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:


Hierarchy of Music

If someone builds an exquisite birdhouse I will marvel at it, be fascinated by the craft, take pleasure in its design, enjoy its function and so on. But what is it compared to, say, Westminster Abbey or the Royal Albert Hall, places so awesome and imposing, so sublime and transfixing? This isn’t merely about scale. One sees the attractive birdhouse and knows it exemplifies human resourcefulness and skill; but the greatest architectural achievements are so incredible as to seem to defy natural human ability. They are so ingenious that their complexity is overwhelming. One can find the same complexity — not technical complexity necessarily, but artistic complexity, imagination as much as skill — in physically smaller things. Great paintings, for instance. And just as often the same thing is evident but without the same physical presence. Books, poetry and music fall under this category.

None of this is to say that there is anything wrong with the birdhouse, that one can’t or shouldn’t find pleasure in it. One thing being superior to the other does not imply that the other is bad. A lazily-crafted birdhouse would be bad, but a well-crafted one clearly isn’t.

This shouldn’t be controversial but in our strange times there are few taboos greater than discrimination. My concern is primarily with how this affects music. Googling around, one easily comes across attacks on the idea of a hierarchy of music (and few defences). In 2012 The Guardian posted a conversation between rock ‘n’ roller Laura Barton and (now former) BBC Proms director Roger Wright. An excerpt:

Barton: … the problem I have with classical music is the lack of democracy – not just to do with how much it costs to go to the opera. I remember reading something – do you know Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes? – about how many working-class people loved to go to classical music concerts, and then it stopped. That was probably around the same time rock’n’roll was born. Now there is a weird aristocracy of music, where people automatically assume classical music is superior to rock’n’roll. My problem is with the way it is represented and regarded.

Wright: Classical music, itself, I don’t see it as a hierarchy. I recognise that there is great classical music, but there is frankly also second-rate classical music. There is great hip-hop, but clearly there is also second- and third-rate hip-hop. I also think that opera gets a bit of a bad press.

You’ll notice Wright contradicts himself. First he denies a hierarchy, then he categorises music into first, second and third rate. If music within genres can be organised into hierarchies, why can’t we establish hierarchies between genres? It’s totally illogical, an exemplary bit of doublethink.

Barton later says:

For me, it is the number of people I have met, predominantly people who are older than me, maybe from a different background, who have dismissed the fact that I love the music that I love, and think I should get into this. That’s what I mean about a hierarchy: “This is nice but this is sort of adolescent, and eventually you’ll graduate to liking this.” That’s what I resent, or feel uncomfortable with. A kind of loftiness.

I struggle to see what’s wrong with this, unless individuals were indeed rude and condescending towards her. But you’ll find a more pernicious kind of inequality, one of genuine widespread condescension, in the absence of sound hierarchies. I don’t want people to pat me on the head and make me feel comfortable in my ignorance. The person who respects me is the one who says I should explore such-and-such because it is better, and who helps me understand how to do that. The cruel person is the one who disingenuously says that I don’t need to explore these better things because everything is equal — you don’t need to taste this slice of roast venison because you have a bit of stale bread, and food is food, after all.

In the last post I listed some of the deficiencies of popular music, which I will repeat here with some additions. By ‘popular music’ I refer to the essentially twentieth century development — an unfortunate one — in which music was bisected into classical and popular. The popular side covers everything from Tin Pan Alley to Grindcore. I must add that some pop music is quite good, and will include an example later in the post. But most of it sadly isn’t, especially in recent times, for these reasons among others:

  • an emphasis on extra-musical features (theatre, image etc.)
  • an interest in sound as much as music (the ‘sound’ that characterises not only the genre but each band, and the use of non-musical — some might say anti-musical — sound effects, e.g. distortion, autotune)
  • a very limited understanding of harmony
  • no understanding of voice leading
  • repetition of simple riffs
  • escalating volume and thus a very limited dynamic range
  • unsophisticated notation systems, if any
  • insipid melodies (which goes hand-in-hand with a limited understanding of harmony)

This is a recipe for truly awful music. Browsing on YouTube, one of the trending music videos is Taylor Swift’s …Ready for it? Now, the invention of the ‘music video’ is itself one of popular music’s great horrors. How vain is a music that places such an emphasis on image — and thereby fuelling one of the most depressing features of modern life, the desire to be famous. So many of the great classical composers never received due wealth and fame, nor is that particularly why they pursued music. And not even the most respected composers received the kind of material success pop stars do now. (If you want to discuss unfair hierarchies, let’s talk about a society that distributes so much wealth and power to these pompous, talentless minstrels.)

The Taylor Swift song has almost no melody (much of the song consists solely of one note), which not too long ago would have disqualified it from even being a song. Most of the piece only uses one chord and relies on an inflexible rhythm and superfluous sound effects to move things forward. The only hint of musicality is the generic chord sequence and plain melody in the chorus.

Now compare that to Billie Holiday’s Gloomy Sunday. The Taylor Swift is a piece of unpleasant ephemera, like much pop music, but Gloomy Sunday will likely stay with you. Musically it’s not that interesting, but it has the fundamentals — a good memorable melody, harmonic tension, and of course it is performed very well.

However, it’s obviously not on the same level as something like this: Monteverdi’s madrigal Tempro la cetra. Gloomy Sunday is the birdhouse and Tempro la cetra is the Royal Albert Hall.

Vaughan Williams on the Classical/Popular Divide

Vaughan Williams is the one of the most fun and insightful composers to read. His prose is plain and clear, and he never seems to hold back his many opinions. A frequent theme in his essay writing is the now-unfashionable subject of ‘national music’, and specifically English music. Here’s an extract:

And the reason why ‘English Music’ is nowadays considered negligible by so many writers is that we have separated our music from our nationality. ‘Classical’ music is considered to be a foreign luxury imported from abroad with our champagne and our cigars for those who have the money to afford it and the taste to appreciate it. We must break down the distinction between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’—all music should be classical and all music should be popular.

Related to this, he remarks that

If music is the exclusive privilege of a wealthy class who can pay to have it composed and performed, then there will be a period of insipid and gorgeously mounted operas, difficult concertos, and a general show-off for the virtuoso. But when music is a national possession, when people want music for their churches, for their homes, when they want to produce their own art and not to pay others to make it for them, then is the age (as it was in Tudor times) of the anthem, the madrigal, music for choral singing on a small scale, music for the lute or the virginals.

Popular music to VW was clearly the opposite of what it is today. He saw popular music as synonymous with the people of a nation. But if anything, modern popular music seeks to undermine national character. And yes, ‘classical music’ is an annoying term to which there is really no better alternative — ‘serious music’ is possibly even worse.

Oh, if only classical music had kept its foothold in the home! Music isn’t quite the exclusive privilege of a wealthy class, but the twentieth century did bring composers who greatly disdained their audiences, and the taste for spectacular complexity and challenging music lives on. We do live in an age of ‘insipid and gorgeously mounted operas, difficult concertos, and a general show-off for the virtuoso’. Almost none of the public play classical music in their homes, and if they do, it will almost certainly not be contemporary.

There have been some modern composers who have done a very good job at reversing this trend. Peter Maxwell Davies spent a lot of time going to schools, composing for children (see his Two Fiddlers opera he wrote for a local grammar school, or his amusing Home-time at last) and encouraging other composers to do the same. He set up a festival in his adopted home of Orkney, the St Magnus Festival, and wrote music, some of it ‘popular’ in the VW sense, intimately wedded to the character of the island. Though still mostly a ‘serious’ and ‘modern’ composer and all that, and many of his concertos and symphonies are brilliant, he came much closer to VW’s desire that ‘all music should be classical and all music should be popular’ than most. This seemed to come with professional strains too. The Guardian back in 2004 on the rift between Birtwhistle and Maxwell Davies: ‘Sir Harrison says that Sir Peter’s habit of writing rather flashy, audience-pleasing pieces made him feel uncomfortable and competitive, and that his own compositions suffered as a result.’

Probably Maxwell Davies’ most performed orchestral piece, An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, with a one-minute opening conversation between the composer himself and Tom Service: