I was listening to a lecture by John Hodges, where he says that the standard movement of classical music is: Home->Away->Home in a New Way (a new way that resolves all the tension in the Away portion). This seems very artistic and beautiful to me.

However, does popular music lack this kind of potential for artistry? I am a beginner learner of guitar, and while I love the sound of it, I really like the artistry of classical music. Is the choice between artistry and popularity a binary, mutually exlcusive one? Is it possible to incorporate that kind of complexity in popular, single instrument playing?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Todd Wilcox, Richard, Shevliaskovic, Dom Oct 17 '17 at 12:10

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    Are you assuming classical music isn't popular? What about symphonic movie soundtracks like Star Wars? What about progressive bands like Yes and Tool - their music can get very complex. I can't think of any evidence for a link between complexity and popularity, one way or the other. – Todd Wilcox Oct 16 '17 at 2:59
  • @ToddWilcox "Popular" as in "not Classical" – MattPutnam Oct 16 '17 at 3:22
  • Reminds me of this rant I found from Musescore's "Rebecca Y" this year: "So I've already posted this in several discussions now. Pop songs are generally getting worse. Melodic ranges are narrowing down, and the lyrics are often about inappropriate things. What I really hate is that now, many pop artists are using three note melodies (literally, they just use scale degrees 1, 2, and 3). I tried writing one myself, and the whole melody took under five minutes to compose." – Dekkadeci Oct 16 '17 at 10:11
  • @MattPutnam I thought that might be the intended connotation until the use of the word "popularity", which I've never before seen used to mean "not having classicalinity". – Todd Wilcox Oct 16 '17 at 11:25
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    @Dekkadeci Rebecca's right about the current trend in vocal melodies. Something that seems missing from her rant and from this question is the possibility that simplicity can coexist with high quality. Just because music is complex in no way means it's better, and vice versa. The amount of time spent creating a work of art says nothing about the quality of that work. And there is minimalism in classical/art music as well. Gyorgi Ligetti wrote some very compelling minimalist piano music. One of my favorites of his consists of only three different notes (in several octaves). – Todd Wilcox Oct 16 '17 at 11:30

Before recording became widespread, the primary way in which Popular music spread was by being passed along by amateur musicians. It was necessarily simpler, using shorter phrases, repetitive forms (verse/chorus), and less complex theory, and written for instruments (piano, guitar) that are relatively easy to play and polyphonic enough to cover the whole tune (so you don't need to organize an ensemble).

Recording technology has mostly removed these barriers, so some Popular music has grown in complexity. There's still a great value in simple "catchiness", so Popular music still tends towards simpler ideas, but I think there are lots of examples of (relatively) recent Popular music that's just as complex as the average Classical piece. An hour-long concept album can be comparable to a symphony.

As far as artistic value--now you're venturing into dangerous opinion territory.


In some ways "popular" music is less complex than "classical" and in some ways more complex. Of course, making such a division isn't all that easy but generalizations are fun. A more accurate inquiry may be into the difference in composing an interesting piece about 3 minutes long vs one about 15-20 minutes long. One Argentine Tango composer (I don't remember when) claimed that it's tough to write a tango because there's only 3 minutes to tell a story whereas in a symphony one may have 30 minutes or more. (And one person I know mentioned that "Tangos are classical music one can dance to.")

The interest in music is to a great extent determined by the contrast between parts of the piece. Taking a simple 32 bar AABA song form (tango, foxtrot, rock, country, classical, rumba, etc.) for example, both the A and B parts generally have 2 motifs each (motif is essentially the academic name for a riff in classical music). This means that 4 different ideas are necessary. The A parts (which may change in each appearance AA'BA" for example) must contrast with the B parts and both the A and B sub-parts must have some contrast within the larger 8 measure part. There's lots of skill necessary to put these together coherently. (One can use more irregular structures but the short time allowed for the piece imposes some constraints.)

A classical symphony often is in "sonata form" (a very general description which covers hundreds of minor variants) with generally two (maybe one to four or more) basic ideas. (Haydn liked to use a single idea presented differently.) Because of the time involved, a composer often will use a single theme (perhaps 2 or 4 measures long) and present that theme in various guises (different harmony, rhythm, key, instrumentation, texture, etc.) over time. There is enough time to show off the theme many times with changes. (A popular piece doesn't generally have the time to do this.) This also takes a lot of skill to produce a piece that sounds good. The skill is of the same nature as that in composition of popular music, but the material used can be different.

Both classical and popular music are complex but not necessary in the same way. The big thing most classical has going for it is the time. A symphony or sonata isn't (in general) a stringing together of a bunch of songs. The symphony is more unified which actually implies using less basic material.

  • What I was taught in music theory classes--and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonata_form supports me on this--is that sonata form involves a "first subject group" and a "second subject group". Both often involve two or more "basic ideas" per group. – Dekkadeci Oct 16 '17 at 10:17

I think that you are making some assumptions here.

Pieces of "popular music" are, in general, much shorter than pieces of classical music so there is less time to use structures and complexities etc. Not that it can't be done its just going to be trickier.

Also Classical music is written, normally, in an exact way; the composer is vey precise about what happens when and how he (or she) wants it to sound. Popular music often leaves much more up to the performer, especially in jazz where there is sometimes not much more than an outline to work from.

So, in a way, its not a fair comparison. In my view there is great artistry in Bach, Mozart and Beethoven; there is also great artistry in the Beatles, Dire Straits, Wynton Marsalis and the film scores of Hans Zimmer and John Williams.

There is always bad stuff - have you heard any of the compositions of Ebenezer Prout? - and there always will be; but there is always good stuff as well. It will be different for each genre but, in my view anyway, quality will always show.

Be your own judge. I'm sure that you can find what you are looking for in any genre.


Let's not beat around the bush. Yes, using the broad, generally-accepted definitions of 'classical' and 'pop', classical is more complex than pop. You could almost use this as an alternative definition of the two genres. Pop is about instant gratification in a 3-minute song form. The prime characteristic of a successful pop song is often said to be the 'hook', a brief, catchy element. Classical is - well - more complex.

We can have great fun picking out examples of simplistic 'classical' and complex 'pop' now!

I'm much more inclined to consider 'craftmanship' than 'artistry'. All music can be well-crafted for its purpose.

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