Is there an essential difference between classical and popular music? Is it just that classical music is more complicated?

Classical music, be-bop jazz, cool jazz and progressive rock are all complicated types of music. However, there are important differences between other forms of music and classical music.

When it comes to performance, jazz, rock and blues players will talk about feel, but no one discusses how to develop it. Players develop it intuitively. Some musicians go as far as to say you have to be born with it.

Classical performance is all about interpretation. Interpretation is like feel on steroids. A huge part of a conservatory education for performance majors is learning how to interpret a piece of music.

Another area of difference is in musical form. Rock is usually in the song structure of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Be-bop and cool jazz usually start with a head, then each instrument has a solo and then returns to the head. Progressive rock usually doesn’t adhere to a strict form. It is closer to what in classical music is called a fantasia.

In classical music, there are several dozen forms. The most sophisticated forms are the fugue and the sonata form. It is these forms that show off what the composer can do.

For example, in the development section of sonata form, the composer takes material from the theme (pieces of the melody) and plays musical gymnastics with it. She or he will stretch it, compress it, flip it upside-down, flip it backward, ornament it, shift it to many different keys both major and minor, etc. A good composer is able to do this and have it sound natural.

Interpretation and form are arguably the two largest distinctions between classical music and popular music forms. They present a pretty wide gulf. This is probably why so few musicians and composers successfully crossover.

©2016 Stephen L. Martin

Painting: Allegorical Figure of Music by Laurent de La Hyre

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