Classical vs. Popular Music by James Manheim

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 has caught your attention is a good place to start.

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 extreme 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.