Wednesday, 17 March 2010

What is "classical"?

I wrote the following post as guest writer for thatsound:

It is common to draw a thick line between the classical music and the rest. For starters, let us clarify what the rest is. In its broadest definition, I'll call the rest pop music, as short for popular music. This refers to music for the masses, so not only Britney Spears but also U2 and Beatles, for instance.

Now on to the thick line between classical and pop music. For starters, we are labeling: something that has previously been discussed in this blog and argued wrong. I guess I agree partially: labeling artists may be wrong in general, as one cannot predict what is to come, but labeling particular works/albums is not only a convenience but also a necessity: it is the only way to segment a huge market into smaller categories which can more easily be delved into. If you are looking for something new to listen to and go to your local music store, how much longer would it take you if there was absolutely no sorting other than alphabetical? Also, automated music recommendation services like those of and Pandora could not exist.

So a certain degree of labeling is not crippling, it's necessary. Of course, overzealous labeling can have bad effects, but labeling in general is an imprecise and best-effort technique. Even for a simple binary labeling (classical or pop) we'll be faced with controversies and ambiguities.

Let us start by defining classical: pop is then simply defined by being anything which is not classical. Even though classical music has existed for centuries, the name itself did not occur until the 19th century. In a sense, even this was an early stage for the definition to appear, as in the past most music was (what we now call) classical anyway. But let's not go into that. For now, let us define classical music as music that follows the techniques and forms codified through the centuries in the style of liturgical or secular Western music. This music can be singled out due to a number of characteristics. Different possibilities arise here, but for convenience I will stick to the points currently mentioned in the definition at Wikipedia:
  • Instrumentation: the instruments used for producing classical music have appeared at some point in the past and have evolved through the centuries, but have never changed dramatically: the organ is used in modern music much as it was used by Bach. Electronic music appeared in the early 20th century, with some composers using it extensively and others sparingly: in a sense, it became like another instrument, but it did not change the entire make-up of classical music.
  • Form: the form defines the structure of music, and may restrict or prescribe its instrumentation, length, setting to be played, etc. Classical music has many forms: some appeared in the Renaissance period and still live today (like the opera), others mostly disappeared (like the tiento). Some are generalist (concerto), others define clear outer-structure (sonata) or inner-structure (fugue, passacaglia). Pop music mostly follows the song form: a piece of music for (generally) accompanied (mostly) solo voice, (typically) following strophic or verse-chorus structure.
  • Technical execution: classical music composers and executioners alike have generally studied music for years and have some form of conservatory education. This is understandable given the century-spanning history of classical music and the necessity of grasping all of the past to produce music of the present.
  • Complexity: the necessity for thorough musical education is connected to the complexity of classical music. Along with technical proficiency in an instrument, performers are generally required to be able to read musical notation quickly, play in an ensemble, understand music theory, etc. Complexity in classical music arises from many sources, such as form (structure), number of players required, diversity in texture, rhythm or even tuning. Pop music mostly restricts itself to a simple tonal system.
  • Society: in what is perhaps the most controversial part of the definition, classical music is generally associated with the upper-class segment of society, or at least those with higher education, and certainly not with the masses, for whom pop music is designed.

The definition above is not bad, and gives us some clear examples of classical music: the early gregorian chant, Monteverdi's madrigals, Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Mozart's piano sonatas, Chopin's etudes, Stockhausen's electronic music, or Adès's operas.

But what about Cage's Suite for Toy Piano? It's certainly not complex: it requires only nine white keys from E to F, so it can be played on a toy piano (you can hear it in the player above). And the Cantigas de Santa Maria, mostly meant for entertainment of the masses with very simple verse-chorus forms? Well, the Cantigas were written in the 13th century and are still more complex than many pop songs of nowadays, and Cage's toy piano works are part of an entire philosophy of musical experimentation. But what about the music of John Williams, extensively known to the public from the scores of films such as Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and Superman? Is his music pop just because it appeals to the masses? Or is his music classical just because it follows the well identified genre of Neoromanticism?

Things are even less clear when coming from the other side. Granted, Britney Spears makes pop and not classical music, but what about Aphex Twin's Jynweythek Ylow (you can hear it in the player above), which even spun a version for chamber orchestra? And Björk's extensive use of the music box, including works written solely for the instrument (like Frosti)? Is it not comparable to other compositions for the instrument from well-known classical composers? And Radiohead's live use of Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument used frequently by composer Olivier Messiaen? And the extreme complexity typically present in the music of Math Rock bands? Or the use of entire philharmonic orchestras in black metal?

The list goes on and on. Certainly these are all pop music artists, in general. But they belong to a group of pop musicians who are highly influenced by classical music, knowing it well and having studied it extensively. Stockhausen was once given some Aphex Twin to listen to, together with some other pop works. He had this to say:

I wish those musicians would not allow themselves any repetitions, and would go faster in developing their ideas or their findings, because I don't appreciate at all this permanent repetitive language. It is like someone who is stuttering all the time, and can't get words out of his mouth.

And this is what Aphex Twin said back:

I thought he should listen to a couple of tracks of mine: "Didgeridoo", then he'd stop making abstract, random patterns you can't dance to. Do you reckon he can dance? You could dance to Song of the Youth, but it hasn't got a groove in it, there's no bassline. I know it was probably made in the 50s, but I've got plenty of wicked percussion records made in the 50s that are awesome to dance to. And they've got basslines. I could remix it: I don't know about making it better;

Enough said, right? Pop and classical music serve two different purposes, and Stockhausen and Aphex Twin are talking to each other in different languages.


  1. As a music lover I must love this blog, and particularly this post on drawing the line between pop and classical, which has intrigued me, since I are in deep love with both genres. Thank you for writing this nice and insightful text.

    I find there's much truth in the controversy between Stockhausen and Apex Twins: "your music is too repetitive" versus "but I can't dance to yours"...

    And then... Bach's English Suites are perfectly danceable ánd classical music, whereas an icon of American "pop music" like the Beach Boys made "Wind chimes" - how would one dance to that? []
    You dealed with this one already, by making clear that a musician can walk many ways...

    Oh, and then there is the classical dance and ritual music far away from the roots of classical and pop, the Balinese, for instance, e.g.
    Classical, danceable and a whole other category, no?

  2. Hi Ton,

    The Balinese music you refer to indeed falls in a different category. When I say "classical", I generally mean "Western art music". Introducing other musical traditions further deepens the problem :-)