What Pop Owes Classical Music

Popular music is fundamentally derived from western classical music.

All popular music, from death metal to R&B, uses twelve pitches. These pitches are organised into chords. The two most common chord progressions consist of either I-IV-V (essentially every blues song and many rock songs) or I-VI-V-VI (every pop song).

This system is completely reliant on tonal harmony. Without classical music we would not have twelve standard pitches. We would not have the major and minor scales (or the modes). We would not have the chords that are formed from these. We would not have polyphony — in its broadest sense, where music moves deliberately from one group of notes to another, e.g. a chord progression.

And so the origins of popular music instruments should come as no surprise. First there was the organ, then the harpsichord, then the piano, and now the electronic keyboard and synthesiser. Acoustic and electric guitars are in large part descendants of the vihuela, early guitars and Spanish guitar. Jazz and rock and roll musicians originally used the double bass, playing it pizzicato (plucked rather than bowed), and this was later replaced by the electric bass guitar.

Guitarists and bass guitarists have found their own method of notation for their instruments: tablature. But I doubt many guitarists realise that this was originally an invention within classical music. Tablature has in fact existed since medieval times, and was most notably the notation system used to record centuries of lute music. From the exquisite Capirola Lutebook (1520):


Then there are the more specific points: that musicals owe much to opera, especially operettas, and that pop songs clearly owe something to the likes of Dowland and Schubert — I’m sure many readers can think of other examples.

So although popular music likes to present itself as international and progressive, it owes nearly everything to periwigged and ruff-wearing white men employed by princes, aristocrats and churches.

In the excellent second chapter of Alex Ross’s Listen to This, ‘Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues’, he discusses the history of lament bass from Monteverdi to ‘Hotel California’. (Ross briefly summarises this chapter, with musicians to help demonstrate, in this video.) So let’s end with Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa. Monteverdi did it centuries earlier and, I think you’ll agree, far better:


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