness in Music."
on April 5, 2012 3:05pm
I've read each response with fascination, and found there is much I can agree and also disagree with for each one. But I believe John Howell is the only person to have used the one word I would employ to describe the difference between music that endures, and music that doesn't (as opposed to "classical vs. pop"): craft.

The best music is not written, not composed, but crafted. The best art arises out of the focused implementation of craft. If only to apply this idea to the original question, "classical" music is a music that is crafted. Much time is devoted to ensuring each note is well-placed, each harmony is well-suited for the moment. Some composers applied this craft better than others, and their work endures because of its stability, for want of a better word. Even musical geniuses such as Mozart applied a craft to his compositions, his was simply more instantaneous than others, and his craft was more substantial than, say, Salieri's.

Pop music, well much of it anyway, relies on "hooks" to draw the listener in. Once the hook becomes tiresome, the song fades from popularity. It doesn't take much for a hook to grow old. Pick any Ke$ha song; nothing but one hook after another. Likewise, They Might Be Giants is (in my opinion) a brilliant band, but I would wager that they would be the first to tell you that they are entirely hook-driven. As a matter of fact, on their album "Apollo 13", the last 4:45 or so is a series of 21 "songs". Most are less than :30 seconds long and are nothing more than a long series of hooks. It's absolute genius, but I'm guessing it will never endure. The Beatles, however, and Simon and Garfunkel and Elton John and perhaps even Bruno Mars today seem to craft their songs. They have good structure and will possibly survive for many many years because of it.

I've greatly enjoyed this discussion, and hope to be able to continue it with my students.


on April 5, 2012 8:40pm
John and Jane:  I agree completely that "craft" (or rather craftsmanship) and "structure" (in the sense of form that is not only clear but interesting) are hallmarks of GOOD music, but not that they are restricted to "art" music and never appear in "popular" (or better "commercial") music.
They are, rather, excellent denominators of the continuum from Low Art to High Art that I've written about.  Complexity does not guarantee high quality.  The most beautiful sound in the universe is children singing a simple song in unison!
Nor can I completely agree that in order to be GOOD, music has to be sweated over and must take a long time to create.  THAT, I would say, is completely a function of the level of skill (craftsmanship) and creativity (inspiration, if you prefer) of the composer.  Some great music has been written almost overnight, while other music that was slaved over for years will never be acknowledged as great. 
It's absolutely true, however, that a composer working within established forms can produce new music faster than one who is obsessed with trying to create something absolutely new, and that goes for anything from Tin Pan Alley or Michael Jackson songs to symphonies, Lutheran cantatas, or Catholic Masses.  Like most things in life, success usually results from a happy balance between the two.  In fact some of my own best work (my judgement) has resulted when I was working under a strict time deadline and could not take the time necessary to rethink everything, and i suspect that's more common with successful composers than constant refining and revising, and it's certainly a hallmark of successful commercial composers in any genre who have to be able to produce music on time, on budget, and to specifications.
Thanks for your thoughts!
All the best,
John (the other one)
on April 6, 2012 6:56am
...and let's remain mindful of the skill and imagination required to conjure an effective 'hook.'
I recall a wonderful discussion on NPR about film scores comparing the work of John Williams to that of other Academy Award nominees, citing John Williams' style as being more theme-based than most, often weaving a high-profile tune throughout the movie score somewhat like a Wagnerian leitmotiv.  But my what great tunes he's written.  And let's face it, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, and Handel wrote some killer tunes - TRUE classic, enduring, genious moments of inspired art.  Beyond the craftsmanship applied to structure, form, voice-leading, etc., similar prowess and care contribute to the development of a good melody or hook (I use the word 'hook' also describe a compelling bass riff, or a hypnotic rhythmic goove that lingers in the memory long after the music has ended).  Call it inspiration or luck, tunes matter and it never ceases to amaze me how consistently 'lucky' some composers have been.  In this regard, I give Bach, Puccini, Barber, Stephen Foster, and Freddy Mercury equal props.
fun chat...
David York
Portland, Oregon
on April 5, 2012 6:05pm
John - I agree completely.   Fine "craft" and "structure" are at the heart of beautiful classical music, as they are in good architecture and literature and sculpture and the 1937 Mercedes-Benz Special Roadster.   And they can be taken apart and analysed to show what makes them fine - which is the point I was trying to make earlier.
Marilyn  - the word classical has long been used to describe western music from Plainsong to the present.  It was entirely appropriate for Christopher and his student to use the word in the discussion.   
Your advisor's opinion on the use of the term classical v academic to describe the large body of western music (as opposed to the era) is interesting to say the least.   S/he only needed to discover the Latin derivation for both words to come to the conclusion that the use of the term classical is infinitely more appropriate than academic.  I hope you had a rip-roaring classroom discussion about it.
on April 6, 2012 8:12am
I think "well-crafted" is the best comment I have seen in this thread. I teach composition and address things from a "good composition" standpoint rather than a stylistic one. I teach that good compositions in any style have the following:
1. A good balance of:
   a. Unity - something to provide a sense of organization to the music. Without unity, people can't get their brain around the music.
   b. Variety - some things change to provide interest. Without variety, music becomes tiresome.
2. A sense of direction - the music must "go somewhere." (chord progressions, modulation, building of tension then relaxation, etc.)
3. Setting up of expectations, which are usually fulfulled but occasionally avoided or delayed.
Unity is most often provided by melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic repetition and imitation. Pop music has alot of this. Sufficient variety in pop music is often lacking or simplistic. Great pieces have a great balance of unity and variety. One of the best methods of providing them both at the same time is through thematic development and the use of compositional devices such as sequence, inversion, etc. Great art music excels at this. Good pop music has this as well.
I direct my students to bring to their first lesson any piece of music in any style that they think is "great." I get all styles from pop to movie soundtracks to Mozart, and I always find many examples of how the piece accomplishes the above.
on April 6, 2012 11:16am
This is a fascinating discussion. I would hate to have John Howell across the table on MY thesis committee. 8<)
There are many answers, many of which have been given above, but there is a larger picture of why some music becomes 'classic' and other music does not. A piece of music, any piece of music outlasts its original public because of the strength of its ideas. There are a lot of periferals, but that's the nut. I learned this when giving Symphony Previews with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Beyond giving vitals about a composer and the work, with funny little anectodes about playing it, I had to come to grips about that particular piece's worth; both now, and then, and talk about it. So, what sets 'classic' music apart from pop is: Pop is written within someone's living memory, and 'classic' isn't. Whether it lasts or not has to do with its perceivable strength of ideas. And, as written above, we won't be the judge of that with pop music.
regards, as always, jefe
In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum
on April 6, 2012 2:11pm
Re: David York:  Yes "Tunes matter."  Among the so-called "classical" composers, none had greater melodic gifts, in my opinion, than Schubert.
on May 2, 2012 7:04am
Dave Barry has a pretty funny column in the Miami Herald discussing (humorously) this very same question!
on May 10, 2012 9:34am
One amusing answer to this interesting discussion might be heard in Axis of Awesome's performance of Four Chords, a conglomeration of many pop and folk songs that use the same chords over and over. Alert: some of the Youtubes of this contain profanity. There are versions without the f-bombs. 
on May 10, 2012 7:43pm
If you think The Four Chord Song is the decisive argument, look also for Pachelbel Rant.
on May 10, 2012 7:42pm
Very interesting thread. I do believe it speaks to the choral-music theme, and hope that others agree (Sorry, Dean...). The one aspect of the music industry that no one (that I can see) has mentioned is recording. This has had a major effect on whether or not music "lasts".
Prior to the invention of the phonograph, the lasting power of music had to depend upon someone keeping it in the limelight... F. Mendelssohn's 'revivial' of J.S. Bach's music was a very obvious example... I am sure that someone has the information on how and where and when Herr Mendelssohn "found" the music of J.S. Bach.
Once the ability to record music came along -- the ability to replay certain performances, not just replay the music itself -- the paradigm totally changed.
Then came the ability to "broadcast", first audio -- via radio, and then video via TV. Then came the other media, including the Internet... I am leaving out a lot of steps in the process, but you get the idea. There are now many, many ways foir a composer's music to get played, and to get recorded.
Bottom lines: (1) I can go out on the Internet and hear groups many, many perform pieces, and then go to a myriad of vendors to find copies to be purchased. I can communicate with the composer, if they are still alive, and do extensive research on their material from the confines of my computer at home, and my computer at work. (2) Composers and their music have a much better chance of being played and saved in many more places around the world. (3) Performers have a much better chance of being heard through many more venues and channels around the world.
Ron Isaacson
Germantown, MD
P.S. Hmmm... Come to think of it, when I finish this e-mail message, I'm going to look up Mendelssohn on wikipedia and see if the above information is there... RI
on May 10, 2012 9:07pm
Ron:  The story on Mendelsssohn is that he was given the manuscript to Bach's St. Matthew by either his grandmother or great-aunt (I've seen it reported both ways) while he was a student at the Berlin Singakademie, and that she had gotten it from Friedman Bach (I think) when she studied with him in Berlin.  And I believe that they DID study some of Bach's works at the Singakademie, although I don't know which ones they had access to (perhaps through Emanuel Bach?).
I have to say that your thesis is absolutely true in terms of the 20th century.  The only problem is that the turnaround came amost a century earlier.  The reason we call art music "classical" seems to be that it was the music of the "Classical Period" (the late 18th century, which was a time of revival of interest in the arts and architecture of Classical Greece in both Europe and the U.S., which is why Thomas Jefferson's home and many of the Federalist government buildings in D.C. look like Greek temples!) that for the first time in music history remained solidly in repertoire and did not automatically fall out of fashion.  That marked a major change in attitudes toward music (and Beethoven's comment that posterity would appreciate his music didn't help!!!).  Prior to that no one expected the music of a previous generation to outlive that generation, and it very seldom did.
So I'd have to say that the advent of recording technology in the late 19th century helped the process and made it move a great deal faster, but was not the original impetus for valuing music past its "sell by" date.  And in fact it did a lot more for specific recording artists, who could be heard by millions of people rather than just hundreds or thousands, than it did for composers.  And the result of THAT is that hardly anyone today cares who actually wrote popular songs, just who recorded them.
One of my favorite lines in the Sherlock Holmes stories is, "Come, Watson, we must be off the the Albert Hall to hear Sarasate play," because that was the only way to hear one's favorite music or one's favorite artists prior to early (and very poor quality) recordings.
All the best,
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