Classical vs. Popular Music

Coming to classical music from popular music
is less of a leap than you might think.
- by James Manheim
This appears as the article
"Classical Music for Newcomers" in
All Music Guide to Classical Music

"Do you like classical music?" It may be that you're a little embarrassed by the question. "Yes," some people answer - "but I don't know anything about music." Well, if you've encountered a piece of classical music that you loved, then you know more than you think you do. Classical music is everywhere around us - in movies, in television commercials, in schools, in the memories of our parents and grandparents. Anywhere that it's caught your attention is a good place to start.

Classical vs. popular music

Whether you sit down to master classical harmony or rock guitar, you'll study chords and how they fit together either way. If you learn to play an instrument, you'll most likely learn both classical and popular selections - and you'll find that musicians don't tend to worry much about categories. Classical music and popular music, both part of the cultural frame of reference of most Americans and Europeans, share many aspects of musical language. Yet there are some prominent differences as well. Coming to classical music from popular music is less of a leap than you might think, but there are a few ways in which you have to retune your ears.

One important difference comes in regard to duration. Popular songs are usually brief; most of them are under five minutes long. Classical compositions, on the other hand, range from 20-second pieces to works that last several hours. The average symphonic concert work lasts perhaps half an hour, and this requires a change of perspective for those accustomed to listening to popular songs. How does a composer make such a large piece of music hang together? It's a question worth asking of any piece of music, but for classical compositions it's one of critical importance.

Another difference is that popular music is mostly vocal music. Be it rock, country, r&b, or pop, ballads or dance music, there is usually a singer, and a text that carries a major share of a composition's meaning. But vocal music is only a province, and not even the most extended province, of classical music. Even in the realms of opera and art song, the music is the message.

Though classical music is very much a living tradition today, it also has a thousand-year history of having been preserved for posterity by musical notation. Popular music, sometimes notated but often including spontaneous elements, has a deep history of its own, of course. Yet our knowledge of music that was never written down is limited to a period beginning just over a century ago, when the first recordings were made. Notation allows, if not greater complexity, at least a greater degree of control over musical events on the part of a composer external to a given performance of a piece. Whereas a pop recording, very broadly speaking, depends on an interaction between performer and song, classical music rests on a triad: composer, work, and performer.

And generally speaking, the dynamic range, the difference in volume between the loudest and the softest moments, is greater in classical music than in pop. Some pieces are very loud, some are very soft, and some vary widely within a single piece, sometimes so extremely as to have made it nearly impossible to capture the full range in recordings before the arrival of digital techniques. The distinction here is not a hard and fast one, but it's no accident that the salesperson at a high-end stereo shop will bring out a classical CD to demonstrate what a fine pair of speakers can do.

What to listen for in classical music

Too many people have the idea that classical works consist of an arcane set of codes, known only to an elite group of lifetime concertgoers. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are plenty of places to get a foothold.

Just like any other music, classical music is full of tunes. And a tune is often a piece's central "idea" - if you hear a melody that catches your ear, it's both fun and instructive to listen for it again. How does the composer prepare you for its return? And how does the melody change, if at all, when it returns? Does the composer use little bits of the melody in combination with other material in the piece? As you luxuriate in that beautiful tune, pay attention to what happens to it along the way, and all of a sudden, all the discussions of "form" that you read in classical concert program notes won't seem so mysterious. Many factors work together to make the famous first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 such a powerful piece of music, but the single most important one is the way the dramatic short-short-short-LONG motif heard at the beginning is worked and reworked and reworked again.

Another good place to start is simply to ask yourself what instruments (or voices) you're hearing and how they're used. One of the joys of classical music is its endlessly varied instrumental combinations - classical works are written for everything from one gentle instrument (Bach's Suite for Solo Cello No. 4) to Mahler's so-called "Symphony of a Thousand," which does indeed approach four figures in the orchestral and choral forces required. Some classical listeners prefer music written for small groups such as a string quartet - "chamber music," as it's called. And nearly everybody who has tried sitting down at a piano keyboard has had a brush with some of the classics for solo piano.

And it may help you grasp the spirit of a classical piece to know where and when it was composed. Classical music represents a thousand years of the cultural history of Europe, America, and the rest of the world. If you gain enough familiarity, it is possible to place an unknown work in time and be accurate to within a few years. Most of the music heard on recordings and concert programs dates from between 1700 and the present day, but in recent years more and more performers have explored the music of the Medieval and Renaissance eras. Of course the relationship between the sound of music and the culture that surrounds it is a complicated one. But the soaring spaces of a Gothic cathedral in Paris seem to come alive in memory when you hear the vast four-part organum of PTrotin - as do the devotional spirit of German Lutheranism in the cantatas of Bach and the American worship of landscape in Copland's Appalachian Spring.

Where can I start with classical music?

Why each person develops a particular attachment to certain pieces of music is a question shrouded in obscurity. No matter what the experts tell you, no matter how many courses on musical appreciation you take, no matter how "great" or important a piece is, if after listening to it intently several times its language does not say anything to you, then it may simply not be your kind of music. All that said, there is something objective about the relative difficulty of some composers. There is little doubt that the tune-filled works of, say, Vivaldi (such as The Four Seasons) and Mozart make for comparatively easy listening, whereas five hours of Wagner opera may not be every listener's chosen cup of tea.

An extra dose of patience may be required when listening to certain music of the twentieth century as well, but little is accomplished if you run away from any music without trying it. Every epoch brings innovations that are resisted by traditionalists, but soon become normal and accepted. Who knows? If you find new music that makes sense to you, you may find yourself out in front of a trend.

But above all, trust your feelings. The greatest composer is the one whose music touches you most effectively.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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