Why can’t we be friends? Thoughts on the battle between classical music and pop

Yet another derogatory meme is going round the internet comparing pop and classical music.

6ng9tly529h41

What’s wrong with this? Let me count the ways but in essence mainly two things:

  1. It’s reductive of pop music and shows an immense ignorance of an amazing, rich, varied and deep art form.
  2. It’s exalting classical music as superior and the pinnacle of artistic achievement when it’s not.

This isn’t the first meme comparing pop and classical in a similar fashion that’s done the social media rounds. The below meme spread like wildfire in September last year.

69864166_650731152098075_3772893839119876096_n

This is basically saying pop is all showy and superficial whilst classical music is nothing but depth.

Classical music groups on Facebook are full of people agreeing with these memes and I nearly got into an argument on Twitter with someone who said pop music is vacuous and stupid. 

These memes are exactly the kind of thing that make people think classical music is posh, snobby and way too far up its own ass. Way to prove them right.

Before I go further let me say that I produce a classical music radio show. I spent hours every week listening to classical music and researching female composers, I adore classical music. I also listen to tons of pop music, jazz, Chinese electro, bossa nova, Afrobeat and basically every type of music created all across the world. 

Just because music is only based around 3 chords doesn’t mean it’s inferior.

Pop music may be based mostly around comparatively few chords but surely it’s about what is done to those 3 chords?  And the astonishing variety of music created around said 3 chords? 

The I, V, vi, IV chord progression is very common and used in thousands of popular songs including Africa by Toto, The Rock Show by Blink 182, No-One by Alicia Keys, Apologize by One Republic, I Try by Macy Gray, Give Me Everything – Pitbull, Dragonstea Din Tei by O-Zone, With Or Without You by U2, No Scrubs by TLC. just to name a few.

These songs alone have a huge variety between them. The very fact that a 3 chord progression leads to this much variety of music shows how effective something apparently simple can be.

Complexity and depth seems to get confused a lot. Classical music may be more technically complex but that’s not the same thing as deep.  Actual emotional depth cannot be achieved by technical complexity alone.

One of my favourite film lines ever is from 2007 romantic comedy Music and Lyrics. Hugh Grant’s ageing pop star character says:

“You can take all the novels in the world and not one of them will make you feel as good as fast as “I got sunshine, on a cloudy day, when it’s cold outside I got the month of May” That is real poetry, those are real poets – Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, The Beatles”

Pop music is accompanied by the most extraordinary words, words that excite, words that hurt, words that inspire, words that seduce.

Pop music deals with everything about the human experience from being in love (Your Song by Elton John) breakups (Without You – Harry Nilsson) empowerment (Good As Hell – Lizzo), sexism (U.N.I.T.Y – Queen Latifah), protesting war (99 Red Balloons – Nena), illness (Unwell – Matchbox Twenty), death (How To Save A Life – The Fray), substance addiction (The A-Team – Ed Sheeran), and of course, thousands of songs about sex. But hey, even those cover an infinite variety from the sweet to the perverse. 

These songs and many thousands more have deep meanings and possess immense emotional resonance. Just take the chorus of The Show Must Go On by Queen.

“The show must go on, inside my heart is breaking, my makeup may be flaking but my smile, still, stays on” 

I mean come on, that’s just exquisite poetry. The Show Must Go On was written about Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury and his struggle with AIDS. A beautiful song with great depth.

Then there’s all this so-called manufactured pop, pop acts created by music managers like Simon Cowell to make them lots of money. Sure they exist as a money-spinning machine but they wouldn’t exist if the music didn’t have some sort of draw. Take this line from S Club 7’s song Bring It All Back from 1999.

“Don’t stop, never give up, hold your head high and reach the top, let the world see what you have got, bring it all back to you” 

Don’t tell me that isn’t inspiring, don’t tell me words like that, words that make people feel good about themselves, even if only for the 3 minute duration of a song, is vacuous and stupid.

Writing music for money was something those precious classical gods Haydn and Bach did a lot. Haydn worked as court composer for Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy for years and Haydn’s job was to write music that Nikolaus liked to hear. The prince liked symphonies so Haydn just churned them out for him, The 104 symphonies he wrote may resonate now for audiences which is great, it may be beautiful music but the original motivation was purely financial, it was his job to write them.

Bach spent much of his life being employed by either the church or German royalty, many of his compositions were just written for his various employers. Bach is basically worshipped as a god now in classical music and his music provides great joy for many people.

Now think about songwriters such as Diane Warren or Max Martin, who’ve written hundreds of hit songs apiece for other people to bring to life. Their ultimate motivations may be purely financial but it doesn’t mean the music that they create is soulless, repetitive junk.

Music of any genre can have nothing less than a potent effect. I cannot listen to Father and Son by Cat Stevens or The Voice Within by Christina Aguilera without breaking down into tears. The same applies to the 2nd movement of Florence Price Symphony in E Minor, I’m sobbing within 2 minutes every time I hear that. Likewise I can’t listen to more than 5 seconds of Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham or Shut Up and Dance by Walk The Moon without starting to dance.

Now you may want to sit down for this next sentence. Complex does not mean better. 

I’m going to repeat that: COMPLEX DOES NOT MEAN BETTER!

Classical music is not better than pop music, it’s different.

Music that took a long time to write may not be better, it may not even be good. It just means longer, complex and time consuming. That’s it. Some complex music is very good but lots of classical music is not actually that good. Much of the literature markets classical music as the greatest music ever written, as if it’s some blanket standard and all classical music played in concerts is of similar value. It’s not. Even the classical music billed as such isn’t all that fantastic some of the time. All genres have bad music and good music. And all of it is subjective, it just comes down to taste. 

Half the classical music fans reading this will burn me at the stake for this next sentence. I don’t like Mozart, he just does absolutely nothing for me. I find his music dull, repetitive and boring. Maybe some of that is because I wasn’t thrilled with him to begin with and it’s been shoved so far down my throat for 3 decades as being the best music ever.  I’m ever more convinced it’s not, especially after spending 2 years researching and listening to hundreds of female composers.

See? Subjective. 

In 2012 I worked as a music sales assistant at HMV. One interesting fact I noticed was so many hundreds of people say they don’t like classical music and yet they buy film soundtracks, particularly Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, in droves.

The music of Star Wars is remarkably ‘complex’, much of the score is written for 100 strong symphony orchestra and choir. Fanboys can trash Phantom Menace if they want but the score is extraordinary. Duel of the Fates is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written (in my opinion) and as for the evaded cadences going into the End Titles? Sends shivers down my spine every time, as do the cadences going into the end titles of every Star Wars film. Work of complete genius.

And the soundtrack to Star Wars: A Phantom Menace only sold a million copies or so, reaching No 3 in the Billboard Album Charts, No 8 in the UK Album charts. Now that is ‘complex’ music that people are lining up to hear. 

People say classical music ticket sales are dwindling but more people than ever are buying movie soundtracks. In addition the movie screenings accompanied by live orchestras are very popular. 

In conclusion, please continue to listen to whatever music you like, please continue to enjoy whatever music brings meaning to you. You don’t have to like pop music or musicals or jazz or classical music but no need to look down on those who do. The world is a scary enough place as it is, governments tearing us apart left and right, people divided on every major issue, Brexit. Do we really need to create more discord amongst ourselves over which awesome art form is better? Especially when all music education and arts funding is being cut across the board.

Why not start celebrating our similarities instead of fighting over differences?

Like “chills down your spine at a song’s blasting finale, or …the hair rise on the back of your neck at a rug-pulling key change.” Benjamin Carlson, The Atlantic, 2010.

These reactions are so universal no matter what type of music it is. Whether that’s the 1st four notes of Tchaikovsky’s 1st piano concerto, the breathtaking bass riff from Supermassive Black Hole by Muse or “how strange the change from major to minor” when Ella sings Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.

Music ultimately is written to bring joy. Bringing joy to the people who listen to it and the musicians who play it, it’s written to bring people together.

Let’s spread the joy.

Elizabeth de Brito

Producer and founder of The Daffodil Perspective

1st ever gender balanced classical music radio show.