About Me

"Classical" vs. "popular" music

I fell in love with classical music when I was 15.

It didn't take me long to realize that all of my favorite composers were dead. This bothered me. I tried to find the living continuation of the music I loved, but modern classical music sounded alien to me.

For the next 10 years I tried to solve this problem, and am reasonably happy with my solution. It's best illustrated by an example.

Do you know who Elliott Carter* is? Even if you do, do you listen to his music? The chances are you don't, because almost no-one listens to Carter's music. And yet he's one of the most celebrated classical composers of today.

What does it mean to say he's a classical composer? It means that Carter composes in the classical tradition. But what does it mean to compose in the classical tradition?

  • Bach (b.1685) studied Palestrina (b.1525).
  • Mozart (b.1756) studied Bach and Palestrina.
  • Beethoven (b.1770) studied Mozart, Bach, and Palestrina.
  • Wagner (b.1813) studied Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Palestrina.
  • Schoenberg (b.1874) studied Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Palestrina.
  • Carter (b.1908) studied Schoenberg, Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Palestrina.

That is what it means to compose in the classical tradition.

Now, do you like Duke Ellington's music? (Satin Doll, It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing, Sophisticated Lady, etc.) Ellington is not thought of as being a classical composer because he didn't study those composers. But there's something odd going on here.

Mozart performed. He improvised, and people sang his tunes in the street. None of this is true of Carter. But Ellington did perform, improvise, and people still sing his tunes in the street.

The problem is, people define classical music as a tradition, which makes Elliot Carter a classical composer. But if you define classical music as a practice then Duke Ellington was more of a classical composer than Carter is.

This insight informs everything I do.

I'm not trying to suggest that one type of music is better than the other, because I love classical and popular music equally - I've even learned to love some modern classical. I'm just pointing out that the labels people use can distract from what the music is really about. If that was more widely understood then fewer popular music fans would think that classical music was boring and fewer classical fans would assume that popular music was necessarily less serious.

*Or Gy├Ârgy Ligeti, Pierre Boulez, etc.