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
Appeal Abstract, containing both intellectual and emotional content Visceral
Complexity High: counterpoint, phrasing, harmonization, modulation, texture, color, musical form, hierarchy of smaller units Low: easy to analyze and imitate
Duration A range from 20 seconds to hours Under 3 minutes per "song"
Dynamic range Large Small
Form Diverse 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 ABABCB or ABAB.
Harmonic Structure Wide variation of harmonic exploration Large range of chords. bi-tonality, atonality, dodecaphony, chromaticism, modulation, etc. . Tonal and highly derivative. Simple chords. Chords often limited to I-V-VI-IV.
Instrumentation Vocal or instrumental. A range from one solo instrument to combined choral and instrumental forces approaching one thousand Usually vocal with simple accompaniment
Interaction basis Composer - written work - performer Song writer (optional) - song - performer
Literary metaphor Alexis de Tocqueville Horace Greeley
Longevity Centuries For the moment, transitory
Notation Mandatory Optional
Objective Thematic, rhythmic, and structural development Entertainment or delivering a message
Repeated listening Frequent discovery of previously undetected aspect, detail, or layer. Recognition
Target audience Cognoscenti Widest possible through lowest common denominator
Thematic development Development through layers and complexity None

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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