Preface 1: I do not have any formal training in music, or music history. I am a piano hobbyist, interested in classical pieces.

Preface 2: I believe this post is better divided into separate questions, but I'll let the mods decide.

Whenever I think about the history of western music, I begin somewhere around Baroque era with Bach, Handel and etc., and then move onto Classical era with Mozart, and then Romantic era, with Beethoven to Chopin and then so on. So this spans about a few hundred years of music. Although each era/composer is largely different from one another, to the layperson they are normally grouped up as "classical" music, and frequently associated with seriousness: the big orchestras and operas, long and difficult sonatas for instruments that aren't really too familiar to us maybe except for piano.

But in that picture (which may be a gross misconception that is unique to me), I don't see any band, or small group of people that play music that was influential at that time. I also don't see the instruments that are so ubiquitous in today's bands: notably vocals, guitars, drums. And if I think about the music today, the picture suddenly changes very drastically from serious orchestral works to popular rock songs.

So why did the serious "classical" music back then NOT utilize the set of vocals, guitars and drums? Why/when did this particular set become so popular?

  • 1
    This question is too broad as it is. You should definitely divide it up into at least three questions. The first question is trivially answered: Guitars and drum kits did not exist for most of the "classical" periods. Point 2 isn't even a question. Point 3 can't be answered, except by speculation, which isn't normally what Stack Exchange is about. So you edit this question down to be just, "Why were modern instruments not used in the 1600s - 1800s?" but of course the answer is they didn't exist. Jun 26 '18 at 19:40
  • @Ahh I meant predecessors of guitars and drums, because I'm sure there were those instruments like lutes.
    – VladeKR
    Jun 26 '18 at 19:42
  • 2
    " I also don't see the instruments that are so ubiquitous in today's bands: notably vocals, guitars, drums" Vocals are actually very prevalent in classical music. Operas and smaller scale works. IMSLP has ~43,000 works that have vocals. imslp.org/wiki/Category:Scores_featuring_the_voice Jun 26 '18 at 20:04
  • 2
    Also, the way music is written and how it was performed are often very different. Even today if you buy a music book for popular music, you're likely to get either piano and vocals only or guitar and vocals only. The drums and bass and everything else are assumed to be added to taste. Same with the lute scores. Hand drums were likely used in many performances. The more this question is refined, the less I understand it. Jun 26 '18 at 20:07
  • 5
    The question assumes that classical music was never "popular". Back in the day it was hip and cool. Another question might be how did popular music evolve over the centuries and what was left behind in its wake.
    – user50691
    Jun 26 '18 at 20:44

I think you're confusing "influential at the time" (quoted from your question) with well-known today. Popular music, meaning music that is played and heard in homes and taverns and pubs and bars, enjoyed by the majority of people, affordable and accessible, and usually featuring vocals and topical lyrics, was very influential, at least as far back as the 1700s.

This site lists a fairly large number of 18th century songs and it's only American songs: http://www.americanrevolution.org/songs.php

This article talks about the influence of popular music in 18th century Britain: https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2014/apr/04/when-uk-pop-was-born-the-18th-century

Some quotes:

...pubs and taverns tapped into the mania for music, devoting upstairs salons to public performance.


there was still music to be had on every street in Britain. The milkmaid, lavender-seller and the knife-grinder heralded their arrival with a well-known tune; local waits, or pipers, played for every christening, festival and funeral in town. The streets of Covent Garden in London teemed with ballad-sellers and dingy print shops, producing thousands of new songsheets every day. The sellers, mostly impoverished women, would cry out their wares in song, and everyone from a lord to a country lass knew the tunes by heart. Freshly minted lyrics would tell the latest news of royal affairs, domestic scandals, ships lost at sea. A song cost a penny and once the words were out of date, you could use the rough sheets as draught excluders or toilet roll.

Popular songs from the 18th century and earlier that can still be heard today include:

  • "Yankee Doodle"
  • "Greensleeves" (first published no later than 1585!)
  • "Ring Around the Rosie" is thought to be from 1790
  • "Danny Boy" is sung to a tune that seems to have first been published in 1792 as "Londonderry Air"

Popular music was very important throughout the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods, and there are two reasons I can think of why it is not necessarily studied or heard more often today:

  1. It just didn't survive. The music that we study today was the music of the rich, the church, and of royalty. It was expensive, it was written on the finest manuscript paper or parchment, it was published extensively, and performed in the most lavish places for the richest and most powerful people. Or it was liturgical. Either way, its preservation was desired by those who had the power and money to preserve it. Popular music was more often of the moment, and when a particular tune became old and no longer exciting or relevant, it was no longer published and those who had purchased it did not go to great lengths to preserve their copies.
  2. It wasn't necessarily as musically complex. By the time you get to the Baroque period, the music composed by the great composers was complex enough that today we could study merely Bach's fugues for years and still uncover interesting aspects of them. A lot of popular music of the time recycled the same simple melodies. Since there were no recordings made, if you wanted to hear a song, you either had to pay someone to play it or play it yourself. That meant that the popular music was normally much more straightforward and simple. In music theory classes, there's just not as much to teach about such music.

We can't really say what the future will hold, because prior to 20th century recording technology, it was much harder to preserve popular music, and it was more difficult for a popular music writer to become fabulously wealthy by selling music to common people (as opposed to the rich and powerful). The music of The Beatles (for just one example) will almost certainly be much more available for study and enjoyment in 2163 than the popular music of 1818 is today.


One practical reason, when all music was acoustic and played live, was simply balance.

A guitar (or lute, or other similar instruments) is fine as a solo instrument or for accompanying a single voice. When "classical" music began to be written for larger ensembles, and performed in larger spaces, an (unamplified) acoustic guitar would be more or less inaudible.

For drums, the opposite applied: drums have always been used in dance music (from times well before the Baroque era) but the typical "dance band" of that period contained loud wind and brass instruments which could compete with them. Many of those early wind instruments had become obsolete by the Baroque era, or had mutated into more "refined" and quieter versions. Compare this 14th-century shawm with its successor, the modern oboe.


Vocals have always been part of music. Bach wrote numerous chorales, Mozart several operas, etc. So I'm not sure what you mean by that.

The guitar was not considered a significant instrument until fairly recently. But until the 20th century guitars were strung with catgut, so they were not loud at all. In fact, while it was a popular instrument among the poor, the guitar did not truly come into its own until amplifiers were introduced in blues and jazz settings. Another factor to consider is how precisely older music was composed. Beethoven wasn't cranking out "Play Piano in a Flash" books for the masses, after all. But strumming chords and improvised riffs are 99% of what gets played on a guitar these days. That simply didn't happen back then among the people educated enough to write down their music.

As for drums, that depends on what drums you are referring to. You seem to be implying a modern drum set, but keep in mind that the snare drum is a relatively recent creation, and it was originally restricted to the battlefield. Older music occasionally employed the use of orchestral bass drums and tympani, but nothing resembling a kit. Also, remember that until the advent of ragtime music, syncopation was used sparingly, and syncopation is where modern drum techniques thrive. (It's no wonder that jazz really ushered in the modern drumming era.) The concept of rhythm was far more strict, and generally less forceful than today's music. There's no way the upper class would have found it acceptable. Nor would composers have been keen on a drummer getting it into his head to improvise.

All that is to say, our modern popular concept of making music bears little resemblance to the days of yore. And our instrumentation has changed to reflect that.

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