I expect most musicians aim to master the instrument they play. But articles & interviews I've read suggest that:

  • Classical musicians:
    • Place importance on precision and theoretical knowledge
    • Should master many styles/techniques. This way, the director can select pieces covering a wide stylistic repertoire, and the orchestra can play in an appropriate (but different) manner for each piece, on demand.
  • Rock musicians:
    • Value self-expression, individual “quirks”
    • When recording, try to capture an excellent “take” by both tweaking the texture of the sound (effects, microphone placement, etc.) and selecting a specific performance, often among the first ones, which has enthusiasm. Some call this a “rock moment” saying that if you don't capture it when it happens, it might be very hard to get another one.

This suggests that, while all serious musicians strive to master their instrument, classical musicians aim for reproducibility (consistently delivering the same performance) while a rock musician aims for his or her individual “voice” when performing (but each performance ends up having a slightly different character, enthusiasm – still within his or her unique voice, or style).

Of course any such “rule” will have exceptions, but in general, do classical and rock musicians have indeed different goals? Are the things I noticed (reproducibility vs spontaneity) generally accepted as such, and do you know of others?

Let's make a list of similarities and differences, based on trustworthy sources (e.g. what you know from real musicians; articles from a reputable source).

  • 4
    I know there are new classical pieces being written right now and there are also about 1000 Beatles cover bands that spend all their time reproducing the Beatles songs and not writing anything new. I think it depends more on the musician's goal and whether they want to be a writer or performer not necessarily the genre they are grouped in.
    – Dom
    Apr 22, 2014 at 0:10
  • Famous phrase uttered while tuning up: "Close enough for jazz" :-) Apr 22, 2014 at 11:40
  • 2
    I would also like to add that the same piece may be played differently by different musicians depending on how they interpret it and/or how the conductor interprets it. Apr 22, 2014 at 12:16
  • 1
    There is one difference I would like to point out though (which is too minor for an answer): for a classical musician, technique is much more important than for a jazz/pop musician. This is based upon the technical difference between jazz/pop and classical students at the conservatory here. Jazz/pop students tend to focus more on other things, among which is improvisation.
    – 11684
    Apr 24, 2014 at 18:24
  • all of these require application of Western Music theory
    – Lenny
    Oct 28, 2016 at 21:23

2 Answers 2


I think that the differences you mentioned have more to do with the size of the groups involved than their preference for classical or rock music. Also, I'm willing to wager that there is as much diversity in terms of goals among members of the same category (rock or classical) as there is between the two.

You mentioned orchestral music, but that is only a small subset of classical music. Imagine rehearsing for a solo piano performance of a piece by Chopin; which of your bullet-points most aptly apply to that situation? You can have all the technique on earth, but if you don't let your own expression of the music be the focal point, your performance will suffer for it.

Or consider a string quartet, and how many magical moments happen spontaneously in a live performance that could never be reproduced. Sure, they don't call them 'rock moments' but isn't that just a matter of semantics?

It just happens that most rock groups are closer to the size of a string quartet than the size of an orchestra. Just for a counter-example though, here's a very technical and precise piece of music being performed by a large rock ensemble led by Frank Zappa.

One of my favorite rock bands, Gentle Giant, falls under all four of your bullet points.

I'm sure almost every musician values self-expression, and can appreciate a spontaneous, irreproducible musical moment, but playing with a large group requires giving ground to other values, and one of those must be precision, if for no other reason than to avoid total chaos.

  • I had always assumed all musicians strive for precision and reproducibility. Crafting an individual voice, absolutely, but being able to reproduce it over and over. When I started reading of respected rock musicians valuing the “inspiration of the moment” on their recordings I was very surprised. Dream Theater, who are very skilled and competent, said they were set-up to record in the studio from the moment they started writing, and value having those early sounds. And I kept finding similar examples. I had small classical groups in mind too, great comment about group size! Apr 22, 2014 at 8:33

Perhaps it's about the difference between a recital and improvisation -

Classical musicians tend to have learnt to read music, and sight-read from that while playing.

Rock musicians tend to play from memory or by ear.

So I can see an argument that Classical is more about a recital, so fall into the description you give above, and some rock is more like improvisation (ish) so your description fits there too.

However consider a rock band playing covers as accurately as possible. I'd call that a recital,and even if they're playing from memory it's still about accuracy and repeatability.

Same setup (doens't matter what instruments they're playing really) but going for freeform jazz or a rock jam.. I think they're aiming at "being in the moment" rather than repeatabiity / accuracy.

Suppose the jam goes well and they want to reproduce it at later gigs, so they learn it from the recording.. same peiece of music but the intention is different - it becomes a recital.

Gotta love the potential for variation in approach :-)

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