Privileging classical music

[This post started its life as a comment on an answer to a question on Quora. Here’s the original answer, but those of you who are not Quora users may have no joy. So here is some context:

The original question: Why is it more difficult to memorize or sing a classical piece than a pop song? 

Excerpts from the answer: “1) Classical music is much more musically complex. [..] Pop music, because it has to be catchy (and, let’s face it, is composed and performed by people who largely are minimally trained as musicians), is extremely simple musically by comparison. [..] 3) Classical music (opera as well as instrumental) requires a much higher level of musical competency than pop music. Any tone deaf joker can sing “Single Ladies” by Beyonce with miserable technique and sound reasonable at the local karaoke bar. [..] There is no faking it if you are a classical musician. You have to know what you are doing. Classical music truly separates the men from the boys.”]

My comment: Wow, I really dislike this style of bare assertion-of-privilege of classical music over other forms.

For one thing, as with many defenses of “high-church” art against popular art, it starts off with willingness to compare the best of classical music against the cherry-picked worst (or at best the average) of pop music. This is a rigged game. Do not compare Bach to Beyoncé – compare him to the most artful, obsessed, and talented popular musicians of the last century. I won’t say exactly who should represent the pop world here, since it depends very much on your own taste in subgenres – but it could be Fats Waller, Gershwin, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, the Beatles, Lou Reed, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainwright, just to take some examples that resonate with me. (Your examples may differ.)

Secondly, let’s deconstruct this: “Classical music is much more musically complex”. Well, actually classical music is, unsurprisingly, complex in the dimensions that are valued in classical music, and mind-numbingly simple in the dimensions that are not valued in classical music. If you are oriented towards classical music, of course, then you pay attention to the dimensions that you have been schooled to value, and so it straightforwardly seems to be more complex.

Classical music is more complex than competing forms in at least two ways: long-term harmonic structure, and medium-term melodic structure. Yes, the melodies in classical music can be complex, with long phrases.

Now let’s talk about the ways in which classical music is simple (and by “classical music” I mean what most people mean: the “common practice period” of works composed in Europe between 1600 and 1900):

  • Harmony. (dissonance vs. consonance): Classical music is, to most modern ears, mind-numbingly consonant. Almost everything is written in either the minor or major mode; most of the intervals are thirds or fourths or fifths. Every so often you might get a seventh chord (lawdy). If you are used to more complex, dissonant and risky harmonies (say, from jazz or rock traditions) or more diverse tones, tunings, and modes (say, from non-Western musics), then the harmonic vocabulary of the common-practice period feels complex like tapioca pudding is complex.
  • Rhythm. Most classical music maintains the same time signature throughout the entire piece, and that signature is one of: 4/4, 3/4, or something you get by dividing or multiplying numerator or denominator by 2. (Can we all take a moment to yawn?) There is almost no polyrhythmic action (of multiple signatures played against each other), and no groove aesthetic. Anyone who has had much exposure to either African music or its descendant genres in the West can’t help but experience classical rhythms as earnest and plodding.
  • Timbre. This is the one really unfair shot that I am going to give out to classical music, because they were doing the best they could with the technology of the time. Orchestral music of the common practice period is an explosion of timbres, with their horns, reeds, strings, percussion and keyboard instruments. But they lacked four things that we are all used to today in pop music: 1) electric instruments and amplification (including the rich sonic possibilities offered by feedback), 2) electronic synthesis, 3) the techniques of the studio (multi-tracking, overdubbing, close miking of the human voice) and 4) sampling. The result is that we can now do almost anything we can imagine in the timbral domain, and most likely we are still in the early days of exploration.

The above is a sketch of how classical music appears to ears that have been trained in other traditions: it seems complicated in a couple of dimensions, and very boring in the rest. To classically-trained ears, pop music sounds boring in some dimensions (particularly melody and long-term harmonic structure), and “noisy” or “chaotic” in the others – those being the dimensions in which pop music is too complex for the classically-trained ear to pick up on.

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