The Myth of Pop Hatred

One thread of the pop-influenced-classical-music argument is becoming clearer to me from the comments to my previous post. A recurring refrain among younger musicians heavily invested in pop is that those composers who use pop instrumentation but don’t really use it in an authentic pop style do so because they don’t really respect pop music. They’re doing it to make themselves look hip, or to try to “redeem” pop elements by dressing up a classical piece with them. Now most of the composers one might gather in by this description are friends of mine, and I can tell you one thing for certain about every one of them: they all love and respect pop music. They listen to it, they buy it, they comb it for ideas. Almost all of them played it and wrote it in high school and college, if not afterward. At this point, however, they are not writing pop music, and they abstract elements from it for their own music the way Roy Lichtenstein might borrow images from comics, or the way Copland borrowed stride piano style for his Piano Concerto. But I know for a petrified fact that they pay homage to pop music in their own work because they really do admire it.

No young musician I’ve told this to has yet believed me.

And I can recount an interesting and recurring experience from my own teaching that is revealingly parallel. I’ve supervised many senior projects in pop music. Though my pop credentials are rather preternaturally thin, I’ve never hesitated to take one on. The Bard College music department was allowing students to do projects in pop music years before I came there, and as far as I know, not once in the ten years I’ve been there has any music professor tried to discourage a student from working in pop music, even for course credit. We have a pop songwriting course taught by Greg Armbruster, who’s got tons of real-world experience in styles from rap to Broadway, and whose course we consider a staple of the department. (Hell, I was once advisor to a stunning rhythm and blues project by a guy who had Ray Charles’s arranging and singing style down so cold it was scary. Needless to say, I learned more from this kid than he did from me.) Musical academia has many faults, as I’ve occasionally hinted, but as far as I can tell in 2007, taking a disapproving or condescending attitude toward pop music is not a widespread one.

Nevertheless, year after year after year, we hear a refrain from students: “I’d really rather do my senior project with my rock band, but I hear I can’t get credit for that.” “I wanted to major in music, but since I’m a pop musician I know the faculty won’t let me.” “I’m doing jazz for my senior concert, because the faculty won’t like it if I do a rock concert.” None of this is true. Not one member of the faculty flinches when a student expresses interest in pop, nor do those students receive less support than anyone else. Yet they’re all certain, and they all have chimerical third-hand evidence: “A friend of mine knew a guy who did a rock concert and the department flunked him.” Never happened. I’ve rewarded many a rock-band concert with an A.

(OK, there is one real, famous Bard story in support: sometime in the late ’60s, the department refused to let Donald Fagen, later of Steely Dan fame, become a music major. But the reason was he hadn’t bothered to learn to read music and he didn’t want to take theory courses, and according to my colleague Luis Garcia-Renart, who was on his board, Donald agreed with the committee’s decision that he’d probably be better off majoring in English. But sheesh, that was 40 years ago, give us a break. Since then we’ve been petrified that anyone we flunk will become famous and make us look foolish.)

The point is, year after year after year the students come to us believing something that is not true. WIth no malevolent intent, they will subconsciously concoct evidence to support their belief. It’s as though their self-esteem as rebellious teenagers requires them to invent a myth of the pop-disapproving faculty. I am tempted to conclude from this that young people cherish a widespread irrational faith that Pop Music Is Under Siege. We oldsters would love to get rid of it, and make everyone study classical music and jazz. Therefore, anyone of my generation who borrows pop influences without the air of authenticity cannot simply be incompetent, or abstracting elements for some non-pop-related purpose: they must be motivated by scorn. We all secretly hate pop music, and use it in our ineffective music to make pop music look bad. We so despise it that we rip off its elements superficially, without really listening to it. We’re trying to show the world that any idiot can do pop music.

Well, none of it’s true. Like the pop-influenced music of my generation or don’t like it, but if you imagine it is motivated by opportunism, condescension, or classical snobbism, you are merely projecting your own self-doubt and resentment onto it. That it is not is a historical fact. And if anyone born after 1975 believes me, I’ll be tremendously surprised.


  1. says

    Last night we went to hear the University of Arizona Music School’s harp ensemble concert. The program was all over the map, including Christian pop, arrangements of western art music (Chopin, Holst, Villa-Lobos), Irish jigs, Native American flute, ragtime, etc., all arranged or written by the students, and accompanied with various multimedia. Much more of a pop sensibility than anything else, although the overall impression was “eclectic”. Clearly, no bias against pop music was present in this ensemble.

  2. says

    Kyle wrote: No young musician I’ve told this to has yet believed me.

    That’s because no young anybody has yet to believe anyone older.
    KG replies: Well, I dunno. One day in 1984 Ben Johnston made a passing comment to me about how nice one of my chords would sound in just intonation, and I followed him to the ends of the earth.
    Maybe that’s because he wasn’t trying to convince me of anything.

  3. says

    I believe you! I think that the perceived condescension is, exactly as you say, a result of the relatively unsophisticated use of timbre in classical music. The equivalent might be the many rock bands who hire an orchestra and are obviously trying to be influenced by classical music, but use it for nothing other than rudimentary scale patterns and homophonic textures. I think classical music fans would find this extremely lame, even offensive and absolutely ignoring the way that classical music actually functions. This lack of timbral sophistication is changing as world-class recording techniques become readily available to the masses on personal computers, and I expect that the upcoming generation of classical composers will bring about a revolution to this effect. It’s already in the beginning stages I think, with the likes of Nico Muhly and Mason Bates.

  4. says

    Do you happen to know whether Donald Fagen later learned to read music? Somehow, he’s not one of the pop musicians I would have expected to be a non-reader! (But that he was an English major is not a surprise.)
    KG replies: I was about 12 at the time, and Fagen hasn’t shown a fondness for revisiting his alma mater. I’m not sure I’d even vouch for my colleague’s memory of the event or my memory of what he’s told me, but the official Steely Dan web site says Fagen graduated in English.

  5. says

    “No young musician I’ve told this to has yet believed me. . .Like the pop-influenced music of my generation or don’t like it, but if you imagine it is motivated by opportunism, condescension, or classical snobbism, you are merely projecting your own self-doubt and resentment onto it. That it is not is a historical fact. And if anyone born after 1975 believes me, I’ll be tremendously surprised.

    I completely believe you, and I was born in 1979, baby! On the other hand, I’m not much of a musician, so maybe I don’t prove anything. . . Anyway, anything I’ve said that sounded like I personally think “the pop-influenced music of [your] generation. . . is motivated by opportunism, condescension, or classical snobbism” was me being unclear.
    Plus, while I might not like all of the popular-music-influenced music of your generation, I absolutely love some of it.
    I do think I understand some of the reasons why some people _do_ hold those incorrect beliefs, though, and part of it is the socio-economic stuff I referred to in my earlier comment.
    Furthermore, there remains in academia a minority contingent of professors who genuinely do look down on popular music, whether they admit it or not, and another contingent (which has some overlap with the first) that doesn’t necessarily look down on popular music but primarily values it based on the criteria on which they judge classical music. So you get people who say things like “I don’t have anything against popular music — The Beatles have a couple of songs that I think are really good,” and you get people who seem to only talk about pop music that has chord progressions or counterpoint that they think is clever. It doesn’t take very many of these people to make students who are already suspicious for socio-cultural reasons decide that the people who don’t reveal the anti-pop-music bias are simply hiding it.
    Then consider the message sent by the structure of most university music departments, which almost all focus heavily on classical and jazz. The required theoretical coursework consists of Species Counterpoint, classical harmony, and orchestration for classical instruments. The history requirements are predominantly classical. The ensembles that you can get credit for performing in are all classical or Jazz, and the vast majority of popular music performance on campus is at non-music-department events. Most departments these days will offer a small selection of popular music courses — a history course or two, a pop music composition class, but given the larger departmental context they appear to be exceptions to the rule, and they can even appear to be sops to the desires of the student body (even though they are probably all offered because the department really thinks they’re important and worth offering and because the professors are passionate about the subject matter). The faculty itself is generally dominated by classical and jazz — the composition faculty will be all classical, with maybe somebody who does some popular music on the side; the theory and history departments will be similarly dominated. In the history department there will be people who know lots about classical but nothing about pop, but even people who specialize in pop will necessarily have strong classical backgrounds as well. These structures exist largely for reasons of history and momentum, some are justified and some are not, and in many cases they probably run counter to the beliefs and attitudes of the faculty, but regardless of how that faculty actually feels the structure sends a powerful message to the students that popular music is a second class citizen.
    I think you’re onto something with the timbre issue, but I’m still working out what I think about it.
    KG replies: You’re right about the structure of academic departments. Number 1: We would love to expand the pop music part of our department and even offer courses in pop music history, but the administration won’t go along with it. Given the small size of our department and the other things we need, it is a difficult argument to make, but we do make it. Number 2: There are pretty well-established pedagogies for classical music and jazz, but the helpful curriculum for pop music is a little harder to work out. I’ve pushed commercial electronic software (Logic, Ableton Live) in the department without success. Obviously courses in record production would be helpful. Does anyone really need instruction in pop-music guitar? Would would-be pop singers submit to a course of vocal instruction? It’s not clear. So we do support anyone who wants to do pop music projects, but someone would have to come show us what a reasonable program for a “pop music major” would be.

  6. Bill says

    I’m definitely confused. Here’s a comment and snipped response from your last topic:

    …For the sake of argument, you could write a string quartet movement structured as a Grateful Dead song, where each instrument gets a chance to play a long, noodley, kind of self-indulgent solo over a repeating tonal/modal chord progression. It’s kind of a boring structure by classical music standards, but I bet the mass audience would react well to it. Even if they didn’t, I don’t think anyone would say “this is bastardized pop music.”

    KG replies: Well, that’s true,…

    And here’s what you say for this topic:

    …they must be motivated by scorn. We all secretly hate pop music, and use it in our ineffective music to make pop music look bad. We so despise it that we rip off its elements superficially, without really listening to it. We’re trying to show the world that any idiot can do pop music.
    Well, none of it’s true.

    Doesn’t the first statement (and your response) contradict the second?
    KG replies: Mmmm, clearly not one of the comments I was referring to. And what I meant to agree with was that I was primarily talking about using pop music instruments.

  7. says

    berklee offers instruction in rock instruments and vocals, and publishes their curriculum textbooks, so somebody’s making it work.
    as far as the timbre thing goes, i’m not totally convinced. yes, rock production has put a premium on particular studio or producer sounds, but i feel like people are saying that classical music is not sophisticated timbrally, and that’s just weird. berlioz? ravel? stravinsky? grainger? there’s a lot of great colorists out there. ooo, then there’s the big band stuff (and it seems to me that the early 20th century folks in jazz and classical were pulling much of their timbral ideas from one another).
    sometimes i think that we should just stop teaching music in school, period. really, where is it getting us? because when i think about rock music in school, it doesn’t make sense: rock is learned behind closed bedroom doors and in garages, on headphones. folk music is learned from other people, usually older, aurally. what would happen if classical and jazz became these sorts of renegade or social activities? (sometimes i think they are, ’cause god knows i didn’t learn about classical music in band class, i learned about it talking to my band director in the mornings before school, and in orchestra outside of school, and on my walkman, etc. it’s not like the cool kids are into classical.)

  8. says

    POP vs Classical
    A mildly amusing argument, gentlemen, but one that I suggest is largely moot without namimg the specific professors and composers you’re referring to. I, and way too many other composers and teachers I know, simply do not fit the description of either the anti-pop composer, condescending dismisser of pop as lesser art, or the classical composer attempting to borrow from or integrate influences from the vernacular.
    The music I write is a natural expression of my musicianship and professional activities in a wide range of styles and idioms spanning more than thirty years. I did the L.A. club scene in the 80’s with my own rock band, and as recently as last year (reluctantly, to be sure) went back for more with my surf band, the Invisible Guys.
    So, any twenty-something pop fan who thinks they can be a composition major and somehow retain their pop music credibility in a way that their elders somehow couldn’t or didn’t should first go take a look at my catalogue and listen to my records, then do the same for any number of other composers of my generation. Then they can bite me.
    I would add just one more thing. I think that my generation (I am 51) is perhaps the first generation of composers who did not consciously attempt to integrate elements of (what is being referred to here as) pop into “classical” compositions, but rather just found ourselves drawing naturally on our musical inclinations. I think this was in part possible because many of us did not have any specific plans to go into academia or become “career composers”. The lack of Ph.Ds in our bios should tell you something. We had a freedom to write whatever we wanted to. In fact I, and many others, still planned, upon finishing our degrees, to try our luck with our rock and fusion bands, hopefully get signed, and tour the world’s stages.
    For me personally, eighteen years in the California E.A.R. Unit and the contemporary classical music arena was an unanticipated detour (albeit a truly exciting and rewarding one) away from my original musical motivations and career goals. I really just wanted to be a rock drummer.
    KG replies: I’ve been purposefully avoiding mentioning names because I don’t want to hold composers I admire up for undeserved ridicule, and it’s too easy to shoot down the principle on a case-by-case basis. But thanks for standing up as Exhibit A.

  9. says

    Then they can bite me.
    rock’n’roll cred, right there. can you imagine MTT saying that? jennifer higdon? joan tower? richard danielpour? tee hee.

  10. David D. McIntire says

    overall, I completely agree with your post, but when I was growing up, I had a band teacher (my only musical mentor in the small town I lived in), who HATED pop music of any sort, particularly rock, and took every opportunity to let me know it was all crap. This guy might be the exception that proves your rule, and he was not a composer, which probably makes a difference. He felt that music had pretty much ended with Mahler. He informed me that Cage was “very bad music” when I wanted to work on his Clarinet Sonata, and when I told this guy that I had just bought the complete works of Webern (back in the mid-70s this was a major purchase for a guy not yet out of his teens), he asked me, “What for?”
    I never experienced this kind of thing from my composition teachers, though, and I think it’s largely a thing of the past. The experience did leave a mark, but I think it also gave me something to push against. Actually, I think I probably experienced more hostility towards minimalism in the academy than I ever did my rock enthusiasms, and not much of that.

  11. casey anderson says

    I am hoping we are discussing this issue as it begins to fade away. I certainly have a skewed view of this (as I am 22, and thusly relatively young in my own composing), however I never rule out re-appropriating snippets of pop music into my own music. That said, I have certainly had my fair share of disdain thrown my way concerning the use of pop music quotes, no matter how far I have abstracted said idea (for some professors I have worked with, merely mentioning that a particular idea came from such-and-such pop song is cause for extreme alarm, whether it sounds like its source or not), or in merely choosing to write parts for two guitars and a trap set (as I have elected to do in one of my most recent pieces). While the former has frequently been met with alarm (thought not always), I have also been fortunate enough to study with two composers who actively do such a thing, and furthermore are convinced any composer born after the seventies who refuses to acknowledge pop music as a force to be reckoned with is to be considered suspect at best.

    In regards to the latter, what still seems to be difficult (at least at the liberal arts college I am currently attending) to pull off is the case of whether such a piece is still taken seriously. I have had no problems with others claiming any sort of snobbery or sarcasm on my part following such compositional choices. Frequently, though, from professors, the piece is treated as “fun,” or “cute,” or the like (only following my decision to add electric guitar and trap set to a piece otherwise written for a mid-sized chamber ensemble). My fellow students, no less, are merely excited because I appear to be writing a rock-tune (which I am not). I am endlessly confused with the incessant need to codify this aspect of my writing as “rock.” Yes, I almost exclusively grew up with rock music (and folk music), however it is confusing why I cannot make such a compositional move (like using electric guitars and a trap set) without the immediate community surrounding my musical activity qualifying its usage as something other than classical/art-music. I do not hear a fundamental difference, in terms of genre, in my re-appropriation of a particular music (or certain instruments synonymous with said music). Furthermore, at this point it is just as natural for me to mine pop music for ideas (or timbres, etc.) as it is to use any other musical influence in the attempt to write new art music. I suspect, though I am just guessing, that this is a fairly common attitude to have for composers of my generation.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t this seem to be the same problem jazz had in supposed “serious” (i.e. academic) music circles sixty or so years ago (or however earlier, excuse my erroneous time-frame here)? Wasn’t Copland’s Piano Concerto initially treated in this exact same manner when it was premiered? What I am getting at, though, is that it seems like this problem is passing (I hope), and perhaps twenty years from now, a pop music influence in contemporary art music will be just as common as a jazz influence is now (which does not help anyone attempting such a thing now). It certainly seems to be moving that way, from my own experiences, however a great deal of progress has yet to be made.
    KG replies: What a great, detailed comment. Thanks. I’ve been planning to talk about the Copland Piano Concerto and the analogous jazz problem in my next post on the subject. As for teachers, I had the opposite experience. I remember the mischievous glee with which Ben Johnston told me he had based his Sonata for Microtonal Piano, a huge, forbidding 12-tone piece, on two pop tunes, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and another I don’t remember.

  12. says

    Great pair of posts, Kyle. I happen to be writing right now about the high-end pop-classical crossover, so I’ve been thinking about these issues. A few stray comments.
    1. You comment that the production budgets for Björk’s albums are beyond the imagination of composers. Having watched Ms. B at work on an album, I’m not sure this is true, or, rather, relevant. Much of her last album (Medulla) was recorded effectively in a home studio, with equipment not beyond the reach of the average technically savvy composer. Of course, she was able to fly off to Brazil and record a percussion ensemble that she ended up not using on the record, but the basic resources were pretty minimal. Increasingly, laptops are levelling the playing field. It’s in the area of publicity, of course, that the field remains Kilimanjaro-like.
    2. No matter how hard we try, we classical types are going to be interpreted as condescending when we talk about pop. I’ve learned this again and again. The notion of the massive classical establishment holding down the suffering pop masses is variously amusing and infuriating. The stereotype is so deeply implanted that there’s little point in trying to fight it — just go about one’s business.
    3. This kind of discussion easily gets hazy because it’s hard to know what is meant by “pop.” Justin Timberlake? Mouthus? Gilberto Gil? Any definition of pop is defeated by a counterexample. As is any definition of “classical” or “contemporary composition.” Where the definitions break down, things get interesting. I see John Schaefer is doing a show next on the subject of the “death of genre” — a fun variation on a boring old theme.
    4. Wild generalization: All classical music is pop music tweaked beyond recognition.

  13. Andrew says

    Interesting conversations. One striking mirror image of the pop-loving (post-)classical composer you mention is the young undergrad music student who is pretty pop-ignorant. I had many such peers in my undergrad classical classes, students that didn’t really know about contemporary pop music at all (although they may have grown up a little on their parents’ pop). In fact, I had one particularly memorable seminar where there was one (dinosaur) rock kid just getting into classical, four very skilled classical musicians who didn’t know their pop, and myself (a hopeless dilettante).

  14. mclaren says

    At the risk of throwing fuel on the fire, let’s be honest — pop is definably different from classical music.
    For one thing, until the last few years the rhythmic complexity of most pop music blew classical music away. Compare the opening percussion riffs from Stevie Winwood’s “Higher Love” with, oh, say, Beethoven’s piano Sonata No. 14, or Handels’ “Water Music” or Bach’s French Suites. No comparison, Winwood wins hands down.
    Or compare Ringo Starr’s drum lines in the Beatles’ “A Day In the Life” with, oh, say, Bartok’s “Music For Strings, Percussion and Celesta.” Again, no comparison. Ringo nukes Bela.
    The timbral complexity of pop music also puts into the shade almost all live acoustic classical music. The exquisite timbral mutations of a single Jimmy Hendrix guitar solo, with his stage-filling collection of effects pedals, makes even the largest
    classical orchestra sound pathetic and etiolated by comparison. And I’m including timbral magicians like Stravinsky and Ravel in the comparison.
    Now what I’m going to say will start a riot, especially because it’s true:
    The timbral and rhythmic sophistication of pop music finds itself counterbalanced by an extreme poverty of form.
    The typical pop song is built out of 2 constantly repeating blocks. A and B. So you get A B A B A B, then typically a short bridge solo (often with lead guitar, sometimes with synth, less commonly with drums) then A B A B again.
    And that’s it.
    That’s all there is to pop music, formally speaking. You get a few bars, usually no more than 16, of an A block, then a few bars of a B block, then A returns exactly the same with only the lyrics changing, and B returns exactly the same, only the lyrics changing.
    Hey, folks, that’s not formally complex. It’s rudimentary. Once you’ve heard the chorus and refrain of any pop song, you’ve heard all there is to the song, musically speaking. The lyrics change after that, but you get no new music.
    So extreme repetition is one of the big weaknesses of pop music. There just isn’t much musical material there in your typical pop song. Even accounting for the extreme brevity of the typical pop song at around 3 minutes and change, there’s just very little actual music there. A typical pop song is almost all repeated material, reiterated note for note over and over and over again. And pleas don’t try to bring up minimalism — minimalism repeats blocks of notes but they constantly evolve. You may get 8 repetitions and then a change — that doesn’t happen in pop music. Minimalist motifs constantly lengthen and change, repeated blocks change key and so on. You don’t get even that in a typical pop song. Just exactly literal repetition of the chorus and refrain from start to finish of the typical pop song, with a bridge solo tossed in somewhere in the middle. “Light My Fire” by the Doors is a radical exception (even in their output) and could not be composed or played today because of radio time constraints.
    Consider an exceptionally complex pop song, the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.” You get the chorus and the refrain and the chorus and the refrain and that’s
    it. That’s ALL. Just an A block and a B block and the same A block again and the same B block again, repeated note for note, identically. Only the lyrics change.
    The only new musical material in “I Am the Walrus” that enters after the first iteration of the chorus and refrain is the brief C block that starts with “Sitting in an English garden,” and the musique concrete buildup recorded from BBC radio at the very end.
    Compare with classical music. No classical composer nowadays would ever consider writing 16 bars of material, then 8 bars of material, and repeating those two blocks exactly note for note
    for the entire remainder of the composition, over and over and over, with no new material overlaying or added to it and at most maybe a very short C block tossed in to break the monotony in the middle of the piece. Yet that is what pop music does.
    Folks, pop music has lots of virtues. At its best it’s fun and engaging, has lots of energy and considerable rhythmic and timbral sophistication. But at the end of the day, there just isn’t a
    lot there in a typical pop song. The reasons are simple: pop songs nowadays are strictly limited to 5 minutes or less, with most pop songs restricted to 3 minutes. Pop songs are restricted
    in almost all cases to strict 4/4 time. Pop songs are restricted in almost all cases to a major key. Minor keys or church modes are almost unheard of in pop songs, let alone exotica like
    the octotonic mode or the whole-tone scale or artificial modes like the ones Bartok used. Pop songs are restricted to a robotic alternation of
    chorus and refrain with the only element of new material being an optional intro lasting around 30 seconds and an optional solo somewhere in the last 2/3 of the pop song that might last up
    to 45 seconds.
    When you analyze what’s there in the typical pop song, there’s just not much. There isn’t time. You’ve only got 3 minutes and it’s almost all repetition within that short timespan! The cadenza alone from most classical piano concerti last longer than most pop songs!
    So let’s not kid ourselves. Pop songs can be affecting, they can get you dancing, they can crank up your energy level and set a mood. What pop songs can’t do is be very complex because they’re just not long
    enough and the limitations (4/4 time, major mode, chorus/refrain alternation with no new material allowed) are just too extreme. A piece of classical music can constantly develop a theme and last 90
    Show me a pop song that constantly develops a theme and lasts 90 minutes. Point it out to me on Clear Channel radio, I’d like to hear it.
    You can’t. There isn’t any such pop song on Clear Channel radio today.
    Various folks will now rush in to cite Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa and The Doors. Let’s be clear that Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa weren’t doing pop songs when they cranked up 20-minute-long guitar solos. Hendrix wrote pop songs like “Purple Haze” because that was the only way he could get played on pop radio. No pop radio station, even back in the 60s, would play nonstop lineups of Hendrix 20-minute guitar solos. The radio station would go broke, there wouldn’t be enough time to broadcast ads. The Doors were an entirely different band live than in the studio — their live sets didn’t get radio air time either. The Doors’ studio pieces fit the limitations I’ve mentioned.
    Zappa of course got banned from pop radio around the time he stopped playing sets with the Mothers of Invention, and started doing complexly orchestrated ensemble pieces with marimba etc. instead of the standard power trio.

    What’s really baffling here is the extreme amount of respect for pop music from classical composers. It’s got to be clear to every classical listener that no matter how powerful or affecting a pop song may sound, there’s just not much musical material there. The Rolling Stones’ manager calls his charges “my little five-chord wonders” for a reason. Pop music can be fun, it’s often powerful, and pop music wins the excitement and high-energy contest with classical music every single time — but pop music can’t compare with classical music in sophistication or breadth or depth or range of emotion or mood. There’s just no way. Most pop songs are about cars and girls. Come on, admit it. GTO by Ronny and the Daytonas. Dead Man’s Curve by Jan and Dean. Shut Down by the Beach Boys. My Sharona by The Knack. My Boyfriend’s Back by The Angels. Gloria by the Delphonics. C’mon, folks, this is not deep stuff. Pop songs aren’t long enough and they don’t have a wide enough variety of musical material inside their 3-minute-long pop-song jail cells. When pop music tries, it turns into bad prog rock and gets pretentious. Anyone remember Rick Wakeman’s Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table?
    Pop songs don’t last long enough, they’re too metrically impoverished, they’re too formally constricted to explore the range and breadth you can get in classical music. You can’t do a set of Diabelli Variations as a pop song. You can’t do a Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor as a pop piece.
    You can’t do Vaughn Williams’ London Symphony as a pop song. All these pieces of music last way too long (only 3 to 5 minutes allowed in pop songs) and have far too little repetition (only chorus/refrain alternation permitted
    in pop songs) to qualify as pop music.

    Pop music has plenty of virtues. It can’t begin to compare with classical music in what it can do musically, except in terms of timbral sophistication (where, until recently, it wins hands down) and rhythmic sophistication (where, until Nancarrow came along, it wins conclusively).

    As for the claim that “timbres are neutral”… Eh? No timbre is neutral. Try playing heavy metal with a woodwind quintet. Doesn’t work. Now try playing Air for the G string with death metal Rat pedal distorted guitars. Doesn’t work. For that matter, try
    playing a Beethoven piano sonata on a carillon. Death in the afternoon. Doesn’t work at all.
    All timbres create strong expectations, and the timbres favored by pop music are suited for some kinds of music and not for others. In particular, distorted guitars work well for solo lines but prove a mess for polyphony. As Ivor Darreg used to point out,
    the distortion products in guitar pedals are not just even-order distortion; you tyipcally get bothe ven and odd harmonics and that makes the spectrum of a guitar put through a distortion pedal very dense. If you start piling up polyphonic melodic lines
    with multiple distorted guitars the lines get lost in the dense thicket of overtones. Complex polyphony not only doesn’t work with distorted guitars, it sounds acoustically rough where it should sound acoustically smooth because there are so many distortion
    product overtones in the guitar timbre whether there’s nothing in a classical orchestral instrument.

    Casey Anderson is almost surely right in pointing out that this entire “problem” of a perceived misfit twixt pop and classical is going away. But not for the reasons people think. Classical music works by assimilating older musical forms, but only once they’re
    dead. It’s the same process used with older composers. Classical music is a carrion-eater — it can’t digest live prey. A new living composer is unassimilatable by the classical establishment. Indeed, living composers are typically considered “not even composers at all.” Once the composer dies, however, the classical
    canon gradually begins to incorporate hi/r into the canon. There are no great living American composers — only decomposers. They only recognize you as a composer after you’re dead. Same goes with musical forms.
    Now that rock ‘n roll is definitely dying and turning into a precious art-form-oriented niche type of music, like jazz, rock ‘n roll will very soon be assimilated by classical.
    It’s the same process that went on with jazz. The instant jazz stopped being widely popular and turned into hypercomplex art music, classical rushed to embrace it. Likewise, now that rap has completely eclipsed rock ‘n roll and relegated pop songs to a tiny
    “artistic” niche market in the pop radio market, it’s easy to deduce that pop music will get assimilated by classical.
    The real genuinely popular musical form right now, rap, cannot of course be assimilated or even approached by classical music, because rap isn’t dead yet.

    Andrea asked “sometimes i think that we should just stop teaching music in school, period. really, where is it getting us?”

    Teaching music serves a bunch of valuable functions. First, it exposes erstwhile composers to lots of different options for musical form and organization and lots of different sensibilities and moods that the composer probably wouldn’t encounter otherwise. One of the most valuable treasures any music teacher can give you is to play lots of music you don’t like, because that way you get exposed to all kinds of stuff you’d never encounter.

    The second and more important reason to teach music is give students an idea how compositions work. Most students go into music analysis courses convinced, as I did, that they have at least a vague idea of how music works. Wrong. There’s a whole lot gong on underneath the surface, and the structures and guidelines and general rules change for each musical era. Knowing how Perotinus and Longinus structured their music can help you do new and different-sounding and often startling things in your own music, as Teresa Hron will aver. She didn’t pull those isorhythms out of thin air. They came from gothic music. I betcha some teacher introduced her to gothic music and she got stoked and went on from there.

    If you think Steve Reich’s “Come Out” doesn’t owe much to “Sumer Is Icumen In,” you may want to think again. There’s a surprisingly close relationship between Webern’s symphony and the music of Josquin Des Pres and Johannes Ockeghem, just as Conlon Nancarrow’s output for player piano is essentially a vast elaboration of the work of Jehan Suzay and Petrus de Goldescalc in the 1390s when they were creating Ars Nova.

    Like their music or hate it, Nancarrow and Reich and Webern stood on the shoulders of giants. They wouldn’t have been able to do what they did without learning about the music of the past.

  15. says

    i have nothing against teaching, really, but i do think so much learning takes place outside of school. standing on giants’ shoulders happens whether you learn about bach in a classroom or you learn about hendrix with an ipod and guitar. nothing happens in isolation, i think we agree on that, sir mclaren.
    while most americans, so i’ve heard, get their music at walmart after they’ve heard it on clear channel radio, there are plently of folks who don’t fall in those categories. the composers i hang with get their music from a variety of sources, and that’s the stuff that influences them. so when composers say ‘pop’ or ‘rock,’ i have to assume that they don’t just buy from walmart what they heard on clear channel.
    there might not be much to a pop song, but then is there really much more to voi che sapete? heidenröslein? va pensiero? golliwog’s cakewalk? even monteverdi’s beatus vir uses the same 3-note bass line for a good ten minutes, even when it goes into minor; then the major section comes back, pretty much verbatim. or are you just going to dismiss them as ‘not masterpieces?’ it doesn’t go on ninety minutes, but i’ve long felt ‘desafinado’ is a brilliantly developed melody; or is that not pop because it’s in portugese and uses major 7th chords? and as for a song more than 4 minutes that clear channel radio does play, there’s always, ‘my humps,’ clocking in at six and a half minutes (too long).
    but in the end, just because pop can’t or doesn’t do what classical does, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t deserve the same amount of respect. appreciating things for what they are is far more productive than degrading them for what they’re not.
    KG chimes in: Hey, Brava! to your last paragraph. Can we repeat it, with “classical” and “pop” switched this time? :^D

  16. says

    of course. isn’t that what blog commenting is all about: taking others’ words and twisting them around to mean something else? (kidding, but not really…but, yes, i do agree with the sentiment when pop and classical are switched)

  17. MBM says

    in response to mclaren: I think the challenge of good, sophisticated pop music is about working within certain constraints – i.e., the 3-to-5 minute time barrier, though these days it’s more like 2-to-3 minutes. Yes, pop songs can be repitive, and often rely on a basic ABABCAB overall structure. But it’s what you do within that that seperates the wheat from the chaff. Plus, there’s something to be said for making a point succinctly rather than stretching it out for 90 minutes (and your twelve-page-long post may even prove that)

    Some of what you say is right, but only in the most reductive way. Fault may lie in that you’re not particularly familiar with pop music outside the big hits. I don’t know what’s in your CD collection, but the examples you list are kind of lowest-common-denominator. It’s a bit like if one were to judge all classical music by listing only the most crowd-pleasing, straightforward, relatively uncomplicated works.

    Counterexamples abound: Radiohead’s Pyramid Song (or Exit Music works just as well) has a repeating structure, it’s most basic elements – chord progression, tempo – stay the same from one verse to another, but it’s constantly changing, creating a very wide emotional arc in it’s little package. Or take Brian Wilson’s Heroes and Villians – It flows like a pop song, but it’s as much a Variations On A Theme as anything else. And the emotional range expressed in those five minutes is as varied as that in any Beethoven sonata.

    There’s an argument that given an extended period of time to play with, a half an hour, an hour… it’s not particularly hard to create such a range. In fact, one could see many older classical works as little more than a series of three-to-five-minute songs with interconnective materials and occasional recurring themes. Not that much different than Pink Floyd’s The Wall when you come down to it (speaking of which, clocks in at 81:19, 9 minutes short of 90 minutes… yes, it’s a song cycle, I suppose, but it was concieved as a whole and so it’s a singular “work” when taken as such.)

    Your point is akin to suggesting that merely by nature of size, larger paintings are automatically more complex. I suspects that most classical composers, faced with the task of writing a good pop song, would soon find just how daunting and complicated it can be.

    One other thing: the comment about pop songs being all about cars and girls. It’s as if I were to say all classical music is about Jesus, supporting my argument with the Missa Solemnis, Mass in B Minor, Messiaen’s Vingt Regards…, and the collected works of Arvo Part. Honestly, the cars-n-girls thing isn’t even partially true enough to make a wisecrack about. Not anymore. Maybe in 1962.

  18. Michael Wittmann says

    What a great second post! The comments (like Alex Ross’s) are great, too (and I like his point about laptops, and Bjork’s “simple” studio). I could respond to a lot of people here, but I’ll point out a few things in response to McLaren’s long one.

    • if you go to The Beatles Canon Page you’ll see that there’s plenty of interesting work outside the verse-chorus-verse format
    • if you care to pay attention to Sasha Frere-Jones, you’ll notice that his love for hip hop is rooted firmly in the deeply rhythmic patterns of speech and song – plus timbre (what, you can’t tell Danger Mouse as a producer? or Timbaland? or the Neptunes?). It’s all pop, though, no matter how you slice it.
    • Radiohead does quite complex compositional work, which you seem unfamiliar with. Check it out, it’s fun. Even the relatively “straight” Hail to the Thief has songs going way beyond the verse-chorus-verse format. But, you take the Thom Yorke solo record and you miss the neat rhythmic work. Evidence that it’s Johnny Greenwood bringing that in! No surprise, given his compositional work…

    You know what all this sounds like? Mac hatred. Windows fanatics always talk about Mac fanboys, but damn, it’s the Windows people who fear getting cooties if they touch a Mac mouse. Classical music, living the Mac life in a Windows world.

  19. says

    I was born in ’83, and I believe you. But maybe that’s because I (sometimes) write pop-influenced scored music myself, and am not (usually) a pop musician.

  20. says

    mclaren wrote:
    “Pop songs are restricted
    in almost all cases to strict 4/4 time. Pop songs are restricted in almost all cases to a major key. Minor keys or church modes are almost unheard of in pop songs, let alone exotica like
    the octotonic mode or the whole-tone scale or artificial modes like the ones Bartok used.”

    A lot of what you’re saying here is simply empirically false. Even if we restrict ourselves to contemporary mainstream pop music, I could find you tons of examples of harmonically creative, non-major-mode songs. OutKast has a ton of them, like “The Rooster” (which is based on a series of major triads that ascend chromatically) “Spread” (based on a progression that starts Bdim – Cmin6/4 – Gmaj – Abmaj – C7), and “Ms. Jackson” (which opens with a microtonal synth part). Cassie’s recent top-10 hit “Me & U” is modally ambiguous, floating somewhere between G# minor and B major. Fergie’s recent top-10 hit “London Bridge” has a sax section that I’m pretty sure is octatonic. Beyoncé’s recent top-10 hit “Déja Vu” is all based on minor seventh and ninth chords.

    And then there are highly chromatic pop songs from previous eras: The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Talk, Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” the Beatles’ “Because,” Jefferson Airplane’s “rejoyce,” Love’s “My Little Red Book.” And Radiohead’s got second, third and tritone relationships all over the place. (Listen, for example, to the opening of “Subterranean Homesick Alien” or “2+2=5”).

    And that’s just the mainstream. The experimental and underground rock and pop scenes have produced tons of irregular meters (Oingo Boingo’s “Imposter” and the Dismemberment Plan’s “Gyroscope” are both mostly in 15/16; Burning Airlines’ “The Deluxe War Baby” is in 5/4; Pram’s “Paper Hats” is in 5/8), and irregular, non-repeating structures (pretty much anything by Mr. Bungle, Shudder to Think or Naked City, plus Belle and Sebastian’s “Your Cover’s Blown”). And while progressive rock can be excessive at times, there are also bands like Gentle Giant, who have tremendous compositional rigor while dealing in complex song structures, constantly changing meters, stylistic references to everything from funk to 16th-century English vocal music. And there are more experimental bands like Thinking Plague, Henry Cow and Art Zoyd, whose harmonic language is closer to Bartók than the Beatles.

    As for the time limit on pop songs, that only applies if you take the song rather than the album as the basic unit of pop music. That’s true in the top-40 world, but not at all in the indie world. The Olivia Tremor Control’s album “Black Foliage” is a single 70-minute work, with recurring motifs and a large-scale dramatic arc. The lyrics aren’t what holds it together — you can’t even understand them most of the time either. Mr. Bungle’s album “California” is likewise a single work, unified by its jump-cut sensibility (kecak turning into heavy metal, a sentimental ballad giving way to an glockenspiel solo, etc.) and its frequent references to 50s and 60s California culture (musically) and the relationship between technology and the occult (lyrically).

    I could go on, but what I really want to put forth is a plea for empirical research. Stereotyping entire genres of music doesn’t do anyone any good.

  21. mclaren says

    Andrea gave a variety of examples of classical compositions less than 5 minutes
    long and pointed out they are not much more complex (if at all) than many pop

    That’s fair, and completely true. I would point out, though, that she
    didn’t give examples of the large and complex classical pieces which have no
    equivalent in the pop oeuvre. "Rock operas" and other ambitious long pop pieces
    like The Wall tend to lengthen by collecting lots of small short 3-minute pop songs.
    That’s a different thing from, say, the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth

    Andrea went on to remark:
    "But in the end, just because pop can’t or doesn’t do what classical does, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t deserve the same amount of respect. appreciating things for what they are is far more productive than degrading them for what they’re not."

    Who said I was degrading pop music? The reverse remains true. Classical can’t do a lot of what pop does. Classical can’t get that wild sense of freedom, classical can’t be anywhere near as transgressive or as Dionysian, and classical just never approaches that ultimate intensity of high energy that pop gets. So it goes both ways.

    Formal simplicity doesn’t prevent pop music from being great. Just because a composition is formally simple doesn’t mean it’s not a masterpiece. There exist plenty of pop songs I would consider masterpieces, and not the long complex stuff, either. The Smiths "How Soon Is Now" and The Beatles’ "Help" and Bright Red Paper’s "D Is For Dead Sea" and Dido’s "White Flag" and Public Enemy’s "Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos" and Carl Perkins’ "Blue Suede Shoes" and Ladytron’s "Beauty" all seem to me to qualify as masterpieces. They’re just different kinds of masterpieces than the masterpieces you get in classical music. Remember, I said that pop music is "definably different" from classical. Not worse. Not better. Different.

    Formal simplicity does not preclude excellence, as a shakuhachi flute solo in the zen style will asssure you.

    MBM remarked:
    "It’s as if I were to say all classical music is about Jesus, supporting my argument with the Missa Solemnis, Mass in B Minor, Messiaen’s Vingt Regards…, and the collected works of Arvo Part. Honestly, the cars-n-girls thing isn’t even partially true enough to make a wisecrack about. Not anymore. Maybe in 1962."

    You’ve inadvertently made my point for me. Yes, virtually all classical music is about Jesus, or at least it’s religious liturgical music. Just as to a first approximation all species are extinct, to a first approximation essentially all classical music consists of liturgical music composed between 600 A.D. (Gregorian plainchant -> gothic motets -> masses) to circa 1500. That’s 900 years of liturgical music, virtually all of it sacred religious music. The non-liturgical classical music composed since 1500 represents a thin layer on the top of a vast ocean of entirely religious music.
    If we’re talking about bulk statistics, we have to be honest and admit this. It’s another big issue no one talks about in classical music circles. Classical music has gotten much more secular since 1750, and this might by itself explain the exponential dropoff in general popularity of classical music, which is nowadays almost entirely secular rather than liturgical even though America remains an intensely religious country by comparison with other first world nations.

    Concerning the claim that because I didn’t mention Radiohead I’m allegedly not familiar with them (and by implication I’m not familiar with pop music), bear in mind that no commenter mentioned Bright Red Paper or Dido or Ladytron. That doesn’t mean they’re not familiar with those groups, or with pop music. Pop is large. Tastes differ.

    As to my assertion that pop music is almost entirely about cars and girls, not only do I stand by it, it’s apodictically true and can be demonstrated as a documented fact. Hip-hop is THE popular music form today. Essentially all hip-hop is about "bling" (cars, gold chains, etc.) and "hos" (girls). That’s what hip-hop is. Some small percentage of hip-hop doesn’t fit that
    narrow pigeonhole, but it’s a tiny fraction. Most hip-hop is about bling and hos. Cars and girls. You sound like you’re not familiar with contemporary popular music, which nowadays means hip-hop. You should listen to some 50 Cent or Snoop Doggy Dogg or KRS-One. You’ll find out that it is all almost entirely about bling (predominantly cars — 50 Cent is fond of mentioning the Lamborghini Diablo) and girls.

    Alex Temple remarked:
    "A lot of what you’re saying here is simply empirically false. Even if we restrict ourselves to contemporary mainstream pop music, I could find you tons of examples of harmonically creative, non-major-mode songs."

    What I’m saying is actually empirically true and we can prove it by looking at the actual numbers. Alex, like several other folks, has made the statistical error of thinking that because there are lots of contrary examples (i.e., pop music that’s formally complex), this negates my point.

    No, that’s a statistical fallacy. The question isn’t how many contrary examples you can find, but the ratio between the number of formally simple pop songs and formally complex ones. To put it another way: Alex’s (and others folks’) point is null and void if they offer 10,000 examples of formally complex indie pop pieces, but those 10,000 examples represent only 3% of pop music, while the other 97% of pop music consists of formally simple Top 40s pieces of the kind I describe.

    Alex went on to mention:
    "I could go on, but what I really want to put forth is a plea for empirical research. Stereotyping entire genres of music doesn’t do anyone any good."

    Let’s do that empirical research.

    We can do it quickly and easily by studying bittorrent trackers. That will tell us what pop music people are actually listening to right now, this minute. Is it formally complex? Or is it formally simple? Is it tops 40s, or indie? Let’s examine the evidence and see for ourselves.

    If you go to and search for "most seeded to least seeded" under "audio" files, you get the following top 10 results:

    File Listing Type Size Date Seeds Leechers

    Top 100 HipHop R-B Billboard 03-24-07 Vol 01 Charts @224 Audio 333MB 03/16 710280 627894

    Top 100 HipHop R-B Billboard 03-24-07 Vol 02 Charts @224 Audio 319MB 03/16 567890 597458

    Scissor Sisters – Ta-Dah [2006] Audio 111MB 10/27 26614 15004

    Jazz Smooth Jazz Gold Audio 121MB 10/30 13530 8184

    Cafe Del Mar Vol.13 Audio 225MB 10/15 8294 8408

    HANNIBAL EL ORIGEN DEL MAL DVDSCREENER Xvid Mp3 wWw ToDoTorr Audio 691MB 03/16 3537 2144

    Britney Spears – Can You Handle Mine (2006) ALLTEAM Audio 62MB 10/12 3451 2741

    Linkin Park-Minutes to Midnight- Audio 115MB 04/02 2616 1332

    VA – Ministry Of Sound The Annual 2007 (Retail 2006) – Club- Audio 215MB 10/27 2529 2965

    Linkin Park-Minutes to Midnight-[]

    Let’s leave out the origin of Hannibal Lecter because that’s not pop music. This leaves us

    Top 100 hip-hop R&B volumes 1 & 2 for a total of 2,503,522 torrents and trackers for the hip-hop downloads in the number 1 & 2 spots.

    Compare with 41,618 seeds + trackers for Scissor Sisters’ album "Ta-Dah" and a pitiful 6192 seeds + trackers for Britney Spears’ latest album.
    Surprisingly, Smooth Jazz Gold scores higher than Britney with 21,714 seeds + trackers.

    What can we conclude from these empirical data?

    [1] Hip-hop is at least 60 times more popular than the most popular rock ‘n roll music. The ratio between seeds + leechers for Vols 1 & 2 of the hip-hop top 100 and Scissor Sisters album is 60.153 to 1.
    To put it another way, this tells us that of the top 10 most popular pop music downloads (actually audio downloads of ANY kind) on bittorrent, 95,666 are non-hip-hop rock ‘n roll, while 2,503,522 are hip-hop.

    In percentage terms, 96.319% of the top 10 music downloads on bittorrent right now are hip-hop, while only 2.84% of the top 10 music downloads on bittorrent are rock ‘n roll. Of those rock ‘n roll downloads, we’ve got Scissor Sisters, Cafe Del Mar, Britney Spears, and Linkin Park.
    None of these are formally complex.

    Of the indie pop mentioned as case studies in pop musical formal complexity by various commenters, we find not a trace in this data.

    [2] The elephant in the room of pop music is hip-hop. None of the commenters (all surely white) mentioned a single hip-hop or rap composition. The probable reason for the low profile of hip-hop music
    despite its overwhelming popularity is…(gee, 3 guesses) racism.

    America remains a fantastically racist
    country. Black people are still routinely treated as if they don’t exist by the American media and by
    American elites, as the aftermath of Katrina shows.
    Failure to discuss hip-hop in comments on pop music is roughly like failing to discuss
    Russia in a history of the second world war. It delegitimizes the entire commenter’s thread.

    [3] Despite Kyle Gann’s claim that jazz is no longer a pop music format, the data from
    bittorrent surprisingly refute this statement. I was surprised. But according to the download
    stats, jazz (21,714 seeds + leechers) is substantially more popular than the latest Britney
    Spears album (6,192 seeds + leechers). In fact jazz is 3.5 times as popular as Britney
    Spears’ latest album, according to the bittorrent tracker numbers.

    Moreover, if we tot up all the rock ‘n roll on the top 10 bittorrent "most seeded" list and compare it
    to the number of jazz seeds + leechers, jazz is still surprisingly popular: 73,954 for all (non-hip-hop)
    rock ‘n roll pop in the top 10 vs. 21,714 for jazz.

    To put it another way, 22.69% of the top 10 non-hip-hop seeds + leechers in the top 10 bittorrent "most seeded"
    audio streams are jazz! That’s astonishing. I wouldn’t have expected that. Seems like jazz is still a plenty
    popular form of "pop" music.

    [4] The devastatingly lopsided numbers for hip-hop downloads vs. all others destroy everyone’s claims about "indie"
    pop. Follow the logic. As we know, indie pop remains a small percentage of pop music. The vast majority
    of rock ‘n roll pop music heard and bought is Top 40s — but rock ‘n roll is today only 1/60 as popular as
    , as the bittorrent numbers show. Thus, since only 2.84% of the most popular audio torrents
    are rock ‘n roll of any kind, including indie pop, this means only a small fraction of that 2.8%
    represents indie pop.

    So what the commenters are talking about here when they try to cite examples of formally complex pop music
    is actually a fraction of 2.8% of pop music. Let’s assume (with wild optimism) that indie
    pop accounts for (say) 33% of all non-hip-hop rock ‘n roll bought and heard, as opposed to top 40s rock, which
    as statistics prove totally dominates Clear Channel radio and MTV and all the other major outlets. (Only college radio
    today plays indie pop. The only other method of wide popular distribution is file sharing — i.e., bittorrent, which we are
    studying statisticaly right now.) This means that the commenters are trying to rebut my points about the formal
    simplicity of pop music by citing at most 0.7% of pop music. Sorry, folks, but that fails as a statistical argument.
    If you must ignore 99.3% of all pop music to make your point, your claims collapse ab initio.

    As the empirical evidence shows, far from being a "caricature" or "stereotype," my statements about pop music are
    accurate and demonstrably correct for 99.3% of pop music (hip-hop + top 40s rock ‘n roll). Since we are talking
    about "pop" music, we are by definition discussing the most popular 99.3% of pop music, not the 0.7% of indie pop.
    Remember that I said "virtually all" pop music is formally simple and restricted to 4/4 time and in a major key — meaning, 99.3%.

    [5] If we total up all bittorrent music (non-spoken-word) trackers, we would almost certainly
    find that the total dwarfs hip-hop + rock ‘n roll. This is Chris Anderson’s "long tail" hypothesis. While individual
    sales and numbers of listeners for each non-pop subgenre are small, the cumulative sales and number of listeners
    over time is much larger than for pop. Good news for serious contemporary composers.
    Also composers of ambient, house, dub, etc.

    [6] Various commenters will try to use Billboard record industry sales figures to refute my statistical arguments. Those numbers don’t represent what people actually listen to. Most music heard nowadays is downloaded or shared digitally between mp3 players/computers, as Kyle Gann’s mutual listening sessions with other composers at his recent workshop shows. None of the compositions shared between those mp3 players show up as Billboard sales stats, so the record industry sales stats are bogus garbage numbers that only form a small percentage of what people truly listen to. We must study downloads to determine the true picture of music listening, which we do directly (see above) by studying the bittorrent tracker numbers.

    [7] The other big elephant in the classical/pop music room, aside from hip-hop (read African American culture which
    must be studiously ignored by white male elites) is Asia. Specifically, China. nytimes article today about how
    China will soon provide a vast market for classical music, apparently far larger than the market for classical
    music in America + Europe. The crumbling American educational system no longer has funds for K-12 music education,
    since it’s so much more important to put those funds to use killing babies in Iraq (and soon, Iran). Not to worry!
    The Chinese do have funds for K-12 music education and their gigantic population is ravenous for classical music.
    Good news for all us serious contemporary composers. We’ll have to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese, but that’s the way
    things go. White Euro/American classical composers must adapt or die. I for one welcome our new classical musical Asian overlords.

  22. wr says

    I dunno – this is possibly less complicated that it may seem. I think a lot of people in general, but kids especially, think of pop/rock as their vernacular music, and think of classical as the opposite, a highly formalized and stylized high art product of centuries of development by the cultural elite (I hate using the “e”-word, but can’t think of a substitute right now).

    It’s pretty understandable that kids simply can’t imagine that classical musicians could respect pop/rock. To them, the sensibility that would lead a person to becoming expert in something as recondite as classical music is just not compatible with what they see as a pop/rock sensibility. In a way, it’s a little like imagining great chefs respecting Jello and miniature marshmallows and incorporating those ingredients into the food they serve at their high-end restaurants. Not too likely, but if it happened, it would be probably be deeply suspect as some kind of chic and cutesy-poo slumming.

    A lot of this stuff has to do with ideas about class, and how music plays into class identity in people’s minds.

    What I really don’t understand is why anyone with those kids’ attitude would be interested in higher musical education (other than perhaps going to Berklee). There’s no good reason for a pop/rock musician to be trying to do college-level work in that field – what is it going to do for them?

  23. says

    “[2] The elephant in the room of pop music is hip-hop. None of the commenters (all surely white) mentioned a single hip-hop or rap composition.”
    absolutely not true! alex mentioned several song by outkast, whom i also happened to think of when i was trying to come up with non-ABA songs. furthermore, as tribe called quest has said, “rap is not pop, if you call it that we’ll stop.” it’s very possible that hip hip folks see themselves separate from the pop category. also in the non-ABA category is t.v. on the radio, a rock band with four black guys and one white.
    there. can we cut with the racist accusations now, please? =P seriously, i can’t put everything i’ve every listened to in every post.

  24. says

    “Complexity” is in some respects a chimera. When I hear Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” I hear a more complex sense of pastiche than, say, most any of the pastiches of Bolcom or Zorn or Golijov that I’ve heard. “Toxic” draws from separate musical traditions simultaneously, while classical pasticheurs tend to make their juxtapositions consecutively rather than simultaneously. A Mahler Symphony has a continuous duration with interrelations from beginning to end that pop doesn’t match(though some not particularly popular jazz composers such as Mingus, Roland Kirk, Cecil Taylor, and Roscoe Mitchell might get within shouting distance of such durational complexity). The point being, durational complexity is not the only form of complexity.
    Any musical utterance, if looked at in detail, might as well be infinitely complex, if you take into account details of timbre, pitch, and rhythm.

  25. says

    First of all, I’m not sure why you’re saying that nobody has mentioned any black artists or any hip-hop. I mentioned three different songs by OutKast, one by Beyoncé, and also one by Cassie (arguably not a hip-hop song, but she is black). Not only that, but every one of those songs is by a top-40 artist. Three of them are actual top-10 hits from last summer. I also named a song by a white artist (Fergie) which was a top-10 hit. So it really doesn’t make sense to say that we’re all only talking about the least popular 0.7% of pop music. And it *certainly* doesn’t make sense to accuse me of racism.

    But here’s the thing: what if we *were* talking about the least popular 0.7% of pop music? Everyone on this blog is here because we love contemporary scored music, which has an incredibly small audience. If we dismissed everything but the most popular scored music as not relevant to what scored music “really” is, we’d have almost nothing left from the 20th century. And yet nobody would ever think to say that composers working today are not *really* characteristic of scored music, that they’re just weird underground exceptions and that scored music is *really* Mozart, Vivaldi and Rachmaninoff.

    I don’t think this kind of argument gets made in any other artistic medium. Nobody says that film is basically all just action movies and romantic comedies on the grounds that David Lynch, Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman have small audiences. Nobody says that literature is fundamentally shallow because Dean Koontz has a much larger audience than Martin Amis. (OK, I haven’t actually read Dean Koontz, but you get the point.) And just as it wouldn’t make sense to say that music in general basically consists of three-minute major-mode songs in 4/4 because scored music makes up such a small portion of the market share, it also doesn’t make sense to say that pop music in general basically consists of three-minute major-mode songs in 4/4 because indie and experimental rock make up such a small portion of *its* market share. And it REALLY doesn’t make sense when I can name you a bunch of top-10 hits that don’t even fit that definition!

  26. says

    Actually, McLaren, I’m really puzzled by your simultaneous insistence that hip-hop dominates pop music and that pop music is predominantly major-mode. I’d guess that at least 75% of the hip-hop songs I’ve heard are in minor.

  27. says

    McClaren writes: “Let’s do that empirical research.

    We can do it quickly and easily by studying bittorrent trackers. That will tell us what pop music people are actually listening to right now, this minute. Is it formally complex? Or is it formally simple? Is it tops 40s, or indie? Let’s examine the evidence and see for ourselves.”

    I’m not sure that analzying bittorrent file-sharing amounts to “empirical” proof of what people “actually listen to.” BitTorrent is a predominant form of P2P file-sharing; however P2P statistics favor demographics that are saavy with file sharing (ie: youth culture). This skews the data in favor of certain genres.

    Considerations of genre popularity should account for listeners whose experience of music doesn’t begin and end on the computer. These listeners might not change the statistics drastically (I’m not sure about this), but they need to be included before we pronounce something “empirical.”

    (I’ll use my mom as an outlying statistic that I want included in our consideration of what people listen to. I bought her a Mac that she barely touches. Itunes scares her. She listens obsessively to unusual opera, one-act Poulenc, etc, and mainstream soundtracks/pop music cds that she buys at Barnes and Nobles. Eclectic. No thought of whether it’s pop or classical, and completely unselfconscious in her appreciation. She’s not in any BitTorrent data, but she’s the kind of intelligent listener that I’d like included in my vision of the listening public.)

  28. says

    Whew! I missed most of this discussion until now, because, ironically, I was getting ready for Capital M’s 2nd Annual World Premieres Extravaganza earlier this week at Tonic, an exercise in exploring the pop/classical nexus if there ever was one. I totally agree with the sentiment (expressed most eloquently by Dan VanHassel) that timbre is the primary stumbling point for most classical/pop marriages on both sides of the divide. However, there are subtler differences as well that don’t always make themselves apparent right away. The premieres concerts that we do provide a really interesting perspective on this issue that I imagine is not replicated anywhere else. It was fascinating to me to watch how certain ways of working and thinking about music were either readily assimilated by the musicians or not intuitive at all. It wasn’t always what you’d expect; for example, our drummer can read like a banshee and a very detailed written-out part in one of the pieces was no problem for him at all, because the composer wrote it extremely idiomatically both in terms of notation and the way it connected to what the rest of the ensemble was doing. On the other hand, a piece that laid out its time map in a very unusual way (with measures of 37/4, for example) was much more challenging, even though technically speaking the music was not difficult at all.

    As for pop music being “acceptable” as a subject of serious study, I’m with those who don’t really buy that it is. I believe you when you say that no one at Bard would ixnay such a thing, but there does seem to be an unspoken discomfort in certain academic environments with the idea of pop music taking a central role in one’s studies (as opposed to a that of a secondary sideshow). Again, it might be allowed to happen, but it still feels like taking a risk if that’s what you’re doing. I’ll never forget a conversation I had several years ago with the then-dean of a certain top school in which he asserted that the reason that I hadn’t been accepted to the graduate comp programs to which I’d applied was because I’d never written a string quartet. (I still haven’t, by the way.) The question of “but what if I didn’t want to?” somehow never made it past my lips, I suppose because I realized that it would have been pointless.

    That doesn’t necessarily translate into some wild conspiracy theory that Pop Music Is Under Siege, though. I never subscribed to that nor was aware that any of my contemporaries did, either. On the contrary, I believe that Pop Music is Ascendant and that eventually academia will catch up to this basic fact, as it becomes populated with people from my generation who grew up in the “is classical music dead?” days. Which is not to say that classical music will ever really die, but I do think it will become categorically indistinguishable from what might be called “educated pop.” That is to say, cultural markers such as timbre, instrumentation and performance practice will cease to be seen as significant in and of themselves; the music coming out of universities and conservatories will be as varied as the music coming in. But that’s just my hunch.

  29. JS says

    The statistical figures that McLaren brought up are a bunch of handwavey nonsense.
    I’m not saying the numbers aren’t accurate, I’m saying they have nothing to do with the argument.
    If you make a categorical statement like “pop music CAN’T [my emphasis] compare with classical music in sophistication or breadth or depth or range of emotion or mood,” then you have removed statistics from the table. To paraphrase the classic example, when you say that “Swan’s CAN’T be any color other than white,” it doesn’t take a statistically significant number of black swans to prove you wrong.

    Also, he writes:
    “Classical can’t be anywhere near as transgressive or as Dionysian [as pop].”
    If he’s talking about transgression the way people usually talk about transgression in pop music, then it has nothing to do with the music and everything to do with the lyrics. So maybe classical music ISN’T as transgressive, but don’t say “can’t.” Look, I could write a bel canto aria about strangling my ex-wife or dealing crack any time I want to.

    As for “Dionysian,”
    Carmina freaking Burana.

  30. says

    Not to beat a dead horse — well, OK, yes to beat a dead horse — but I just came across a data point that seemed relevant to this discussion. Warner Bros.’ best-selling 12″ single of all time is Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” which is [synth-drum-roll] in minor.

  31. Stephen Van Eck says

    ON April 1, 2007, mclaren (among other things) said, “You can’t do Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor as a pop piece”. Maybe not, but Jimi Hendrix DID quote its initial theme (twice through) in a Woodstock Improvisation. I cannot find a reference to this, which may indicate that few people listen to both Bach and Hendrix.