Andrew Chester writes (emphasis mine):

Western classical music is the apodigm of the extensional form of musical construction. Theme and variations, counterpoint, tonality (as used in classical composition) are all devices that build diachronically and synchronically outwards from basic musical atoms. The complex is created by combination of the simple, which remains discrete and unchanged in the complex unity...If those critics who maintain the greater complexity of classical music specified that they had in mind this extensional development, they would be quite correct...Rock however follows, like many non-European musics, the path of intensional development. In this mode of construction, the basic musical units (played/sung notes) are not combined through space and time as simple elements into complex structures. The simple entity is that constituted by the parameters of melody, harmony, and beat, while the complex is built up by modulation of the basic notes, and by inflexion of the basic beat. All existing genres and sub-types of the Afro-American tradition show various forms of combined intensional and extensional development.

I'm not sure I understand this. Does he mean that classical music is constructed by adding together a variety of small building blocks, while rock, blues, etc are constructed by taking an existing song and changing its details?

How does this relate, then, to classical music forms such as the fugue, sonata, concerto, etc?

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    It appears that he's saying that classical music takes certain small building blocks and builds complex structures with them, whereas rock doesn't build anything with its small building blocks so much as just repeat those basic elements. Certainly not taking existing songs and altering them.
    – user28
    Dec 8, 2012 at 6:23
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    And the writer has obviously never listened to any prog. Dec 8, 2012 at 10:08
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    @MatthewRead said in one sentence what I think Andrew Chester tried to say in that long and confusing paragraph. Assuming that is roughly what Mr Chester is trying to say, I think he is wrong in that he is both over-simplifying "rock" (as per Joe's comment), and ignoring many simple classical works.
    – nnnnnn
    Jan 3, 2015 at 3:13
  • I opened this question. music.stackexchange.com/q/39351/15535
    – amalgamate
    Nov 12, 2015 at 21:16

3 Answers 3


The person you quote may very well be a skilled listener but I'm not sure whether he is a skilled explainer. The passage seems likely to confuse even the most adept reader and musician, so it's not surprising you are confused.

Hopefully some concrete examples immediately followed, if he is not to be accused of obfuscation. To illustrate the point he is making (though maybe not exactly answer a question about "construction in rock"), I offer a series of compare-and-contrast listening examples (which all too easily can become invidious comparisons).

"Hellhound On My Trail" and Bach's C Major Prelude from Book I both use an economy of notes and take up almost exactly two and a half minutes.

In the Bach example, a single, simple melodic idea (the arpeggio) is repeated with only the slightest variation at the end. But this one idea is sustained through other means of harmonic motion and changes of register and contour. This may be an example of a single expressive idea "extended" over time to make a unified whole. The dynamic level (i.e. volume) almost never changes, and indeed, the keyboards Bach was writing for made such changes almost impossible (however, a gifted musician like Gould brings a huge amount of expressivity to something without a single notated dynamic).

In the Robert Johnson example, there are relatively few notes used, and there is a good deal of repetition as well, but the thing that is always changing slightly is his inflection (American spelling) and phrasing. Each note he sings rises and falls ever so subtly in volume, range and intensity. This could be an example of the kind of "intensional" development is talking about (Robert Johnson was such a gifted musician, however, that we almost don't notice that there is much "extensionally" interesting about this as well).

"Theory of rock music" is a developing branch in academia, and certainly praiseworthy in its attempt to treat seriously something many people take very seriously. But the language in this passage seems aimed at a graduate level, already-in-the-know rock theory audience.


I just wrote a term paper on this issue. The passage is taken from the article "Second Thoughts on a Rock Aesthetic", published in the New Left Review, Vol. 62 (1970) and constitutes one of the first attempts to explain the way in which popular music achieves its effect (for example, "why does rock music "rock"?), thereby deeming this music "worthy" to analyse by musicologists in the first way, who are still only slowly coming to terms with the field, compared to, say, sociologists. Matthew and user3340 already summed it up quite well, although Chester does go on to explain it a little more in the article. He is actually applying semiotics to the interpretation of music and relabeling it extensional and intensional as two different ways in which music can be complex. Personally, I find this attempt very promising, although to this day it never got picked up in anything more than a side note.

Cheers, Mathias Albert


Who knows what he's saying. In my opinion, the harmony of rock is the same as the harmony of pre-late-1800s classical music. Both use tonality and both use the same progressions to move into and out of the tonic chords. From a harmony perspective, it's pretty much the same.

The late-1800s saw the arrival of a more complex theory of harmony and this became evident in the composers from that point forward.

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    Well, a lot of rock—particularly rock based in part on blues harmony—uses a fairly different grammar than pre-late-1800s classical music even though it often uses some of the same vocabulary. In particular, bVII as a dominant harmony and lots of V–IV movement would be highly unusual in common-practice music while being totally standard in a lot of rock genres. But I don't think that helps explain what the original author of the paragraph is trying to say... Nov 12, 2015 at 21:49

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