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:


How many writers does it take to make a hit single?

To the extent that this question sounds like the start of a joke, it’s a tragic one. The BBC reports that ‘a new study by Music Week magazine shows it now takes an average of 4.53 writers to create a hit single.’ That’s up over one person from ten years ago.

Record labels put pressure on songwriters to release more material at a faster pace, so ‘professional’ songwriters are employed (in contrast, one reasons, to the ‘amateur’ songwriters who actually perform the song). Moreover, producers have an unprecedented level of influence. Everyone wants in on the latest synthesised squelchings or claustrophobic compression, with pop music being more technology-dependent than ever.

mr-burns-monkeys-typewriters1-640x381-600x357The most amusing aspect is writing camps. The article describes them as ‘where the music industry puts the infinite monkey theorem to the test, detaining dozens of producers, musicians and “top-liners” (melody writers) and forcing them to create an endless array of songs, usually for a specific artist.’

Well, that explains a lot: why modern pop music is so homogeneous, why the stars themselves seem such lazy and musically unadventurous people. It really is, to coin a phrase, a culture industry.

I think it’s very obvious that this trend is ruinous. Their music globalises and helps eviscerate local cultures. The ‘elites’ in society, for want of a better word, all swear allegiance to it where once they would have been the patrons of high culture. Politicians become too scared to be seen at the opera. Society becomes more musically illiterate as people’s musical imagination is severely restricted by the homogeneity of omnipresent pop music, and people struggle to find ‘relevance’ in serious music. Music literacy will then genuinely become the preserve of the privileged. People lose a source of profound beauty and, in the case of pop music especially, of social and communal bonds, and are given a miserable opioid substitute.

And it’s one concocted by a small set of technicians, their scope totally dictated by market values. Entry into this industry seems to be at the whim of label companies who are the only ones with the economic means now required to produce the hit songs the public demand. Yet classical music is elitist.

Unlike pop stars (and it must be said, modern classical composers), Bach would have to compose weekly on top of his duties as organist. Here’s his cantata ‘Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis’: