Pop vs. classical

This is a big subject. We’ve discussed it here before. (Here, for instance.) I myself don’t like the “vs” part, since I enjoy pop and classical music more or less equally, with no thought of pitting one against the other.

But I can see that many people don’t think that way. In a recent discussion in my Juilliard class on the future of classical music, some of the students defined the value of classical music by saying that it was spiritual, or that it had a great range of emotion. I realized that in saying these things, they were also making statements about pop music. They were implying that pop music isn’t spiritual, and doesn’t have a great range of emotion, beliefs that in fact became explicit, once we started talking about what they said. Why should it be crucial that classical music can be spiritual, or can have a wide range of emotion, if pop music also does these things?

Parenthetically, I’ll add that defining classical music as spiritual — or at least saying that a spiritual component is a crucial part of it — leads to at least one problem. What makes one classical piece different from another? If they’re all spiritual, and that’s what matters most, why should it matter which ones we play?

But here’s another thought I had. Often, when I talk about some pop song that means a lot to me, or meant a lot to someone else, I’ll be told that this is because of the words. And rock criticism — at least in a superficial reading — can encourage people to think this, because it normally doesn’t talk about music in the purely musical ways that classical music criticism does (along, of course, with classical music theory, and musicology). It’s easy to believe that the lyrics and the cultural impact of pop songs is more important than their music, and that rock critics believe this, too, whether they know it or not.

But here I cry foul. We’d never apply the same logic to classical music — to a Schubert song, let’s say. Suppose I said that Schubert’s “Erlkönig” made its impact largely because of the words, because of the wonderful poem Schubert set to music. People in the classical music world — maybe the same ones who say that pop music gets its impact mainly from the words — would say I was crazy. “Erlkönig” is great music! That’s what they’d say. If they were scholarly, they’d trot out settings of the same poem by other composers, to show how much better Schubert’s setting is, and thus prove that the impact of the song comes from the music.

But then shouldn’t we extend the same courtesy to pop? If the words of a pop song get to us, shouldn’t that be — using the same logic we’ve just used with Schubert — because the music makes the words matter? I smell a double standard at work here. In German lieder, the music is important, because we’ve defined it in advance as great music. In a pop song, the music is less important than the words, because we’ve defined the music in advance (however covertly) as not very good. Or at least not very good compared to classical music.

Enough of that. Let’s at least fight these wars on level ground.

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  1. Kathy says


    I don’t think you can compare pop songs to classical until they have been around for at least one hundred years. That would be at least some kind of proof of future value. If a music has a future, than it should have a chance to prove it. Do you think people will be performing the music of Ani whoever in a hundred years? When music has a life of it’s own, as in much of the repertoire that is so loved and appreciated in the ‘classics,’ then of course it has a documented spiritual and emotional value. At least once a week I thank Mendelssohn for reviving the music of Bach and I wonder if it was inevitable that Bach would have been brought back to the public, or if we were just fortunate in the circumstances of the wealthy Mendelssohn family and their appreciation for Bach. If it had happened much later, then perhaps even more of Bach’s works would have never been preserved. So now 250 years later I think we are way past comparisons to Bach. We know of his value to us spiritually and emotionally. How can you compare a pop song to that? Where is the level ground there?

    Kathy, of course the historical standing of classical music — the longevity of all those masterworks — is part of classical music’s aura. And it’s often something cited (sometimes very strongly cited) in classical music’s defense.

    But there are a few problems with the argument you make. One of them is that you could dismiss new classical pieces in exactly the same way. In fact, if you want to be consistent, you’re forced to dismiss them. They haven’t lasted for 100 years yet, so how do we know they’re worth anything? Why should we bother with them?

    Second: lots of pop music has already lasted for many years. The rock songs of the ’50s are still listened to, after 50 years. I’m not trying to compare them to classical pieces, in quality, let’s say. That’s a separate discussion. But if you say longevity is the important standard for music to meet, then lots of pop music has already gone a long way towards meeting it. There are amazing Louis Armstrong recordings (the ones with his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens), which have been listened to ever since they came out in the 1920s, and sound almost as fresh as they did then. That makes them older than Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, a piece that most of us would agree has been around long enough to have proved its worth.

    Third: What’s the cutoff point? Exactly how many years does something have to last before we agree that it’s proved itself. Is 30 years enough? 50? 80? 100? 150? I’m not being frivolous, and I’m not trying to turn your point into some kind of joke. But if you propose a standard for judgment, we have to know how to apply it. And I’d worry that in practice, the standard becomes highly subjective. 60 years or so might be enough for the Concerto for Orchestra, but 80 years might not be enough for those Louis Armstrong records. Who decides?

    Fourth: Just about every classical masterpiece originally made its mark as music of the present, serving some function and making a mark in the world that gave birth to it. Nobody asked Bach or Mozart if their music would be around in 100 years. Nobody could possibly have asked that question, because music of the past, in those days, wasn’t performed. And even Beethoven, who marked the turning point, when people began talking about enternal masterworks — even he was important in his time for what his music was saying immediately, right there, to the people hearing it. By proposing your standard, you’ve pretty much ruled out this experience, or at least dismissed it as trivial. It doesn’t matter if any music means something to us right now. We have no right to proclaim its worth until we find out if the music will still mean something to people 100 years from now. The whole idea of contemporary music (in any style) being important — Kathy, you’ve just about made that impossible.

    Finally, about Ani DiFranco (whom you won’t even dignify by remembering her full name) — clearly your question about whether people will perform her music in 100 years is a rhetorical one. You think you know the answer.

    But if that’s the case — if you’re ready to dismiss her right now, because you don’t think she’ll meet your longevity requirement — how can you be sure. I’m afraid I have to be harsh here. I don’t believe you’ve ever heard a note of her work. Some time ago, I made a rule that anyone who dismissed pop music here had to do it in reference to specific songs, specific artists, and specific albums. And now I have to invoke that rule against you. Please tell us which three or four Ani DiFranco songs demonstrate, to you, the probability that her music will have no lasting value. Please explain why, at reasonable length, citing specific details in the musics.

    And if you’re not able to do that, would you have the courtesy, in the future, not to attack music you don’t know anything about? If someone did the same to Bach or Mozart, I’m sure you’d be horrified.

    I understand the need to relate to a current voice, a popular voice, but that is much different than saying that a voice will be valued in the future.

    As technology enables the preservation of current voices into the future like never before, it is overwhelming to imagine the storage of music that is going on from now into what could be eternity. I can try to imagine itunes maybe 50 years from now. A compounded mass of impossible proportions. If you lived for 500 years, you would never be able to hear it all. So what makes something worth allowing into your personal airspace?

  2. John Montanari says

    This excellent post should be read and mulled over by music critics in all styles. The world would be a better place, I think, if pop and classical critics learned a few things from each other. Pop critics might then focus more on the quality of the music they’re reviewing, and less on the attitude (i.e., level of coolness) it and its fans espouse. And classical critics might then report on music less from an “inside” perspective, and more from the perspective of the typical audience member–curious, intelligent, but probably not a musical expert.

    Thanks, John. I might like rock criticism more than you do, but you make an excellent point, and you said more with your few words than I said at much more than twice the length.

  3. says

    I honestly don’t believe that pop music is about the words. Quite the opposite, actually. Pop music is purely about the feel. The words are often irrelevant…except for, of course, with rap. But even then, the best rap songs have a great musical feeling. Good lyrics can make a pop song better, but the music is what makes it worth while.

    I think the difference between pop music and classical music is how you listen. Classical requires more focus and attention to detail. Pop can just wash over the listener with little to no effort..

    Interesting point, Erin. But you know, for some reason, I’ve found the opposite to be true, at least in the days when I reviewed pop albums. I found it hard to get to know an album. I had to listen many times. But a classical piece of equivalent lenghth — let’s say, back in the LP era, a 40-minute piece — was (and still is) easier to get to know. I think it’s because the classical piece changes a lot (as a rule) in the course of its flow, so it’s easier to follow its ins and outs, and then form some opinion of it. Whereas the pop album gives you little chunks of things, one song after another, and you sometimes don’t get the full effect of a song till you’ve heard it a lot. I remember once in the early ’90s I reviewed a Heart album, and later heard one of the songs playing in a record store. It was completely and immediately obvious that this song was going to be a big top 40 hit, which in fact it was. But somehow I hadn’t heard that when I listened to the album. (Of course, this may be a story as much about how badly I listened, as it is about the different problems of listening to pop and classical music.)

  4. David Cavlovic says

    Sometimes I get so tired of this debate. Does music always have to be spiritual to be worthwhile? This is an elitist sentiment, alas, still believed by many a radio presenter, critc, and fan alike. Is EVERYTHING by Bach and Beethoven spiritual? And what’s wrong with visceral? That is pop music’s strong point. Ain’t nuttin’ wrong with that. Besides, anybody who says Stravinsky’s Sacre is spiritual and NOT visceral is scared of sensuality (OK that may be a bit strong, but I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet this morning.)

    To be fair to the people who find classical music spiritual, they genuinely, deeply believe i that. But an additional problem with this way of thinking is that the musical signs of spirituality vary — to put it mildly — from culture to culture. Inside classical music culture, the most spiritual music might be an unaccompanied chorus singing a Renaissance mass. In African-American culture, gospel music is spiritual, complete with rocking rhythm, and people moving to the beat ,and shouting out responses. Some Tibetan religious music has really noisy percussion.
    And David, I don’t htink you’re being too strong about the Rite of Spring. A while ago I was at a private conference, where people from various orchestras were challenged to find ways to get their audience interested in various classical pieces. One orchestra picked the Rite, and — I’m not making this up — suggested that people make up their own, personal rite of spring, maybe by pressing flowers in a scrapbook. I wanted to say:

    “But the piece is about a human sacrifice!” (Which of course was spiritual in the ancient Russian culture that sacrificed virgins every spring.)

    But to me the saddest thing about the whole debate is that it’s meaningless outside classical music. We go through contortions arguing these things, while in the outside world, people would simply think we’re crazy.

  5. J.D. Considine says

    I’ve always resisted the argument that it’s the words that make pop music meaningful, and largely for selfish reasons — because my own experience as a listener is that I never notice the lyrics first, and generally absorb them only partially. (I don’t think I’m alone on that last point, wither, judging from the number of times I’ve seen people start to sing a favorite song, then realize they don’t know the second verse or bridge.)

    But here’s my counter-argument to the lyrics-first view: If words are what draw people to pop music, how could anyone enjoy or be moved by a pop song that’s in a language they don’t speak? Admittedly, this is an argument that doesn’t work especially well with Americans, since American anglophones are effectively insulated from foreign-language pop by mass media. Still, the enormous international popularity of anglophone pop outside the anglophone world must say something about the power of music over the power of words. (Really, is there anyone who’d argue with a straight face that the lyrics are what made Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake world-wide hits?)

    As for the notion of pop somehow lacking spiritual qualities, how do your students square that view against the observation that most of the world’s religious music falls into the pop category? I mean, however much you want to laud the requiems and masses of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, et al,, the music people actually worship with seldom gets more “classical” than “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (which few congregations sing in the JS Bach arrangement). Whether you’re talking Shirley Ceasar or Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan, a huge amount of music the average person would consider spiritual is pop — how could your students not know this?

    Finally, I think you’re being a bit disingenuous in noting that: “rock criticism — at least in a superficial reading — can encourage people to think this, because it normally doesn’t talk about music in the purely musical ways that classical music criticism does (along, of course, with classical music theory, and musicology).” As you well know, the majority of rock critics are simply incapable of talking about music in purely musical ways, either because they lack the analytical skills or because they write for publications that wouldn’t publish such “technical” analysis. But that’s probably another thread entirely.
    Hey, J. D. Good to see you here.

    And good point about the music in other languages. That cuts both ways, of course. Classical music fans go to the opera, or to art song recitals, and understand relatively little of what’s being sung. Even if there are supertitles at the opera, which tell you something about the literal meaning of the words, you still miss the visceral experience of connecting words and music spontaneously. So you’re really not hearing the words.

    In pop, I might cite Edith Piaf as an example of the same thing. It’s hard not to be drawn into her singing, even if you don’t understand French.

    But as for disingenuous…I’d rather plead guilty to being naive. I know that rock critics aren’t able (mostly) to do the kind of detailed analysis that classical music people do (though rarely critics, or at least not with any real depth). But I tend to think that’s a plus, because it’s all too easy (on the classical side) to confuse the analyzability of something (to coin a word) with its worth. If it has fancy analytical stuff going on underneath, that must prove that it’s good. There’s a rather famous cautionary essay by Edward T. Cone, who inverted a Schoenberg piece (that is, literally turned the music upside down), and then demonstrated that everything ever said in adimiration about its 12-tone structure was still true, but now the music sounded horrible.

    Anyhow, I meant my remark simply in a factual way. Because rock critics don’t usually talk about the purely musical stuff of music (assuming, by the way, that there really is any such thing, which would be another discussion), I think that classical music people — especially when I point to rock criticism as a demonstration of how serious pop music can be — respond by saying that rock criticism doesn’t talk about the music. And therefore doesn’t really talk about the music’s value.

    I do think that rock critics often make very sharp comments about what’s going on in various songs, but without using analytical language. So these remarks can be overlooked, or marginalized.

  6. Ries says

    I think two areas that separate and unite pop and classical are emotion and intellect.

    When you write music down, then give the sheet music to a group of musicians, and instruct them to play it as written, you achieve a certain intellectual distance from the music that is very different from the immediate emotional impact of much pop music.

    Certainly, great emotion is evoked by classical music- but its not directly expressed by the musician- its constructed from a blueprint, theoretically repeatable. The skill and verve of the performers adds to this, but the base emotion should come from the composer.

    Contrast that with much pop music which, deriving from blues and jazz, includes improvisation as an essential element.

    Yes, on the radio you hear the same studio mix every time, sometimes performed by studio musicians. But the most exciting pop music is never static- everything from scat singing to guitar solos varies every time, and the anarchic construction of most rock bands means the interaction between freely improvising musicians changes with each performance.

    Raw Emotion gets expressed by the pop/rock music much more personally than in classical, and in many cases its a much more crucial part of the experience.

    When the late Lowell George (of Little Feat) played slide guitar solos, you were hearing his soul, and it was always different, always alive and new.

    When the Grateful Dead took an old blues standard as the skeleton on which to build a 30 minute jam, it differs substantially from a symphony score, and the unexpected is what interests me, anyway, about this type of “pop” music.

    Neither type of music is better, to my mind- but there seems to be a distinct difference, and the combination of multiple, improvising “composers” expressing their emotions and feelings of that moment, is what makes for great pop music.

  7. says

    Hey, Greg.

    Rock and roll to me is an art form with a very complicated history. There seems to be in this generation (I myself am hurling towards 40…so I’m talking about musicians about 20 years younger than me) a lot of ignorance about the term “rock and roll” and any sense of how this music was birthed. The history is there if people want to look, but generally speaking, a lot of young bands are pretty oblivious to any notion on lineage in the music they are creating.

    So the term “pop” to me is confusing as popular music (if that’s what you are referring to?) is simply a form of rock and roll. It seems that music writers use this term to indicate an attitude toward creativity rather than an artistic form.

    When discussing the future of classical music with your students, did they speak of “pop” music as having a history beyond say 1968 (if they even went that far back)?

    I’d love to know. Thanks.


    There’s a lot of confusion with pop terminology. I talk loosely about “pop music” as meaning, very loosely, “all that rock and pop and R&B and hiphop stuff in record stores.” But of course “pop” is also a genre within that larger world of “pop music” (just as the classical period is, so to speak, a genre within the larger world of classical music). Certainly, to pop fans, the distinctions between the various kinds of “pop music” loom really large. The differences between genres (or even, maybe, been sub-subgenres, like the vairous and always evolving forms of dance music) may be more vivid than any sense of the unity of the whole phenomenon. That is, it might not seem to have any unity.

    And yes, yes, yes to your point about the history of rock. I’d say my students generally aren’t aware of it. One very basic point that they don’t know — and that classical music people don’t seem to know — is that, since the dawn of rock & roll, almost every new musical genre has bubbled up from ordinary people, taking the big record companies by surprise. This flies right in the face of the deeply-cherished belief in the classical world that pop music is manufactured by big corporations, and then force-fed to teens. The truth couldn’t be more opposite to that. I sometimes start to make htat point by playing the Patti Pagi ’50s hit, “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?” and then Slayer’s “Reign in Blood,” and asking my students to tell me how they think music could have changed that much in 30 years.

  8. says

    True, music should be just as much considered in understanding a pop song as much as an art song, as well as the words it carries.

    Though, a few things come to mind when comparing the two:

    Art songs, lieders, and other songs of the classical kind usually has a static text, but different composers will make different music to go with it as they see fit. In popular songs, both the text and the music remain relatively static, for the most part, and different artists will reinterpret the song, but will rarely put new music to it, hence the cover song.

    Aside from transcriptions , variations, and the use of cantus firmus, classical music doesn’t have a very clear equivalent to the cover.

    So we can have the poem Erlkonig take on varying musical bodies, while covers “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones will still remain somewhat faithful to the music of the original, but with different ideas of the music should be.

    This is something akin to having a canon in pop music, where the original artists will establish the basepoint of future interpretations of the songs. Both the text and music are very attached to one another.

    This may account partly to why more attention is paid to the music in classical songs, due to the fact that nearly every setting of the same text is very different, as opposed to comparing covers of a pop song.

    Good points, Andrew. Though pop covers can be wildly different, sometimes, from the originals. For instance (and I’m sure many people could come up with dozens more):

    The Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Elvis’s “Always on My Mind” – turns sad and wry

    Otis Redding’s cover of “Satisfaction” — now it’s intensely black music

    Elvis’s cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” — substantial rewrite of text and music, plus a completely different feeling: Crudup is dogged and resigned, Elvis soars

    The Pet Shop Boys’ satirical cover of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” and the Four Season’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” — combines two different songs; uses a bouncy electronic version of the Four Seasons as a refrain, to mock U2’s seriousness

    Tori Amos’s cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — turns grunge (deliberately) into sweet melody

    The Drifters’ very famous 1950s cover of “White Christmas” — new beat, new melody

    The Platters’ cover of the Ink Spots’ “My Prayer” — turns a 1940s black vocal group song into operatic 1950s rock & roll, complete with final tenor high note.

    In all these covers, the new version is essentially a new piece.

  9. says

    There is at heart a fallacy that is so simple no one seems to have thought of it. The works of Schubert, in their time, were in fact a part of popular culture. In the Victorian era the shift from popular to classical was made so that music (of the pre Victorian era) could exist in concert halls.

    So the popular became classical and therefore elevated in both form and function and beyond that it now had a moral value – that of spirtuality. Sadly, this has been reinforced again and again by both Classical concertising, radio, and the need for academia to retain the high moral ground in the music department!

    To me, the popular and the classical are the same. Its only a function of the social conditions that have made it more morally superior or inferior. You can of course argue from a technical standpoint but beyond that, who, outside of the academe or the concert hall, cares?
    Very, very good point about spirituality being added after the fact — added, so to speak, to the aura of the music — as a moral value having more to do with how people think of the music, than about the music itself.

    I’d quibble with you about Schubert as popular culture. By Schubert’s time, the split between popular and classical music had already happened. Rossini, the most accalimed composer in Europe, was popular culture. Schubert (to the extent that he had any public presence at all) was on the classical side. His sonatas, symphonies, and quartets more or less prove that. Anyone writing pieces like these, instead of operas or virituoso showpieces, was (in the language of that day) a “classical” composer.

    But certainly that emerging classical music was closer to popular culture than classical music is now.

  10. Bob Judd says

    Well Greg, it seems to me that there’s an indivisible symbiosis that operates w/ words and music, such that they are inseparable: like some conjoined babies, separation kills both, in terms of spiritual effect. Well, that’s a polarized position, but it’s close to real in most cases. I’ve quoted from “Kansas City” re meaningless words that are meaningful in song context before; I’ll pick “Hey Joe” at random: I can quote the Hendrix text, but without the *whole package* of the song, it’s nothing, or at least severely reduced in spiritual significance. The whole package, on the other hand — well, it’s a classic for good reason.

    Now it’s interesting that my thought is coming around to saying this: Galilei, Caccini, and Monteverdi being so emphatic that the words must remain preeminent… Then Dahlhaus (_Absolute Music_) and his indication that textless music is more spiritual since less grounded in text… I don’t know, I’m no match for these intellects, but it seems almost like saying “blue is more important than red” in a painting that clearly would be nothing if either were removed. To talk about a song text apart from the music is to talk about an entirely different thing from the song. To talk about the music apart from the text is likewise to talk about some other thing– not the song.

    Bob, I agree.

    The difference between Monteverdi (and his generation) and Dahlhaus on the relative stance of music and text has a historical basis. Before the 19th century, music was considered a minor art, because it had no concrete meaning, and thus was thought incapable of expressing anything that wasn’t purely sensual. It needed words to be serious. Hence the emphasis, before the 19th century, on the words. A wonderful version of this view: 18th century French writing that put music, as an art, more or less on a level with fireworks.

    In the 19th century, all that changed. The general view got turned upside down. Now music was valued precisely because it couldn’t express any concrete meaning. It expressed, or so people thought, truths so profound that they couldn’t be put into words. That’s when the cult (if we want to call it that) of absolute music began, when instrumental music began to be considered more important than vocal music.

  11. says

    As a recent convert to the “spiritual” world of indie rock, I can say with honesty that I rarely spend much time listening to the words. I appreciate fleeting images in the text, but it is the music that hits me between the eyes.

    But…this is coming from an opera lover who is happy to miss, or misunderstand, most of any given libretto.

    [para 2, sentence 4: I think you mean “implying” rather than “implicitly”]

    Hi, Tim. As I remember, your possible conversion was on the agenda when we met, in November. And so I see it succeeded! Welcome to the new cult.

    I think there’s a little subcommunity emerging in these comments, of people who take in the words partially, if at all (in all sorts of music). Greil Marcus, maybe the most celebrated of all rock critics, would be in that camp. I remember one ecstatic thing he wrote about some top 40 song he fell in love with, in which he said something (if I remember right) about not even bothering with the words at first.

    In Stendhal’s “Life of Rossini” there’s an anecdote about a rich Italian woman who hired someone to prepare a summary of each opera. She didn’t want to rely on the printed libretto, giving the full text of each aria. She just wanted a one-line summary: “He says he misses his beloved.” That was all she needed.

    And thanks for the correction. You’re right, of course. I’ve made the change.

  12. says

    This is a fascinating topic, Greg, sincepeople of today’s young culture are now far removed from people I grew up with in the 1960s and 1970s. Popular music has always come out of ‘classical’ music. Gosh, we need to rid ourselves of the term ‘classical’ unless it is applies strictly to the short period of culture before the ‘Romantic’ period, which we labeled as well. ‘Pop’ music gets accepted more and more the further away it originated than at the time it is created. Parents hated the music of the 1960s, the ‘rock’ groups, and now, that music sounds tonal and easy going compared to atonality and rap. Young people always think ‘classical’ is boring compared to what they hear, like eating ‘vegetables’ compared to something like pizza and ice cream. It’s attached in their minds to something they ‘have to hear, or have to eat, or have to do’. Similarly, when I would approach orchestras and conductor friends over ten years ago and say to them, after doing a Brahms concerto or Beethoven concerto, “Let’s do the Leroy Anderson or the Keith Emerson Concerto”. They would look at me cross-eyed. Only now, are these pieces being accepted, because it is the younger audiences that we want to attract, and occasionally, it is through repertoire they don’t know, or works with a lighter or ‘popular’ nature that they can relate to because it doesn’t come with the stigma term, ‘classical’. Just as Glenn Gould truned on many new listeners with his fresh interpretations of Bach’s music, whether you agree with what he does or not, he did so, it is our duties to make music by the ‘classical’ composers fresh and exciting as the first day they were written.

  13. Jay says

    I guess I am growing weary of arguments that one genre of music is inherently superior to another. Is the outcome supposed to affect what people listen to? I think not. They will listen to the music they prefer. It’s the artistic equivalent of free trade. I think it would be like choosing between French or Chinese cuisine. One isn’t necessarily superior to the other; they are just different. Similar arguments rage in the humanities over the “Great Books” or the Western canon. In a pluralistic society that debate will surely continue for a long time.

    While I sometimes enjoy listening to what’s termed the American Songbook, I happen to prefer classical music and listen to it almost exclusively. It affects me in ways that popular music never has. Yesterday, I nearly jumped up out of my seat while listening to the exuberant finale of Schubert’s Grand Duo (fortunately I didn’t because I was driving at the time!). Popular music never excites me in that way but that’s just me. I’m sure others would be totally unmoved by the Schubert.

    I can’t really weigh in on the words vs. music debate because I think I have a blind spot for words. I happily listen to opera and lieder and Bach Cantatas without having any clear idea what the text is. The beautiful music is all I need. The only time I really pay attention to the words is when they are clever or amusing (Gilbert and Sullivan, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin). (Does that make me a shallow person?). As for post-Beatles rock, I have never been able to make out the words. Once again, that just happens to be a personal preference. I imagine there are listeners who attach more importance to the lyrics than to the music.

    To return to the argument over cultural supremacy, I suppose it does have relevance to matters of public policy. Does one kind of music deserve public subsidies (either in the form of outright grants or special tax treatment of contributions) by virtue of its acknowledged superiority? That’s a tough one. As much as I love classical music and would love to see it thrive, I’m not sure I could make that argument. But then public funds support libraries and parks and museums that only a fraction of the public uses, so perhaps public support for musical organizations is no different.

    Jay, I agree with your opening point, very strongly. And your last point is very crucial, I think. Classical music, in past generations, was simply believed to be superior. Even people who didn’t listen to it or care for it pretty much acknowledged that it was, at the very least, higher-class than a Broadway show tune, let’s say.

    But now most of the world, just as you say, accepts many kinds of music as being more or less equal. (This is John Seabrook’s point in his book “Nobrow,” that the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow culture stopped meaning anything to most people, back around 1990.) So now the talk about classical music’s superiority has grown very sharp teeth. The arguments about it almost exclusively come from the classical music side, from people who are trying to show why classical music ought to have the cultural place it used to have — and ought to be heavily funded.

    People outside classical music don’t usually have these arguments. You’ll get people saying that jazz is better than pop (more intellectual, more musically complex, more challenging), or that indie rock is better than commercial rock. But you don’t normally find people saying that Latin music, let’s say, is better than hiphop or country or Tom Petty. All Latin music advocates normally say is, “We count too! Give us time on the Grammy telecast!” And that’s a perfectly reasonable point, one that doesn’t depend on trying to prove that Latin music has some superior quality.

  14. says

    I wonder if the disparity isn’t due to some degree to the language barrier. Though native German speakers probably feel the full impact of the words in “Erlkonig,” for example, we native English prattlers have our most immediate experience of the song through its music – it takes additional effort to apprehend the meaning of the text. So people (as they are wont to do) reason from their own experience out to a universal value and say that the music is really what distinguishes the song.

    The pop songs most often under discussion are typically in English, and thus the experience of their words is just as immediate for us as the experience of their music. If you’re already predisposed to dislike pop music, you argue from your own experience to a universal value and say that of course it’s affecting mostly because you can understand all the words.

    If there were a more robust tradition of opera or art song in English, it would be easier to make a comparison. (I would also go to a lot more opera and art-song concerts, but that’s another discussion.) It would be interesting to hear from German speakers whether this specific argument comes up with regard to art songs in German and pop songs in German.

    I feel compelled to note also that much of my favorite pop music lacks lyrics at all beyond shouted “hooks” repeated ad infinitum as a beat develops beneath them, which kind of breaks the paradigm, but that’s not really on-topic either.

    From everything I’ve ever known, I think German-speaking musicologists would make just as strong an argument for Schubert’s setting — as compared to other composers’ — purely baesd on the quality of Schubert’s music.

    As for me, I’ve sung “Erlkonig,” and some parts of it — like the last line — are so simple that they make an immediate effect on me, even though I don’t know much German.

    I love your last point. Maybe you were thinking of (among other songs) “Louie Louie,” whose lyrics are totally obscure, so much so that myths have grown up around what some people think they say.

  15. says

    This reminds me of two conversations I’ve had.

    The first is about Ancient Egyptian art, and that many people view it as somehow less advanced because of mostly two-dimensional depictions of 3-D objects (such as those found inside pyramids). Likewise, many people dismiss pop music as lesser just because some tunes use solely I, IV and V chords. Should we then dismiss the great number of Classical composers that have gotten untold mileage off those three chords?

    The other conversation I’m reminded of about the conception of “words as music,” or to use a more high-falutin’ term, prosody—the rhythm, stress and intonation of speech, but considered on a musical level. Rap is maybe one of the best places to think about this, since much of it is devoid of conventional melody as most would probably think of it, yet what defines rap style is intonation, voice quality, and of course, rhythm and maybe most importantly, rhythmic stress and placement. I think a lot of people (my mother comes to mind) dismiss rap music as substandard, often because of the meaning of the words, yet there are often quite complex musical processes at work.

    Hi, Nick. Great points. I used to really hate the term “Italian primitives,” for medieval paintings done by people who hadn’t yet learned the later art of perspective. I love those paintings in a purely visceral way, and couldn’t see what was lacking in their technique.

    Susan McClary has often written that the Italian Renaissance madrigals she loves weren’t considered a good subject for musicological study, or at least not a very worthy one, because the composers’ harmony wasn’t well developed. They hadn’t yet developed our idea of tonality.

    And when medieval music was first studied, the scholars who first transcribed composers like Machaut apologized for them — these composers had their merits, the scholars would grant, but of course they were amateurs who wrote “incorrect” dissonances.”

    And that’s a terrific point about rap. We can listen to someone like Rakim, and just marvel at the way he slides around, through, and under the beat. Two decades ago I was a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota, and taught a course on “American Music Since 1945.” I included various pop and jazz figures. The faculty wanted an outline of my curriculum, and objected when I said I’d include James Brown. There was nothing, the faculty said, that could be taught about his music. It was interesting, when I got to James Brown (I taught him no matter what the faculty said), to see that this was the one artist I brought up all semester who simply baffled the students. They didn’t know what to say about him. And that’s because the stuff he does is rhythmic. Classical music theory hadn’t prepared these students for music that worked like that.

  16. says

    I love this radical leveling of the ground that you’re working toward, Greg. Your students aren’t alone in “defining” classical music by ascribing to it attributes that also, when we press them a little, apply to other kinds of music. This is the central fallacy of Julian Johnson’s recent book, it seems to me. The characteristics we mention when we’re trying to draw categorical distinctions between classical music and the rest of the musical landscape often turn out to be little more than words of praise–synonyms for “I really like it.” Your example of “spiritual” is a case in point: push the speaker to say what he means by it and you eventually dig down to either a normative claim that applies circularly to all kinds of good music (music being classified as “good” in part because it has this ability to touch the spirit, whatever that means, and hence is spiritual; and classified as “spiritual” because we need a way to talk about what feels powerful about it) or a statement of personal preference (I value, and believe that everyone else should value, music which has this set of intentions or qualities I’m calling spiritual).

    As you point out, some pop music works in the same way for some people, and we might add that some classical music fails to work that way for some people. Certainly the outward signs of an experience we might call spiritual are more evident among fans at an Indigo Girls or Arcade Fire concert than at Avery Fisher Hall. (But that leads us to other questions, e.g. about how much stock to put in outward manifestations of those intrinsic benefits we’re all talking about, and about the balance between Apollonian and Dionysian modes of experience in various genres of music.)

    I also like what you’re implying about the chemical bond between music and lyrics. As someone who works with art museums as well as classical music organizations, I find the classical music insider’s insistence on the primacy of the music all too familiar. It’s similar to what art curators tend to say when audiences show more interest in the depicted subject of a painting than in its painterly form: “The impact, the greatness arises from the depiction, not the subject.” I’ve seen museum labels that implicitly scold us for noticing the nude body or the decapitated head on the canvas. Too many classical music reviews and program notes do the same thing. Personally, I find Goethe’s Erlkonig more than a little gimmicky and melodramatic, and to my ear Schubert follows the poet right down that path. But I’m listening in the twenty-first century. Who ever promised that this stuff would last forever?

    Peter, thanks for all of this. When I read your wonderful ending, about your view of “Erlkonig,” I was reminded of something my wife overheard after a performance of “Tosca” at the Met. A group of people evidently in their 20s was talking about the opera, and one said, “I didn’t like it. I could tell he was really going to get shot at the end.” In otherwise, Puccini’s melodrama was just too obvious for him. And this is going to happen more and more, I think, if we ever start drawing that new, young audience. As you said — who ever promised this stuff would last forever?

    Yes, Julian Johnson’s book really fails in the way you describe. So does Lawrence Kramer’s attempt to show why classical music still has value. Though Johnson is far worse. Johnson’s views of pop music are so extreme, so silly, so patently false — all pop music, _all_ of it, is aimed at people 17 years old, he says — that any argument he might make for classical music becomes unnecessary. If pop is really as bad as Johnson thinks it is, then of course classical music is better. It could hardly be worse.

    Kramer is a lot more tolerant, and generally has a sweeter disposition. But when he almost naively — and very wistfully — makes claims for classical music’s emotional expression, he more or less takes for granted that pop (nice as much of it might be) can’t do those things. For instance, absorb and ground the feelings all of us in New York felt after 9/11. Personally, no classical music — not John Adams’ specially commissioned 9/11 piece for the NY Philharmonic, not the Philharmonic’s celebrated Brahms Requiem performance, to mourn the 9/11 dead — touched my 9/11 feelings at all. Especially since classical music, as Kramer describes its function here, will comfort us, and help us to transcend the horror. I’d like to make some room for rage and horror. By those standards (or at least for me), the most powerful piece of 9/11 art would be “Cloverfield,” for which I’m not going to make any great artistic claims. But it did do one thing — more than anything I’ve ever encountered, it showed me how helpless I felt during 9/11, and how those feelings have gone underground, but even so are still very strongly with me.

    You inspired me to ramble. But I’ll take the blame, if anyone thinks I’ve gone off-topic.

  17. says

    I used to wonder about this. In a sense I can only ever approach Erlkönig – and any number of other lieder, operas, whatever – as pure music. Since, well, I don’t speak the language. I have a general sense of the lyrics, since I’ve read translations, but in the listening that has no effect.

    But… after many a pop album in languages I don’t speak, I can say the idea that the lyrics are always what makes the connection is officially horseshit.

    I’ve been obsessively listening to Japanese pop singer Shiina Ringo’s Karuki, Zamen, Kuri no Hana of late and can say it’s embedding itself into my brain as strongly as any great pop album has, even though I haven’t a clue what she’s singing about. It could be chock full of anti-semitic diatribes for all I know. (Though I suspect not…)

    Now, when the song is one’s native tongue, one can’t help but make some kind of connection, and there are going to be cases where a good pop song is elevated to great or a great pop song is elevated to one of the greatest because the total package becomes more than the sum of it’s parts. (I’ll nominate Thunder Road as a good example…)

    Roger Ebert said something along the lines of “what makes a movie great is not what it is about, but how it is about it” (that might even be verbatim) – I suspect, at least in my judgement, the same holds true for vocal music of any kind. It’s not what the person is singing but how they’re singing it.

    Seth, that Roger Ebert quote is right on the money. And “Thunder Road” is a perfect example. I don’t think the music is terribly good, on its own, if one could ever separate the music from the words — from the total song. But the song is overwhelming — has been, for years, for countless people. (Both in the original version, and in Springsteen’s later, sadder but wiser acoustic remake. Which I might have added to my list of transformed cover versions in my answer to another comment.)

    And at the beginning is a moment where words transcend words. When Springsteen sings, in the very first line, “The screen door slams…” that word “slams” just kicks the song into motion, because of its sound, its meaning, its rhythm, and of course because of the way Springsteen sings it. The word becomes more than a word — it jumps over its mere verbal meaning to become a quiet but powerful musical effect (which then reinforces its verbal meaning). (Likewise all of Van Momson’s verbal repetitions that Lester Bangs so memorably cites in his essay on “Astral Weeks.”)

  18. Private says

    I have to comment on Ms. DiFranco’s music. She is more of a phenomenon of the era – the composer/performer dressed up in folk garb more than anything else. And her music, outside of the plethora of recordings of her out there, will die along with her.

    I’m not saying that she doesn’t have a riff or two up her sleeve, but to compare her plight with Schubert is perverted, I’m sorry.

    It’s not easy to discuss anything with someone who’s so certain of everything he or she says. I’m glad you know — beyond any doubt — what’s going to happen in 100 years. If I were that certain of the future, I’d probably be broke, because I’d have invested in stocks I just knew would do well — and, of course, I’d have been wrong. How have your cultural predictions fared in the past?

    I’m not sure you understand the nature of pop music. In classical music, we think of the essence of music as being a notated score. In pop music, the essence of music is a performance, and more specifically, a recording. So to ask whether people will be performing Ani DiFranco’s songs in 100 years, is, to use your own word, perverted. The question is whether anyone will listen to her records.

    And nobody can possibly know the answer to that! Can we please call a halt on these ridiculous speculations about the future? None of us know what’s going to happen in 100 years, and anyone making pronouncements about it — especially with such an air of certaintly — is just silly.

    If you want me — or any sensible person — to take you seriously about Ani DiFranco and Schubert, please make a detailed comparison of some of their songs.

  19. Jeff White says

    Greg, you attack this subject with a great perspective.

    The more I think about this subject the more I think the distinction isn’t as esoteric as your students (or countless others) suggested, but really has to do with structure, form and instrumentation. I mean, no one’s going to argue that a Paganini caprice isn’t “classical” music, but can anyone really argue that’s it’s “spiritual.” I listened to the first Arcade Fire album constantly for months when it came out because it did affect me in the way your students seemed to define as a characteristic of “classical” music. It did this more so than (and I am somewhat embarrassed to admit this, which exposes my bias) than most Beethoven symphonies. (Perhaps though that is that a sign that status as a professional orchestral musician is beginning to jade me.)

    I think recognizing what music has inherent value, while unquantifiable, isn’t all that difficult. It’s generally fairly easy to recognize music that was composed as a piece of art, vs music that exists for mainly commercial reasons. This is just a certain kind of snobiness on another level, but in my mind that vast majority of Top 40 music is only intended for short term consumption as a vehicle for radio stations to sell ads. On the other hand there is pop music that perhaps because it requires more active listening to appreciate (and lets not forget that top 40 radio is most often used as aural wallpaper) is less popular but which I love (indie rock/pop) about as much as I love any of my favourite classical works.

    As for Kathy’s assessment that pop music must “stand the test of time” well, lets just say there have been plenty of pieces of classical music (IE Bach’s cello suites) that “disappeared” for a great deal of time, and were (re)discovered with just as much artistic value as the day they were composed.

    I think some people may find this simplistic but really I think form and instrumentation are the two biggest differences between what is classified as ‘pop’ and what is classified as ‘classical.’ The main difference is the arrogance that some classical fans display when they ascribe less value to the musical form they personally enjoy less.

    David Cavlovic’s comment about viscerality is totally spot on. Rock music excels at capitalizing on its visceral nature, why can’t a piece of music like Mahler’s Second be commended for the same thing. When I’m performing it the spiritual nature of that piece has less of an impact than the pure awesomeness of the dynamics, orchestration, and gasp, loudness of it.

    Thanks, Jeff. One of the important things in what you’ve said is who you are. Many younger (and many not so young) classical musicians would agree with you. Notice the comments here (just for instance) from two members of eighth blackbird, Tim Munro and Nick Photinos.

    I’m so glad you mentioned Arcade Fire. I listened to their first album, too, and had the same reaction you did. It’s deeply spiritual music, which is one of the reasons it got to me so much.

    The assumption — made by so many people, over so many years — that classical music is (and _has_ to be) superior has become crippling. It’s an opinion anyone is free to hold, but it just doesn’t correspond any more with any sort of provable reality.

  20. Jeff White says

    Sorry for the multiple comments, I forgot one very important point.

    One of the reasons that judging classical music against pop music is a tricky logical minefield is because of the difference in how the two kinds of music are composed. In large, classical music is composed on paper. It exists in a fashion that can be reproduced by any one/group with the necessary instrumentation, and that was the composers intent. That is why no one in their right mind would argue that a recording of Stravinsky conducting his own music is the only true, definitive version of that work.

    Pop music on the other hand is composed in the studio (or on stage in the case of the above mention Grateful Dead.) Even though the song may have been written on a guitar or piano beforehand, what is considered “the song” itself is the actual experienced aural

    recording. Every noise, bang and feedback squeal is considered part of that music. The studio itself is a compositional tool. If you could somehow remove George Martins contributions to the Beatles work would you end up with the same pieces of music? No.

    While different performers of classical music inject their own interpretations into the music, the difference is negligible compared to the same circumstances in popular music. Teo recording of Beethoven op. 130 by the Emerson Quartet vs the Cleveland Quartet are minor compared to The Nine Inch Nails version of Hurt and Johnny Cash’s version for example.

    In classical music different artists interpret the same pieces of music differently; in pop music one artists version of a song vs. another can yield what could be considered almost a totally different and new piece.

  21. Holly H. says


    Just wanted to let you know I enjoy following this blog on the “future of classical music.” It’s a subject that I’ve thought often about, as I’ve played the marketing role at a classical music organization for the past 5 years. (Affectionately known as the person responsible for getting butts in seats.)

    In addition to being a classical music promoter, I’m also a musician and consumer. I’ve played classical piano since the age of 4, and attend many classical music concerts each year. However, my CD collection includes mostly other genres of music: rock, folk, world, indie, etc. I’ve sung the words to “Thunder Road,” with gusto, more times than I care to admit. I listen to my community’s local indie/rock radio station exclusively.

    This value comparison between pop and classical is very blurred for me. And very personal. I find any type of music can have a spiritual component to it…it depends on the listener and what “gets them there.” For me, I know I’ve gotten what I came to get from a live musical experience when the music–whether it’s the words, the melodies, the inherent emotion–causes me to get goosebumps that run throughout my body. And I’ve experienced that with a Mahler or Beethoven Symphony, as well as damn good “pop” songs about relationships.

    I can’t tell you how frustrated I have been having discussions with other classical music aficionados who say that classical music is the ONLY world-class music…the only music really worth performing and listening to. That belief structure is so different from my own experience. And I know most of our uninitiated-into-the-classical-world community doesn’t agree with it either.

    It’s the kind of thinking that smacks of elitism, in my opinion…the very thing that we need to be careful of in the classical music “biz” if we expect to attract, develop and retain new audience for the future.

    I happen to love genre-blending as part of the symphonic experience. It gets me going. But I also understand and respect that others don’t agree. And there’s the rub. How can classical music organizations make someone like me happy, and retain the more traditional “purists” who are the core audience?

    Thanks for keeping these discussions going.

    Holly, thanks so much for this. Again, you’re showing that the classical music world is certainly not unified on this questions. Though it does have one distinction — I’d guess it’s just about the only subculture where discussions about the value of pop music are conducted so often, or with such intensity.

    I think you’ve nailed the most important question for the classical music world. How can it connect to the culture outside? Which of course is the culture shared by many classical music people, like yourself! And like so many orchestra musicians.

    That’s a big subject, which I’ll try to address here in the future. For the moment, I might simply say this. Classical music organizations are in a tough position. Probably they need to retain traditional concerts, to keep their present audience happy, and also do concerts in new ways, to attract a new audience. Those new concerts have to reflect the culture you and I (and the new audience we want to attract) are part of. That probably means changing many things — the look and feel of concerts, when they start, how long they last, where they’re given, what music is played, and how the music is played. Which does NOT mean that anything is dumbed down. If anything, it has to get smarter, because the new audience — as anyone who’s studied present-day culture knows — is more demanding than the standard classical audience.

    I’m getting tired of discussions inside the classical music world of outreach, and similar issues, without reference to the culture shared by the people we’re trying to reach out to. Holly, you’re actually in a key position — you should (if you don’t mind me making a suggestion) try brainstorming with some of your friends, people who share your perspective, about what kind of concert would make sense. I’d also be happy to discuss this with you, if you’d care to contact me outside the blog.

    Thanks for your comment. You’ve touched on some of the most important things we can talk about.

  22. says

    BTW, in my last point (“much of my favorite pop music lacks lyrics at all beyond shouted “hooks” repeated ad infinitum as a beat develops beneath them”), I was referring to go-go, D.C.’s indigenous dance music:


    You will hear this music blasting out of people’s car windows if you hang around D.C. enough. People within my blast range certainly hear it coming from mine.

  23. Jerome Langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    A fascinating set of responses to your question. I think what you wrote here about the importance of the sound for pop music is right on. I would like to say just one thing about the “test of time” criterion (or as Brian Eno calls it, “shelf -life”). Why do we tend to assume that the lasting and monumental beauty (or aesthetic engagement) of a Bach or Beethoven, which I certainly wouldn’t deny, is more important than the possibly more fragile and ephemeral beauties of some pop (some pop, I suppose, might be monumental)? Monumentality can also be a barrier, since most of us are not monuments ourselves. The beauty of pop music is often closer to our own size. The fact that it might not last only connects it more deeply to the human condition. Or so it seems to me. And spirituality, I think, doesn’t respect genre boundaries (Van Morrison, John Coltrane, Dylan).


  24. ries says

    I have to argue that for many pop songs, the words are supremely important.

    Poetry, after all, is a legitimate art form in and of itself, and its about words, and what they mean.

    There is a subset of pop music that is about words as well, and certainly not just rap.

    As a man of a certain age, being over 50, I tend to listen to music by other old farts like myself.

    Loudon Wainwright III, for example, is 62. He sings about love and loss and having children and being a less than perfect father and husband- nothing much the average 17 year old cares one whit about. His songs are poignant and bittersweet and make me laugh and cry and shake my head in agreement- and its definitely very important what he is saying.

    Or Mark Everett, of the EELs, who sings amazing songs about his father, the drunken renowned scientist, his mother dying, and other very mature and complicated subjects.

    Or the aforementioned Ani DiFranco, or Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, or of course Neil Young, or the incredible middle american deadpan trailer trash lyrics of Chuck Cleaver of the Ass Ponys, or the wry irony of Warren Zevon- in all of these cases, the writers could attract attention to their words with or without music.

    In all of these cases, the words came first- and, then, hopefully the right music makes for a synergistic combo that is more than either- a song that gets stuck in your head.

    Words have the ability of the form to let interesting minds express themselves directly and in a raw, emotional way.

    The words in many operas, leiders, and “art songs” are almost decorative- they serve the music.

    The words in certain pop songs, on the other hand, like, for instance, Richard Thompson’s recent Iraq song, “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me”, which is slang taken from blogs of soldiers, come first, and are served by the music.

    In a case like this, if you just hum along and ignore the words, you are missing a lot.

    Certainly there are musics of all types in which the meaning of the words gets subordinated to the “sound” of the words. But the meaning is still there, another layer of information that is available if you want it.

    Emotion and spirituality can be conveyed by music alone. Or by words alone. Or by both simultaneously.

    I like both chocolate and vanilla. For different reasons.

  25. says

    I totally agree with you Greg. Good music, whether it’s classical, pop, jazz, death metal, whatever is what it is. Ignorance about other types of music should move me (or anyone else) to refrain from passing judgement, or hopefully spur me on to learn more.

    Perhaps the emphasis on the lyrics in the pop is a result of not having the language (no pun intended) to describe what’s happening musically, not to mention the practice of mixing the voice so predominately. Perhaps the average pop listener can’t delve into the music’s role as they can the lyrics. The most many people could say is that the music enhances the lyrics.

    My husband and I recently came across a power ballad that blew our minds (Yoko Kano’s “Real Folk Blues” from the anime series “Cowboy BeBop”). We listened to it over and over, analyzing the arrangement, melody and chord progression as well as the lyrics. It’s an exquisite piece of writing in any genre and the words and music are equally matched in skill and poignancy. It is every bit as spirtual and emotional as any classical music I’ve ever heard.

    The irony in all of this is that pop fans will often characterize classical music as being boring and lacking an emotional or spiritual resonance too. Again my point being both camps are guilty of making judgments out of ignorance.

  26. aloysius says

    Pop music tunes and harmonies could be classical if they were done with any taste. I am sure we have all heard Beetles tunes done up in “classical” formats and been fairly satisfied with the result.

    Some pop tunes will become classics but only when they have been stripped of the gimmicks and devices that fall in and out of fashion.

    I think your bias is showing. Pop music, for you, is tasteless, and full of gimmicks and devices.

    So how about all the gimmicks and devices classical composers and performers have used in the past? Classical music — or rather the music we now call classical (and was never called that before the 19th century) has changed over time, just as pop has. Schubert’s sudden modulations to distant keys made the audience in his time weep. But to conservatives, they may well have seemed like a gimmick. You can read plenty of writing by classical music conservatives in past centuries, all of them hating the “gimmicks” starting to crop up in the new music of their day. They wouldn’t have used that word, but their meaning is the same. Tosi’s famous 1723 treatise on singing would be just one of many examples.

    How about that gimmicky chromatic harmony, introduced toward the end of the Renaissance, by Monteverdi and especially Gesualdo? Or those gimmicky crescendos that made Rossini so famous? Or that gimmicky bitonality, so new and trendy in the 1920s? Or that minimalism gimmick, from the 1970s. Or Elliott Carter’s rhythmic gimmicks. The list goes on and on

  27. richard says


    I haven’t written to you in quite a while but I thought I’d add my two cents. One thing about commercially successful music, or music of the marketplace (ie pop music) is that it’s music with a “human face”, in other words, it is sung. And there is something very powerful about this. As a kid in high school and college I was a horn player in quite a few jazz/funk rock bands. And probably would have done it even longer if horn players hadn’t been replaced by machines (ie synths), and I still recall, with a little jelousy, how it was the lead singers and guitarists,keyboardists and drummers who sang who always got the “hottest chicks”. With our horns hiding our faces while we played, and standing behind everybody, we were pretty anonymous. A while back you said that jazz was dying, which left me heart-broken, but I think the problem for both jazz and instrumental “classical”

    music is that the players are anonymous, there is always an instrument separating the performer and the listener. By the way, in talking about covers how come you didn’t mention Joe Cocker’s version of “With a Help From My friends”. A true classic and much better than the origanal lame version sung by Ringo!

    I don’t know if jazz is dying. I’d doubt it, actually. I just know that there are audience problems in clubs, for the youngest, less famous acts.

    In any case, is it always true that instrumentalists are anonymous? Coltrane, Monk, Miles? I see your point, but at the very least, there are exceptions.

    There are endless covers that I didn’t mention, either because I had to stop listing them at some point, or — the main reason! — because I just don’t know about them.

  28. aloysius says

    A gimmick is something that doesn’t pass the test of time. Notice how Schubert’s songs have fallen largely into obscurity? His gimmicks betray him all too frequently. Many musicians get breathless over Schubert but Schubert was very much a talented hack. Emphasis on hack.

    I’m not sure I’ve noticed that Schubert’s songs have fallen into obscurity. Wasn’t it just the other week that people were raving about Christine Schafer’s “Winterreise”? And just last night I was at a dinner party with someone who’s enthusiastically collecting the complete Schubert song release on the Hyperion label, while other people around the table nodded, and said those CDs are becoming classics.

    And don’t some gimmicks stand the test of time? I’d nominate the Rossini crescendo, just for a start. Or those string tremolos that Monteverdi introduced in the “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.”

    It’s tricky reasoning, I think, to decide more or less arbitrarily that some innovations are genuine, and some just gimmicks, and then invoke history in one’s defense. One person’s gimmick is someone else’s deathless classic. And sometimes the argument persists for decades. Is “Rosebud,” in “Citizen Kane,” a gimmick? Some people think it is, even if it’s embedded into one of the greatest movies ever made.

  29. says

    It’s fascinating to read all of these great ideas about the distinctions and similarities between classical and pop, spiritual or otherwise. The orchestra I work with deals with these questions on every concert as we present “classical” masterworks alongside new works that often blend what would traditionally be labeled as classical and non-classical genres. Over the past 12 years that we’ve been on this programming path, I have been reminded time and again of the power of those labels to either attract or dissuade audiences from a welcoming position to the music we perform.

    In Nashville, our home and a bastion of famously non-classical music, labels are everywhere–classic country/new country–old-time/folk/Americana/singer songwriter–bluegrass/newgrass–classical/cross-over/pops/cross-genre–traditional gospel, contemporary gospel, contemporary Christian–not to mention the many sub-genres of jazz, rock, world and pop.

    Every day, it seems, there is a new “genre defying” artist whose music doesn’t fit into one of these neat labels. And the marketing machines behind those artists are always proudly extolling that fact as if it were a badge of honor that will attract music consumers eager for the next new sound. That’s happening mostly in non-classical genres, but it’s exciting to see the classical world slowly (very slowly) opening up to new music that defies categorization.

    As someone who is firmly in the middle of that expanding definition of classical music, I’ve come to believe, on a fundamental level, that no one cares what we call it. For instance, is J. Mark’s Scearce’s cantata, “Anima Mundi,” spiritual music simply because we specifically requested a work of spiritual music when we commissioned him to compose it? The audience doesn’t decide whether a work is spiritual because someone else says so, that is far too personal a decision.

    Similarly, we can’t always use the word classical to easily describe a lot of today’s art music. Are Jeff Beal’s film scores classical, or only his other “concert works?” Should we call “Lyric,” by pianist/composer Billy Childs, a chamber music work, classical jazz chamber music, or simply jazz? Is David Balakrishnan’s “Trishula” classical simply because it is for violin soloist and orchestra, or is it Indian jazz music because it is strongly influenced by Carnatic and gypsy-jazz styles? This list can go on and on.

    I don’t think we will ever escape the challenges that labels place on our efforts to connect our music with a broader audience. But I am excited to be living in an era of change that is pushing us all to rethink our notions of what “classical” music is and can be.

    It’s a terrific time, isn’t it?

    One stunning example of music that’s hard to classify is Jonny Greenwood’s score for “There Will Be Blood.” Is it classical music (sure sounds like it)? Is it a film score? (Obviously it is.) And is it also somehow in the rock world, becuase Greenwood is the lead guitarist in Radiohead? (Radiohead fans certainly pay attention to it.)

    The more classical music joins in the genre-bending that’s going on elsewhere in the musical world, the better things will be. (In my opinion, anyway.)

  30. says

    Hey Greg-

    Just a quick thought. I’m constantly surprised how many friends, who mainly listen to pop music, tell me they don’t even pay attention to lyrics.

    Also, thanks for sticking up for Ani!


  31. robert berger says

    The question of

    understanding the words in Schubert songs or

    Opera,etc,is moot.

    It’s very easy to get

    recordings with the

    words in the original

    language plus an English translation.

    That’s how I got into

    Opera as a teenager;

    my public library had

    extensive collection

    of complete Opera

    recordings,and I got

    to know exactly what

    the singers were saying.

    I also became familiar with Italian,French,

    German,Russian and Czech.

    Also with songs by

    Schubert and other

    composers.Other people

    who would like to get

    familar with Classical

    vocal music should

    try this.

  32. Jack says


    I tried to send in a comment about my point of view, comparing “worthy” to Schubert, but I guess I was censored the first time around.

    I write because I just don’t think Ani Difranco makes as much sense musically as Franz Schubert does, and maybe that’s taste, but I’m willing to err on the side of Schubert.

    If you would like me to send him an analysis comparing DiFranco’s music to Schubert’s, I’ll gladly do so, please provide me with an email or mailing address.

    I’m glad we can stand up for Björk or Ani DiFranco, but let’s not confuse talent with genius. Or history with tough times.

    I thought I’d posted your comment. I don’t censor anything except spam. (And violent hostility, or complete irrationality, if I ever encounter those things.)
    If you’d like to send me an analysis, I’m at greg@gregsandow.com.

    As for talent vs. genius, i think classical composers have an unfair advantage in any comparison with pop figures. Or let me put it more precisely: Acknowledged classical masters have an advantage in the discussion over anyone alive now, whether a pop star or a classical composer.

    Why? Because the aura of genius surrounds these figures in our minds. It’s all but inherent in the way we think about them. It’s easy to argue that Schubert was a genius, because most of us already agree.

    But there’s a problem here, because the argument becomes circular. Schubert turns out to be a genius because we knew he was from the start. What we put forth as our conclusion is actually one of our premises.

    So actually making the argument, in detail — that’s not easy. Proving Schubert (or anyone) is a genius, without using circular reasoning, is really tough. I’d like to see you do that, Jack, even without any reference to Ani DiFranco. But if you do make the comparison, make sure you’re not assuming Schubert’s genius in advance. It would be all too easy to make a list of striking things in both artists’ music, and then cite the Schubert list as proof of his genius, while the Ani list only would be proof of her talent. Without, t hat is, actually proving that there’s any difference, biut instead simply applying pre-existing judgments.

  33. says


    I like bringing movies into the discussion. The transition in Hollywood from underscores exclusively like those of Bernard Hermann’s to using pop songs prominently as in Butch Cassidy and the Sundown Kid has always fascinated me.

    I found the use of “Nothing is Good Enough” by Aimee Mann in Magnoiia absolutely brilliant, it reminded me of Stravinsky’s use of the Greek chorus in Oedipus Rex, though very different.

  34. Bill Brice says

    Are words really significant in music that sets words? I would argue that the answer is almost always YES. The problem is when we try to critique the words as a stand-alone entity. In fact, if you just recite the words to almost any song, it’s likely to come off as lame poetry. We might as well argue that the film score that’s been mentioned to “There Will be Blood” doesn’t work as a concert piece. Well DUH! That’s not what it is.

    In fact, I’d guess that, among the really great songs (however you want to define them), relatively few use lyrics that really work without the music.

    Conversely, there are also many truly great great songs that don’t really work as pure melody — some of Dylan’s classics come to mind here.

    In a really good song, the whole is greater than just the sum of words + music. It’s the way one component recognizes and comments on the other.

  35. says

    This is a topic I have thought about a lot recently. For a long time, I have been inclined to agree wholeheartedly with Greg’s attitude towards pop and classical music. I have long loved and respected many examples of both and resisted elitist attitudes priveleging classical music. However, a recent concert I went to, much to my own surprise, has made me reconsider. The concert was pianist Christopher O’Riley alternating Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues with his transcriptions of Radiohead songs. Contrary to my expectations, the Shostakovich clearly and unequivically blew the Radiohead songs away. There was a level of subtlety, depth, technical sophistication, and emotional complexity in the Shostakovich that was miles beyond the Radiohead songs (and if Radiohead isn’t an example of subtlety, depth, and complexity in pop music, what is?). Granted, the Radiohead songs were arranged (and in many cases, in my opinion, not arranged all that well), rather than appearing in their original conception. But I knew the songs well enough to be able to imagine the original versions as he played his arrangements. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the differences are, but hearing them juxtaposed in such close proximity, they seemed absolutely fundamentally different from one another, and Shostakovich seemed to be operating on a profoundly higher level. Since that concert, I have been thinking about it more and I feel intuitively that this concert was not a fluke, that there really is something fundamentally different and deeper about classical music. I wish I were able to speak more precisely about what it is, I guess I have a lot more thinking to do. Has anyone else done this though, tried to juxtapose very directly classical and popular music, not just with your i-pod on shuffle in the background, but with very active listening? anyway, as I said, this is something I need to ponder more, but I find it troubling, and it’s forcing me to re-examine a lot of my assumptions.

    Very interesting, Jon. Thanks for sharing it here.

    I’d say the issue is very complex. I agree that the O’Reilly Radiohead transcriptions aren’t all that good. For me, at least, they lose almost everything I like about the Radiohead songs. So I’d want to juxtapose the Shostakovich pieces with the Radiohead originals.

    Even then, though, we’d just have a Radiohead/Shostakovich comparison, not a complete classical/pop comparison. All it might prove is that you like Shostakovich better than Radiohead, though you might have known that before. What happens if you contrast Rossini with Annie Lennox? Your reaction (getting back to the comparison you actually made) might simply mean that you like Shostakovich (or at least those pieces) better than you thought.

    I don’t know that I’ve ever tried anything approaching a systematic classical/pop comparison. I do know that there are times when I’m absolutely transfixed by both kinds of music. A classical piece might come on the radio, or show up in a movie — I’m talking about times I’ve been taken by surprise — and just grab me. Likewise for pop. I’ve also noticed a cycle I seem to go through. I listen to a lot of pop music, then get lonely for classical, and listen to a lot of classical. Then I get lonely for pop, and listen to a lot of pop.

    I don’t know what this adds up to. Maybe in the end, I take musical artists as individuals. So I might end up making lists of artists I like and don’t like as much, drawing both lists from both classical and pop. I suspect that this distinction — between what I really love and everything else — means more to me than distinctions among genres.

  36. Jack says


    “As for talent vs. genius, i think classical composers have an unfair advantage in any comparison with pop figures. Or let me put it more precisely: Acknowledged classical masters have an advantage in the discussion over anyone alive now, whether a pop star or a classical composer.”

    That is probably rarely case among certain demographics, to a friend of mine, Mariah Carey beats out Mozart any day of the week. She’s just a real genius. Mozart? He was an old guy who write a catchy tune or two.

    “Why? Because the aura of genius surrounds these figures in our minds. It’s all but inherent in the way we think about them. It’s easy to argue that Schubert was a genius, because most of us already agree.”

    Maybe. At least one reader has already suggested, I think, that Schubert’s not, to their way of thinking. I regret I brought up the word “genius,” because I believe that your comments somehow are held together my the common awe and power the word evokes. Perhaps I might have written: “let’s not confuse talent with competence”.

    You go to state that, “..there’s a problem here, because the argument becomes circular. Schubert turns out to be a genius because we knew he was from the start. What we put forth as our conclusion is actually one of our premises.” Touché. And yet the premise of genius matters when we consider the definition of argument, to me.

    “So actually making the argument, in detail — that’s not easy. Proving Schubert (or anyone) is a genius, without using circular reasoning, is really tough. I’d like to see you do that, Jack, even without any reference to Ani DiFranco. But if you do make the comparison, make sure you’re not assuming Schubert’s genius in advance. It would be all too easy to make a list of striking things in both artists’ music, and then cite the Schubert list as proof of his genius, while the Ani list only would be proof of her talent. Without, that is, actually proving that there’s any difference, biut instead simply applying pre-existing judgments.”

    I think that’s a pretty defensive position, and, too, a tautological one. My take rests firmly on notation vs. recording and performing, nothing else. Composer vs. recording artist. I guess I never made that clear, but that’s exactly where I’m coming from in this case.

    Jack, thanks for taking my response so seriously. And thanks also for clarifying your position. I’d love to know more about how you think the compose/notate vs. recording distinction ends up making such a large musical difference. I might — in my most naive vein — say that in both cases, what we’re left with is music, a construction of some sort in sound. That’s what we respond to. So why not consider these sound constructions (aka pieces of music) on their own merits, as we hear them, without making distinctions about how they came to be?

    I might add that there are really complicated, much-debated questions lying in back of all this, about what a composed musical work really is. See virtually any book on the philosophy of music. Your position, I suspect, would correspond to the traditional philosophy of music discussion, which considers musical works to consist (in some fashion that’s spelled out differently by different writers) in the notated construction that lies behind performance. This position has been criticized for leaving out the many forms of music that don’t start with notated composition. At the other end of the spectrum might be someone like Christopher Small, who considers (see his book “Musicking”) music to consist essentially of performance. I guess that’s the position I’m happiest with, and naturally it would lead me to think it doesn’t matter so much where music comes from, and simply evaluate it from its sound.

  37. says

    I met a friend the other night and we compared music and movie preferences. He told me that the music he loved the most was:

    Annie Lennox, Gorecki, Cat Powers, and Norah Jones.

    I asked how he came to love the Gorecki. He said he had been driving on the West Side Highway in NYC one night and tuned in to the NPR station, which was playing the Gorecki Symphony of Sorrows. So, there was no hiearchy of genius, etc. He was simply dumbstruck by the beauty and power of the music.

    Good point, Dave. Very good point. Thanks.

    This happened — about the Gorecki — to many people in the early ’90s, when this symphony appeared on the now-famous Nonesuch recording. Some pop critics put it on their top 10 lists that year, simply because they were overcome by its power.

  38. msk says

    I can’t really read scores, though I suppose if I really tried I could discern aspects of structure, etc. I find incomprehensible the position that finds “musical works to consist in the notated construction behind performance.” Do people experience profound emotions from reading scores, without never having heard a piece before? Perhaps they do, and this is simply an aspect of musical experience I’ve never had, but it seems to me the performance, or realization, is what most composers of any sort are aiming for, no matter how they go about it.

    Far above in this fascinating discussion someone mentions that pop musicians compose with sound, which I think is a critical point. A lot of pop pieces are not realized in any way except in performance (recorded and live). It isn’t that no one pays attention to the scores. They don’t exist. Although pop musicians may be flattered or pleased by covers, the aim is not to produce something that can be replicated by anyone with certain standardized training (i.e., reading notation and playing/singing what they’re reading on an instrument).

    My point is that classical, or composed music, and pop have different aims and different means, and so comparing them in any kind of objective fashion is tough. To me it’s no surprise that solo piano transcriptions (well or badly done) of Radiohead cannot stand up to the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. A comparison of the original recorded Radiohead versions might fare better. You could also try comparing a badly done transcription for rock band of Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues to the original Radiohead recordings, but the Shostakovich transcription most probably does not exist. The Radiohead is out of its element as solo piano music, as Shostakovich would be transcribed for rock band. Maybe the Shostakovich would make it anyway (I do love those pieces) – I’m not making a claim that Radiohead is as subtle, complex, and profound as Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. But I imagine that without Thom Yorke’s eerie voice and the great and carefully composed SOUND of Radiohead, their songs would lose a great deal of what people (myself included) love about them.

  39. Greg Sandow says

    Here’s a comment sent via e-mail, from Charles Berry, a composer. Among much else, he told me a lovely story. He studied composition with Paul Creston. Back in the ’50s, Creston got a letter, out of the blue, from then-president Dwight Eisenhower, who wanted to say how much he enjoyed an LP of Creston’s symphonies! Something like that just wouldn’t happen today.

    Here’s Chuck’s comment:

    A few more thoughts….. Much of the discussion circles around the questions:

    Who is the audience? What are the expectations of the audience? Different Classical venues have different audiences, just as Pop venues have different audiences: Springsteen fans, might not care for Loreena Mckennitt. Some listeners might enjoy both.

    The problem for radio and concert hall programmers is figuring-out what their audience will accept, without the advertisers, or the benefactors, throwing a spasmodic fit.

    As always, the people paying the bills do have a say in what goes on, and should have a say in what goes on. The great composers of the past managed to compose Masterpieces, for very bored and distracted royalty. As a 21st century composer, I expect nothing more. I will gladly write for the audience of my time. My only problem is reaching that audience.

    The benefactors of Classical music are still, and with good reason, very distrustful of New Music. Few symphony conductors are able to program their season with more than 5% New Music, usually much less. The Director of the Boston Chamber Music Society—who loves to perform New Music— told me, if he even programmed one new work, they would lose subscribers.

    In the Classical Music world, the Audience-Composer trust fell apart, and disappeared entirely, somewhere in the 1950’s or 1960’s. My teacher, Paul Creston, once received a friendly, handwritten note from Dwight Eisenhower regarding an LP of Paul’s 2nd & 3rd Symphony. Do any recent Presidents-of-the-United-States consider Classical composers to be important?

    How do we build the faith of the subscriber-base and the benefactors? We compose music which is understandable on first hearing, and even better on second hearing. Lately, I view most 20th composers as being ridiculously arrogant, many safe in University jobs, unconcerned about the needs of the larger Classical Music audience—often thumbing their noses at that audience. It should be no surprise that the audience lost all interest in New Music.

    I admire personally admire some 20th century works, Ruggles, Ives, Messiaen and others…but still, those composers do not reach the larger Classical audience. For the most part, the larger audience has needs and expectations which are not meet by those composers. ( And, this is not always a need for musical wallpaper, relaxing or soothing music.) The conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic has been quite successful, integrating non-standard works into the programs. Ginastera, Moncayo, and even a work for didgeridoo and orchestra!. However, much Symphony-season programming still centers on Star-Power, the famous soloists playing the Standard Repertoire..

    I see the Internet, mp3 downloads, and recorded music in general, as being one way to reach the larger audience. And, in time, with some effort, composers may begin to re-establish a trust between themselves and the audience. Without that trust, most New Music will be only for aficionados, just as most Jazz is only supported by aficionados. Or, the only New Music heard in concert halls will be from film composers. Which is not a bad thing….but limiting.

    My hope is the audience itself will change, to welcome a greater variety, and look forward to hearing the next new composition by their own local composers!

    Enough for now…. best wishes to you!

  40. says

    I just ran into this blog today and I am enjoying reading it.

    I found this post and ensuing discussion very interesting. I am struck by the attempts to pin down a key difference between classical and pop music. I don’t think that words are a key difference. There are too many exceptions.

    It just so happens that I wrote a blog post a few days ago. The title is “A Key Difference Between Pop and Classical.” You can find it here:


    It discusses balance between repetition and new material.

    Hi, Luke. I think the difference you cite — about how much material is repeated — has a lot to do with the length of a pop song, as opposed to the length of a large classical piece. A short classical piece — A Schubert song — might have a lot of repetition. (Especially the strophic songs!)

    But what’s the significance of this difference? Are you saying that classical music is in some way superior, because there’s less repetition in it?

    Of course, some classical pieces have a lot of repetition — minimal pieces, for instance. So in part, at least, it depends on what classical pieces you’re talking about. And which pop songs.

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  42. Melany Cruz says

    I have a problem, i am an old member of a chorale group and i was oriented since start as a classical voice singer/as soprano., but then, i tried to shift my voice in a pop school trying and hoping to sing as a pop singer too… now, a had a hard time to go back with my classical voice… what will i do?

    I’m no expert on these things, Melany. But it sounds as if a good classical voice teacher could help you.

  43. Michael says

    This is an interesting discussion and a subject that I have reflected on before. First let me say that I like classical, jazz and pop music and also dislike elitism in general. That said musical intelligence is a measurable phenomenon. It can’t be pinned down to a number but it is clearly something that exists to a different degree in different people, from the tone deaf to the geniuses.

    I personally think that someone like Bach possessed a far greater musical intelligence than anyone I can think of in the pop world. I am a pianist myself and play all types of music. But if I were to compare the experience of playing something like the Art of Fugue where Bach is so brilliant that he can interweave four distinct melodic lines in his head to playing the Beatles (who i love), the Beatles are a cakewalk. The point is that I can play the Beatles but trying to play The Art of Fugue stretches the limits of my own modest musical intelligence to the breaking point. I feel that although I can play the notes (and stumble through them most the time)my mind can’t completely understand that complexity.