Classical (Formal) Music Compared to “Popular” Music


As with so many distinctions that we are obliged to make in life, here also there is no clear dividing line between “popular” and “classical” music. So much music in fact crosses any supposed boundaries between “popular” and “classical” that this distinction is often quite artificial. Look at the following examples:

  • 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 (opera buffa in Italy, Music Hall and Shows in anglo countries, French Operette, Spanish Zarzuela etc) is often very vague
  • Rossini used classical forms but his music is often such fun: does that make it “popular” ?
  • Astor Piazzola‘s music is mostly in the form of the Argentinian Tango but is profoundly serious and lyrical: is it “popular” or “classical”?
  • how should we classify the music of Johann Strauss, Bernstein, Gershwin and Joplin …… and Bartok’s Rumanian Dances etc etc etc ?

In fact, 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 pop 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 “classical” a piece of music is)?

We could perhaps consider the primary intention of the composer: does (s)he 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 – 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 criteria does not 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 an awful 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.

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 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.

Of course in the 20th century things took a serious turn for the worse and “classical” music lost almost all of its charm, humour and grace. This is however not surprising and is perhaps the perfect reflection (in music) of the industrial-scale horrors of the past century.

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.