Pop music.  Classical music.  What’s the Difference?

Quite a lot, actually!  Conventional wisdom tells us:

– One is about high culture, the other about mass appeal.
– One values staying true to the composer’s very specific wishes, while the other expects and invites alternative treatments of the material.
– One is steeped in long-held traditions of performance protocol and stage etiquette.
The other is unbuttoned and often intimate with its audience.
– Both are showcased in recordings, but while the one is straightforward in engineering and production, seeking the most representative reading of what the composer has already carefully written down, the other is all about fancy engineering and editing, turning a basic tune and its basic chords into an epic and complex soundscape, something that is typically created on the fly. 

Serious Considerations.  Then there’s the degree of artistic substance and weight that we associate with each.  While I’m not nearly as willing as some are to blur the boundaries between them, there is some gray area here.

We often think of classical music as more serious, more monumental than pop, and this is largely the case.  But as any fan of the likes of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon is aware, many such epochal moments exist on the other side as well.  The blazing final chord by the strings at the end of Simon & Garfunkel’s magnificent “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is, for me, like a clarion call signalling a new social age.

Gut Feelings.  I have a similarly visceral reaction to many passages in West Side Story (the great Broadway musical that defies easy categorization here), such as the screaming trumpets and horns in the final chord of the film’s overture.  And a finely crafted pop song like the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” with its cold, hacking string accompaniment conveying its poignant portraits of existential isolation in the modern age, can very nearly attain the level of high art.

Embracing Our Differences.  That said, there are certain valid generalizations one can make about the differences that have existed between popular music and classical music.  It’s not just about the mood, style and artistic weight of the music, but about the attitude and approach toward the integrity of the work, and toward how it’s presented to, and received by, its audience.

So with all that in mind, here is my humble guide for the perplexed, listing some characteristics of these two different approaches to this wonderful spiritual miracle we call music.

A Matter of Endurance.  But let’s bear in mind that maybe the biggest lesson about the TRUE meaning of the word “Classical” is that, at the end of the day, it’s the enduring quality of the best works in any genre (whether or not they enjoy mass appeal), and how loudly, honestly and perpetually they resound through the corridors of cultural history, that secures them a place in the “Classical” category.

And equally important, let’s embrace the notion that there is room enough for both the Popular and the Classical sensibilities, each in its most appropriate time and place, and with the occasional mingle.


Classical:  Rooted in European church and court music tradition.  Royal and aristocratic patronage was common through the 18th century – thus the culture of formality and protocol.  Vienna, Paris, and much of Italy were at various times the epicenters of classical music and opera.  Later on, Russian, Bohemian and Spanish nationalism, along with Oriental exoticism, added to the mix.
Popular:  American, and African-American folk traditions, along with classical elements, informed emerging popular, blues, jazz and rock genres.  Early on, the Broadway stage was a key incubator of popular song.  Jewish songwriters and composers played a prominent role.  Modern pop music around the world has been largely informed by America.


Classical:  Preeminence of the composer, who composes and arranges every aspect of the music, notating the definitive version specifically and exactingly in the printed score.  Sometimes the composer acts as adaptor of traditional folk tunes, the treatment laid out in similar detailed fashion as above.  In both cases, melodic material tends to be closely integrated with its treatment.
Popular:  Songs often co-written (e.g., music & lyrics) as a tune with basic chords on lead sheet, typically to be arranged by someone else.  A clear delineation often tends to exist between the song and the arrangement.


Classical:  Greater complexity of music due to the integrated treatment of basic material.  This includes harmonic parts and counterpoint, instrumentation, specific dynamics and tempo markings.  Form and effect are carefully thought out by the composer.  Such works are intended for listening by a narrower audience, rather than communal participation or mass consumption.
Popular:  Simple, straightforward tunes with immediate appeal to connect with a mass audience, though niche styles and genres for more specialized audiences have sometimes existed.  Songs are often designed for communal singing or dancing.  Complexity occurs in arrangements and engineering of recordings.


Classical:  Serious, monumental, substantive, aiming beyond entertainment, maintaining decorum.  Even lighter works are more complex than most pop fare.
Popular:  Light entertainment, generally not exceeding a certain degree of seriousness.   Notable exceptions (see introduction).  Less concern with decorum.


CLASSICAL:  Preeminence of the works, and of the composer (for newly-commissioned works).  In some instances, the artists are of sufficient acclaim that they attain greater focus.
Instruments:  Classical acoustic instruments (strings, brass, woodwinds, etc.), as specified by the composer.
Voice:  Classically trained, mostly unmannered voice production, especially in choral singing.
Direction:  Larger groups may perform under a conductor.
Sound Production:   Acoustic performance – no miking.
Stage Manner:  Formal stage decorum and protocol.  Little or no “image” conveyance by the performer(s) as the music is the focus.
POPULAR:  Preeminence of the performing or recording artist (who is often the song writer) as purveyor of songs.
Instruments:  Amplified acoustic and electronic instruments (e.g., guitar).
Voice:  Vocals consciously mannered – “scooping” and extreme liberties in expression, tempo and other elements are common.
Direction:  Performance group is typically self-conducted, with perhaps some minimal cueing by lead performer.
Sound Production:  Concert performances done with heavy, often sophisticated engineering and miking.
Stage Manner:   Casual, informal, often interactive stage demeanor.  Conveyance of “image.”


Classical:  Performed or recorded in a manner true to composer’s intentions, with no further “arrangement” or permutation.  Some margin for interpretation.
Popular:  Songs often designed for, and subject to versions, arrangements,  treatments and permutations.


Classical:   Definitive version(s) notated in detailed score and published for independent performance.  Recorded as unadulterated performance “reading,” with minimal engineering. Recordings may published/sold as audio and/or video. 
Popular:  Engineered recording conveys the artist’s interpretation of the music.  This may be considered the “arrangement” – the recording artist’s definitive version intended for entertainment listening and/or dancing, rather than for independent performance by other artists (who may, however, produce their own “cover” treatments).  Typically released only as a sound recording and/or music video, not as fully-detailed sheet music, though simplified sheet music editions are common.


Classical:  Historical works that have withstood the test of time, or new works that are designed with a regard to posterity, although not all are equally successful.
Popular:  Songs designed and intended for immediate and passing interest, although many do endure and become “classics” however unintentionally.


Well-known Classical Works:
– Handel: Messiah
– Beethoven: Fifth Symphony
– J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concertos
– Brahms: Academic Festival Overture
– Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik
– Bizet: Carmen
– Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker
– Bernstein: West Side Story
– Aaron Copland’s arrangements of “Simple Gifts”, “At the River” and other folk tunes.
Popular Song Recordings that have become “classics”:
– Benny Goodman: “Sing Sing Sing” (written by Louis Prima)
– Frank Sinatra: “It Was a Very Good Year” (written by Ervin Drake)
– Bob Dylan: “Blowin’ in the Wind”
– Beatles: “Eleanor Rigby”

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