Classical v Popular music

Ever since I entered the realm of music lessons as a child I was left in no doubt as to the superiority of Classical over popular music…that people like Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Brahms, Dvořák…the list goes on…were superhuman Gods who dropped on to the earth, had miserable lives and then disappeared leaving the human race with incomparable gems never to be surpassed…when they weren’t just taking already existing folk tunes, arranging them and then calling them compositions, of course!

I struggled with this. Granted, these men..and they were always men… were extraordinarily talented and the music they produced was beautiful, complex and impressive in its structure and arrangement. But to me, music is basically simple. No matter what the composition is or whether it’s played by a sixty piece orchestra or four or five people round a campfire it’s still just made up of three constituents….rhythm, melody and harmony…and of course.. if it’s a song, words,. The combination of these ingredients is what makes music magical …or not.  Music is only ever magical to me if it excites me emotionally. This only happens when I hear something entirely spontaneous, abandoned and fresh, something new that seems to jump straight from the collective human store of ecstasy and pain and in an instant explains why we humans feel the way we do. In every form of music I’ve been exposed to from Jazz, Blues, Pop, Rock, Country, Folk or traditional music of the world in all its myriad ethnic forms, at one time or another I found this magic. I never found it in Classical music.

As a child I found myself listening to Mozart and, while impressed by his total grasp of the fundamentals of rhythm melody and harmony, I remained emotionally untouched. There was a pristine logic to the piano concertos but still I was unmoved. It felt closer to mathematics or architecture than to what I wanted from music. Wolfgang was tuneful, no doubt, but his tunes seemed twee, clever, polite, lacking in what I’d later call ‘soul’ or even ‘balls’ and… somewhat obvious. He sounded like a smart-ass, a know-it-all and frankly a kid I didn’t feel I wanted to bother to get to know.

Equally with Bach, Haydn at al. Their powers of construction, arrangement, and counterpoint were total and complete but I always struggled to find a melody that told me anything about myself or made me want to squeal with delight or even cry. In general..and I know it’s wrong to say ‘in general’ about music…baroque music seemed to be about things being in their proper place …and when I say things I mean thoughts and feelings and, above all, the higher and lower orders. It sounded like music for another time and  society and worst of all it had to be played exactly as it was written…every time. You weren’t allowed to mess with it or throw it around the place. So once you’d heard it and figured it out… why bother with it? What I couldn’t understand was why people wanted to hear it again and again and again and furthermore…  tell me it was the only music worth listening to or that had any value.

This might have held water when the alternative was “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window’ by Patti Page, ‘The Shrimp Boat’s is a’Comin’ by Jo Stafford or ‘Mares eat oats and does eat oats but little lambs eat ivy’  but when the first strains of Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Cumberland Gap’ or Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’ came out of the radio in 1955 I knew for certain that there was something else going on out there that I needed to know and soon….


  1. Steve says

    Why the “v” why not an “&”? I listened to some Bach last week, Brandenburg 2 played on the instruments of Bach’s time by a baroque group of players not the orchestral version we are all familiar with, and it was fantastic. And as for music for another time, I don’t think so.

    Great music is timeless, I still listen to Robert Johnson and that’s almost 80 years old, It’s only when music is contrived to sound like it is of a time that it is not timeless

    Hard Station is 30 years old and it sounds as if it could have been recorded yesterday.

  2. Lois Cole says

    Thank you for your thoughtful piece on classical v. popular music. I has got me thinking about music in a way that I haven’t done before. Like you, I was brought up with the “classic is best” mantra: on the radio AM meant “awful music” and FM meant “fine music”! I’ve moved on from then, discovering folk and rock in the 60’s and 70’s and later the fantastic breadth of jazz and soul. But I never completely left classical music behind, either. It sounds as if we were both victims of “masterpiece syndrome” in our early exposure to classical music and had the same reaction to it. Playing or listening to Bach–whom I hold in the highest esteem–is a techical and intellectual challenge, doubtless good for the brain, but it often fails to ignite that spark of magic we all seek. As for Wolfgang…I’ve really tried. Having said that, if we can cast off the “classical canon” (the emperor hasn’t any clothes), and decide for ourselves what is life-enhancing, moving, joyous…about music, the world of classical music has, at least for me, much to offer, even magic. I’ll stick my neck out and mention a couple of recent discoveries that combine text and music to wonderful effect. Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, written in memory of his mother, never fails to move me, especially the opening and closing sections. Also in the “goose bump” category is Eric Whitacer’s setting of the 13th century mystic Rumi’s “This Marriage”. Both of these have been beautifully recorded by Stephen Layton’s Polyphony. I know this sounds corny, but I have to admit that Vaughan Williams’s “Lark Ascending” evokes in an incredibly vivid way some of my happiest memories walking in the countryside. In whatever genre or form, the gift of music is one of life’s great joys. One final thought, which wonderfully illustrates your original point about a “classic” sometimes falling short: in the film Seven Year Itch, Tom Ewell tries to seduce Marilyn Monroe on a piano bench to the music of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto—and fails miserably. Touche! p.s. ‘Love your music, Paul, and we’re looking forward to seeing you in Cambridge MA in October!!

  3. says

    Hi Lois, only just now saw your message. Been on the move a lot all summer. Thanks for your considerate response. I don’t mean to come across as a curmudgeon re Classical music. It’s nice to get a discussion going and I’m going off to check out your suggestions! Hope you enjoy the Cambridge gig. PB

  4. says

    Agreed that Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Brahms, Dvořák etc. are more like architecture than music. But there’s a huge range of artists. Classical is not even really a genre. It’s a rather odd classification really, far too broad. There is a huge amount of moving music if you avoid the usual suspects. For me, Debussy, Chopin and Mussorgsky are mavericks compared to the usual guys. I guess that’s still badge wearing! 🙂

    Delighted to see that the original tape of “…Stranger” has been found, just ordered the CD. Thanks Paul, keep up the good work.

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