I see that in modern pop songs usually we have a chord progression. But in classical it's not as repetitive. Like they don't just use the same 4 chords over and over.

For example:

This isn't just a progression it's more than that. Why is this so complex compared to what we have today? Did modern harmony just take the easy way out? Or does it go deeper than that.. Maybe it's easier for singers to just sing on a fairly basic progression as opposed to something that changes so melodically as classical music?

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    If you look at modern pop music, is it much more simplistic than classical. But if you look at modern classical...there are some compositions that are the equal of the "classics" in complexity. So I think your comparison choice is a self fulfilling one. – Doktor Mayhem May 31 '17 at 21:32
  • You think the harmonic progressions by "modern classical" composers like Philip Glass are more complex and less repetitive than a good pop song? Compare with youtube.com/watch?v=6Stu7h7Qup8 for example. Your Tchaikovsky example isn't a very good analysis IMO - whoever made it doesn't seem to understand the difference between harmony and counterpoint. – user19146 May 31 '17 at 22:13
  • Surely there are plenty of counterexamples. For example, compare any Beatles song to Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or Pachelbel's Canon in D. – 200_success May 31 '17 at 22:57
  • A(n overly) simplistic conception of Schenkerian analysis is that all music is just a prolongation of the tonic. :-P – Brian Tung May 31 '17 at 23:01
  • I believe that this is an apple-and-oranges comparison, between contemporary popular music and the art music of previous generations. – Dave Jacoby Nov 11 '20 at 1:24

I believe that there are two reasons: first, there was simply a different desired aesthetic at that time. Western music was delving further and further into harmony, but the introduction of rhythm as a central source of musical information came slowly in waves as globalism brought us into more and more contact with musics from other parts of the world.

Second, there was a different notion of where the primary semantic information should come from. The musical themes themselves and how they were manipulated and transformed was meant to impart virtually all of the semantic meaning behind the work. Opera and lieder and such existed, but even in these cases, the music was still considered to be at least coequal with the lyrics in terms of imparting meaning. And the huge amount of purely instrumental music simply could not have communicated what it needed to in such constrictive harmonic environments as we find in much popular music today.

I would not think of this as a loss, necessarily. We still have that older music, and we still make new, harmonically complex music. But we have an unimaginable number of sound sources and cultural sources to choose from, and we have opened up the semantic flood gates. The most important information can come from anywhere: the staging, the harmony, the lyrics, the dynamics, the electronic distortions...

Don't fool yourself into thinking that all of modern music is what you hear on the radio. Today, we create everything that we can imagine.


Today we have simple pop songs, but we also have the John Williams 'Star Wars' score and plenty of FAR more complex music than that as well!

Earlier generations had Beethoven symphonies, Bach fugues - but also plenty of simple folk songs and dance music.

There's always been music for the village square and music for the concert hall. "Kum ba yah" sung round the camp fire to a strummed guitar and a Bach (or Bernstein) Mass.

You have so much music yet to discover, @foreyez. I envy you!

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    Yep. It should perhaps also be pointed out that the simple folk songs of long ago, which were probably often comparable in harmonic simplicity to lots of modern pop, rarely survived, so we have an unbalanced view of what most people were listening to back then. – Scott Wallace Jun 1 '17 at 17:11

Partly a question of function - a lot of current pop music is about having a good old dance. Not a whimsical, lilting refined dance like this waltz - a good old sweaty, booty-shaking, proper dance. And proper dance music, from African tribal rhythms to Hurdy-gurdy grooves, to whatever's in the clubs now, usually has to be based around repetition to do its job - the repetition induces that trance like feel and state, and lets you know what's coming next (more of the same!) so you can dance to it.

There have been a lot of happenings over the last century, from crossovers of musical cultures to technological developments and commercial reasons, that have made this period of time an exciting a time to be exploring the art of the groove. And there are indeed refinements and developments that have occurred in this culture and in this period - but on balance it probably is fair to say that exploration of delicate harmonic possibilities has taken a back seat.


Some will say Tchaikovsky is not classical. So be careful what music you select for comparison. Some classical music (Haydn, Mozart, that time period) can be pretty simple harmonically. I think you want to consider the form of the music. A classical sonata or rondo will be relatively more sophisticated than other forms. Try looking at some of Mozart's sets of of minuets or German dances. You will see many are based on simple harmony of just a few fundamental chords!

To compare something more modern with a Tchaikovsky dance perhaps look at some jazz standards like Cherokee or maybe Cole Porter. I think the styles are not too far apart regarding harmonic sophistication. I'm thinking in terms of number of chords used and level of chromaticism.

Getting back to the original question, I think you will find classical music to be more complex than modern music only when you cherry pick the complex classical examples and compare then with simplistic modern styles. You could completely reverse things by comparing the Beatles Abbey Road with Mozart's variations on Twinkle, twinkle little star!


In western music, we still have harmonically complex modern music that is still being composed in genres like jazz and funk (see chick corea, jacob collier). However there is always the need for simpler music, that still can be enjoyed when one is not activally listening. This type of music is sadly consumable and will be forgotten leaving people of the 22nd century wondering why our music was more complex than theirs.


Tradition, fashion and curiosity can be seen as the Yin, Yang and Whatever of musical motivation, so it's not simply a matter of modern musicians 'taking the easy way out'. Economists talk of 'Boom and Bust' cycles, and in music we encounter times where tradition or fashion or curiosity will have its head in front. Bebop jazz became increasingly complicated but its popularity waned, not because musicians were taking the easy way out but because of fashion and a different direction in musical curiosity. Andrew Ford has some interesting things to say here: http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/165890826?q&versionId=180805259+201253018


OP, What you call modern harmony isn't the same what theorists call "modern harmony", which is harmony from aesthetic trends and styles of circa 1880 - 1930, and fairly complex to explain with roman numeral analysis. Just think in music by Mahler, R. Strauss, Debussy, early Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith, Milhaud, Honegger, Vaughan Williams, Villa Lobos et cetera.

After this distinction being made, let me call pop harmony instead.

Pop harmony is a very simplified reduction of late Romantic, golden age Hollywood, 80's rock, 70's dance music, 60's jazz and 50's country and blues harmonic practices and clichés (think of the lick or 4 chords songs archetypes). All of this mixed up and simplified to communicate the easier and faster way with listeners. Now, in 2020, it's even more simplified - as most pop singers cannot sing at all today without heavy use of autotune and other post-production tricks, so is very very common to hear songs with 3, 4 or 5 different chords while the main melody is just a rhythmic repetition of the supertonic from music's key scale most of the time, as supertonic tends to fit well in virtually every harmonic function. Kind of McMusic menu.

Classical styles, for other hand, are built on heavy usage of counterpoint (even in homophonic settings) and ingenious craft of form. Form, harmony, melody and cadences are closely tied together - sometimes it's so tied that one cannot separate these entities in analysis. So, every little detail is obsessively designed and crafted - and meaningful in context.

The main difference lies in there.

  • How exactly does autotune or post-production relate to the number of chords in a song or the notes in the melody? – Edward Nov 11 '20 at 1:18
  • Not at all, but it definitely will impact the organic perception of how a singer can tune in a chord or not (most ears, even untrained, will perceive heavy processing). Since pop's idea is communicate and simplicity, you can use the same archetypical progressions or late harmonic trend and compose the same autotuned supertonic melody rhythmically wordpainting lyrics to fit them, – Rodrigo B. Furman Nov 11 '20 at 1:24