Differences Between Classical and Popular Music
by Jeffrey Sward
Periodically the question of the differences between classical and popular music arises. Here are some of the differences.
Category Classical Popular
Longevity Centuries For the moment, transitory
Target audience Cognoscenti Widest possible through lowest common denominator
Objective Thematic, rhythmic, and structural development Entertainment or delivering a message
Harmonic structure Complex: chromaticism, atonality, modulation, etc. Simple chords
Instrumentation Vocal or instrumental. A range from one solo instrument to combined choral and instrumental forces approaching one thousand Usually vocal with simple accompaniment
Form Divers structures. Single forms: sonata allegro, theme and variation, minuet and trio, rondo, passacaglia, chaconne, symphonic poem, canon, fugue, canzona, toccata, fantasia. Composite forms: sonata, symphony, string quartet, suite. Song form: verse - bridge - refrain . Often AABA or ABA2BA3B.
Thematic development Development through layers and complexity None
Complexity High: counterpoint, phrasing, harmonization, modulation, texture, color, musical form, hierarchy of smaller units Low: easy to analyze and imitate
Harmonic Structure Wide variation of harmonic exploration Large range of chords. Bi-tonality, atonality, dodecaphony. Tonal and highly derivative. Chords often limited to I-V-VI-IV.
Duration A range from 20 seconds to hours Under 3 minutes per "song"
Dynamic range Large Small
Appeal Abstract, containing both intellectual and emotional content Visceral
Notation Mandatory Optional
Interaction basis Composer - written work - performer Song writer (optional)- song - performer
Repeated listening Frequent discovery of previously undetected aspect, detail, or layer. Recognition
Literary metaphor Alexis de Tocqueville Horace Greeley

Van Alstyne, David. "Classical vs. Popular Music." Classical vs. Popular Music, 2020, http://davidvanalstyne.com/pg-classicvspop.html.

Wildridge, Justin, et al. "Classical vs Popular Music (Differences Between Classical and Popular Music)." CMUSE, 30 May 2019, http://www.cmuse.org/classical-vs-popular-music/.


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