Classical (Formal) Music Compared to “Popular” Music


As with so many distinctions that we are obliged to make in life, there is very often no clear dividing line between “popular” and “classical” (“formal”) music. So much music in fact crosses any supposed boundaries between “popular” and “classical” that this division is often quite artificial. Rather than looking for a yes/no dividing line between the concepts of “popular” and “classical” music we should probably consider the whole thing as a continuum, with cheap, flashy and trashy at one end ……. high-brow and deadly earnest at the other …….. and with all the different degrees of mixture in between. Perhaps Schönberg, Webern, Stockhausen and other “deadly serious” composers would be at the extremely “classical” end, while some of the silliest, most commercial music would be at the opposite extreme. What then are some of the possible criteria for deciding just where a piece of music lies on this continuum, or in other words, just how “popular” or “formal” (“classical”) a piece of music is?

We could perhaps consider the primary intention of the composer: do they wish principally to entertain (“popular”) or rather to communicate some deeper message (“classical”). But no: Mozart, Rossini and countless other “classical” composers often wrote magnificent “classical” music that was designed very much to entertain, humour and amuse the listeners. And many modern “rock” groups and derivatives (punk etc) – that are supposedly of the popular genre – have a very deep, serious, sincere serious message and often even follow the very “artistic” (classical) aesthetic of being deliberately ugly, shocking, and supposedly unpopular.

Perhaps we could look at the financial reasons for writing the music: was the composer writing mainly for economic reasons (popular) or for emotional catharsis (classical)? But this reasoning doesn’t work either as most composers wrote music to earn their living and very few of them were rich, therefore they depended on the popularity of their music to keep food on their plates.

In the Baroque period, a lot of music was composed for the church, while in the “Classical” period much music was written for the courts. Naturally, music written for (and paid for by) the church and royalty will be touched by a certain formality and reserve that makes it less likely to be “popular” in nature. But this doesn’t mean that we will consider most of the music of Schubert, Beethoven or Mozart – written for a more “popular” audience rather than being commissioned by the church or a court – as belonging to the “popular” category.

Opera, free from the constraints of the church that commissioned so much music in the Baroque Period, was a very “popular” form of music, especially in Italy and many operas (especially the Italian ones) were not “high-brow” compositions, intended only for a very knowledgeable and cultured audience. They are often basically just glorified soap operas with very attractive (and popular) music. The frontier between “serious” opera and “popular” opera is often very vague.

Vaudeville (U.S.A.), Music-hall (UK), Operettas (France), Zarzuela (Spain) all emerged in the middle of the 19th century as very “popular” musical forms. These have evolved into the modern-day “popular” opera equivalent of musicals (is that word derived from music-halls?) and shows as found most characteristically on Broadway (New York) and the West End (London).

In the 20th century, the differences between the extremes of “popular” and “classical” music became quite gigantic, but between these extremes, many composers cross the border between both:


Music is a powerful emotional language through which we can touch the deepest areas of the psyche. If we have to generalize, we could say that “classical” music is often emotionally more “serious”, “intense” and “heavy” than popular music. For the performer, this high emotional intensity can lead to excessive tension. For this reason, playing “popular” music is normally therapeutic. Jazz, pop, rock, bossa nova, reggae, punk, folk, flamenco, fado, country, gypsy, klezmer, bluegrass, irish, tango, ethnic etc take us on an enriching voyage into very different musical and emotional worlds. Here, we can – and actually must – really loosen up.

But we can also loosen up in our “classical” repertoire, taking every opportunity to find moments of lightness, simple pleasure and happiness, as well as emotional depth and suffering! Whereas we may not find much of this lightness in Beethoven we can find loads of it in many (if not most) other “classical” composers (Mozart, Mendelssohn, Rossini and Schubert come to mind immediately). So much of the music of supposedly “classical” composers was actually the popular music of their time, especially in the Renaissance and Pre-Baroque times.

In the 20th-century things took a serious turn for the worse and most “classical” music composed since WWI lost its charm, humour and grace, and is consequently very difficult to love (or even like). This development is perhaps the perfect reflection (in music) of the industrial-scale horrors of the past century and is the reason why the division between “popular” and “formal” suddenly becomes hugely relevant in the 20th century. Now, the difference between purely commercial “pop” and highly “intellectual” music has become a truly gigantic gulf. Surprisingly, there is utter trash and absolute treasures to be found all the way along the spectrum of popular/formal, and sometimes in the most surprising places. Heavy metal bands can surprise us with some profound and tender compositions of genius, and some of the greatest rock bands are made up of self-taught musicians, many from the world of the visual arts. Meanwhile, the conservatory-trained avant-garde”composers” seem to churn out the most unpalatable nonsense, rather like cooks who are taught to produce recipes that are not only inedible but also make us sick. Schönberg spoke about “the emancipation of dissonance“. We might as well try to emancipate violence, war, brutality, ugliness, pain, pollution, sickness, disgusting smells and flavours and all the other unpleasant things for which dissonance is the perfect representation in music.

Where the separation between “classical” and “popular” music is very unclear, as for example with Gershwin, Joplin and Bernstein, the music can be found in both the “popular” and “classical” categories. With Johann Strauss, the balanced is tipped slightly in favour of “classical” so his music is classified in the  “Light Classical” section.