“Popular Music”: Interpretation, Playing Styles and Technique

When playing popular music we need to make some major changes to our mindset and playing style. If we play jazz, pop and swing music like “classical” musicians, as though we were interpreting Brahms or Beethoven, we are not going to be very popular. Stephane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin playing jazz together provide a lot of material for discussion about this question of what makes the difference between “popular” and “classical” playing styles.

Of course, the boundaries between “classical” and “popular” music are in many cases quite overlapping. Some pieces are totally and obviously in one category or the other, but many pieces cross the boundaries between the two (Gershwin, Bernstein etc). For a discussion of this question, open the following page:

Popular Or Classical ?

Let’s start to look now at some of the things that it might help to know in order to be able to switch comfortably between these two musical worlds:



In “classical” music we are taught to start each note at exactly the correct metronomic moment that corresponds to the notation, and then maintain each note (and rest) for its exact entire value. In popular music however, the notation is normally much less strictly enforced and the performer often has an enormous margin of liberty with the rhythms. This is the rhetoric of an informal, somewhat spontaneous delivery and allows for huge differences in interpretation of the same piece. So long as we don’t lose our accompaniment, we are probably within the bounds of expressive and poetic licence.

When playing “classical” music we are normally supposed to be absolutely synchronised with the other players, like a tightly choreographed ballet or a North Korean Olympic opening ceremony. But in “popular” music – especially in the slow stuff – the dancers are allowed to weave in and out of synchrony, sometimes coming in close but then pulling away again in an organic, totally relaxed, free-flowing way that mimics the ebb and flow of both human intimacy and the natural world in general. It is actually great fun to play a “popular” piece with a pre-recorded accompaniment and see just how far we can let ourselves wander rhythmically without losing the accompaniment.

One of the most common types of this “wandering” is ahead of the beat, and is achieved by starting our notes early (before the beats rather than on them), creating syncopations where, in the classical version, there were none. Playing off the beats (syncopations) is like writing between the lines and creates a feeling of great smoothness and flow in the slower passages, and great rhythmic energy in the faster bits. The subject of syncopation has its own dedicated page:



Apart from the addition of syncopations and anticipated note-starts, one of the main rhythmic notational differences between classical and popular music is the significance of the rests. Rests are used much more loosely in popular music.

Pinchas Zukerman has this to say about rests…..

“in music, rests don’t exist ….. the music doesn’t stop until the piece has finished …… rests are just breaths (pauses) during which the musical intention continues …..”

Often, rests that are found in the pop notation can be replaced by the continuation of the previous note, especially for music that was originally written to be sung. Singers need to breathe and, literally, rest between phrases, whereas string instruments can maintain the line if we want to. We can eliminate rests in order is to keep the music flowing. While there should be breaths between the phrases, these can often be shorter and less pronounced than those indicated by the notated rests. This is especially the case in our Bossa Nova transcriptions. According to a literal interpretation of written notation, rests are silences in which “nothing is happening” and “the music stops”. This is totally unmusical: we cannot suddenly stop dancing while the music continues!

Many other times, rather than removing rests we might need to add rests (or staccato dots) between notes where previously no “gap” was specified. Music that is written for voice or keyboard automatically integrates the fact that between the notes or the vocal syllables there is a decay of the sound which can often be almost like a “rest with resonance” for a bowed instrument. If we play this music without an awareness of this phenomenon (without adding little rests and staccato dots) then we are likely to play everything too legato.


This rhythmical wandering, and rounding of the sharp formal edges so characteristic of popular musical styles (that’s why classical music is called “square”), is also reflected in the predominance of underlying triplet subdivisions (compound time) even when the music is notated with binary time signatures. When we want to give a four-square classically notated rhythm the loose dance and swing character of pop/jazz, not only do we add syncopations but also we change it into compound time. To avoid complexities in the notation, and because “everybody” knows how to interpret the “swing” style, most jazz and pop music is notated with simple four-square binary rhythms but we usually need to “compound” (or “tripletise”) them if we don’t want them to sound like Beethoven. Here are two examples from the jazz classic “Take Five“. Don’t be put off by the fact that this piece is in five: we are only looking here at the compound time subdivisions of the 16th note movements:

take five triplets 1 take five triplets 2


So don’t take the notation in these popular pieces too literally. Interpret them loosely. Listen to the greatest pop interpreters’ recordings, and maybe even play (or sing) along with them to fully register what they do. And, if the subject interests you, read the section on “Reading and Notation Problems” !


Loosening up the rigour, or tightening up the looseness, both crossing directions are difficult. No doubt Stephane Grappelli would have had similar problems of adaptation playing a Beethoven Sonata as Yehudi Menuhin had playing jazz. Yo Yo Ma and many other modern classical musicians do this stylistic crossing just beautifully, but jazz and pop musicians who can also play “classical” are quite rare. And whereas the “loosening up” that popular music brings us is extraordinarily beneficial for uptight classical musicians, it is not at all clear if classical rigour, tightness and discipline would bring any benefits at all to a popular musician. But it certainly could cramp their style!