I am stealing this title from an article I read a while back and have long since lost. In the article, the author insisted that there are clear differences between “rock” music — by which he meant nearly all popular music — and “classical” music. The article aroused considerable interest and even passion as people jumped at the opportunity to defend their own taste in music and pillory the intellectual snob who wrote the article, knocking popular music, the music they love. That’s two things we are very good at these days, not listening and shooting the messenger. It’s precisely because we don’t listen very well that popular music is popular, while shooting the messenger is just something we like to do — and it’s easier than responding to what he happens to say. I will return to the issue of our unwillingness (inability?) to listen in a moment. In the meantime, what about the claim that there are important differences between popular music and classical music? I would contend that the claim is well founded.
Popular music, on the whole, is popular for the very same reasons that movies and TV sit-coms are popular: it requires no effort whatever on the spectator’s part. You just sit there and watch or listen. In the case of popular music, it isn’t even necessary to listen. It is often the case that popular music is turned up (loud) and ignored — except by annoyed neighbors or, in the case of cars passing by with the radio on and the windows wide open, people on the street. But popular music is “easy listening,” and depends on fairly simple melodies, repetition and pleasant harmonies attended by pulsating rhythms, usually in the base. Those are the sounds that go right through your head as the car passes on the street with its windows open!
Classical music, on the other hand, has more for the mind to get ahold of. It requires a good ear, memory, and careful listening. That is, it requires an effort — just like fine painting or sculpture. We must meet it half way, at least. As a rule, classical music does not rely on repetition. If there is repetition, it is employed for the sake of developing a musical theme. Classical music can be programmatic, or it can be “pure.” Programmatic music is the sort of music you hear and see pictured in Disney’s Fantasia, or “Pictures at an Exhibition,” by Mussorgsky. Many aestheticians insist that pure, non-programmatic music is the highest expression of art that is possible: it does not refer beyond itself or conjure up images as programmatic music does, or indeed many other art forms do. It demands undivided attention to itself and holds the attention of the spectator by virtue of the qualities the composer has put into it. And hearing all that is going on takes great concentration and an ability to connect themes.
We could say, then, that popular music appeals to the gut, whereas classical music appeals to the head, though that’s a tad simplistic. Some classical music is positively gut-wrenching, while some popular music can be quite sophisticated. We are dealing in generalities here, and I will stuck by my general rule.
To attempt a parallel, let’s consider Norman Rockwell’s paintings. Rockwell referred to himself as an “illustrator,” not an artist. And he was right. His paintings were extremely well crafted, but they rely on common, home-spun themes that are downright sentimental: families gathered around the table for a Thanksgiving meal, kids fishing, or old men curled up on a sofa — always with a dog nearby. They were designed to provoke fond memories, not evoke aesthetic responses. They do not reward repeated viewings, and do not require the effort that all real art demands. They are well crafted and Rockwell certainly knew what he was doing — even if he usually worked from photographs (a tip-off). They lack the spontaneity and creativity that a fine painting by Vermeer or Rembrandt does, for example, which seeks to transcend the ordinary. That’s precisely why Rockwell is popular while Vermeer is not. Real art takes a lot of work to be enjoyed fully, and we seem disinclined to make that effort. Accordingly, popular music “sells” while classical music is rapidly passing out of fashion. If you are able to find classical music on iTunes, for example, you usually find it in the form of movements from concertos or symphonies. Rarely do you find the complete works; it’s just too much to ask of busy people. M.P.R. has also taken to playing segments of classical works. And classical CDs are no longer made in this country as they simply don’t sell.
To see the differences between popular and classical music (or art) you need only reflect on what the word “popular” means and ask yourself why something is popular. It is so precisely because it is readily accessible to a great many people who are usually busy doing something else. Popular music — especially country/western music which appeals to pure, unadulterated sentimentality (like Rockwell’s paintings) — is part of the “dumbing down” of America I wrote about in a previous blog. It is a product of the entertainment industry, and is not to be considered art in the true sense of that word.
Is “rock” then “ruck”? It is for those who prefer classical music to popular music, though I know many who like both, for different reasons. One really doesn’t have to choose sides on this issue. It is possible to enjoy popular music of all types, while also wanting to listen to classical music when the mood strikes and the person is willing to make the effort it requires to enjoy it fully.