Pop Music versus Classical Music

Growing up in the 1960s I was programmed to love rock music by AM radios.  I never developed an ear for classical music.  Last night, three lady friends and I, attended the opening performance for this season of the Memphis Repertory Orchestra.  I tried hard to get into the music.  It’s not that I hated what I heard, it was  enjoyable, even fascinating, but I didn’t get the emotional response from that music that I do from pop music.  I’m trying to figure out why.

I thought the performances last night were very good, and plan to attend again.  I’m intrigued once again with classical music.


The last performance, “Les Preludes” by Franz Liszt, was my favorite of the evening.  I got into it. I could close my eyes and forget my body, and let my mind flow with the music, and it was fairly exciting, going through a range of sounds that often evoked comparisons to real world sounds, like sheets of rain, or movie soundtrack imagery, like a city coming alive in the morning.  But even though the music was pleasant and thought provoking, it didn’t push any of my emotional buttons like I’m used with rock music.  Why?

I’m not blaming classical music here, I’m blaming me.  After reading The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks, I’m all too well aware of my perceptual limitations.  This is a brain issue.  I know other people find this kind of music deeply moving and emotional.  Somehow my upbringing has made me colorblind to classical music.

Pop songs are short, usually have a strong backbeat that you can dance to, and they have a hook, a catchy phrase or melody that’s repeated.  The emotional mood of a pop song is usually singular, although there’s a few famous examples, like “Hey, Jude,” “A Day in the Life” and “Stairway to Heaven” that change moods in mid-song.  Pieces performed last night constantly shifted gears, and only rarely, did a short sequence push one of my buttons.  The second soprano, at one point sang a snippet of verses, that I wished someone would make into a whole pop song.

I would guess that fans of classic music must find pop hits musically terse and boring, if not monomelodic.  Symphony music is obviously polymelodic.

Classical music is like a long speech and sometimes I’m moved by a few catchy phrases here and there, but for the most part I’m indifferent to most of what’s being said.  It’s like listening to a foreign language speaker and occasionally hearing a word I know.

Classical music pieces are like novels with many scenes and pop songs are like short poems that hit you hard with one epiphany.

I would say a symphonic composition is like listening to an entire album of songs that must be perceived as a wholeness.  Parts of a classical composition that thrills me often lasts for just a few bars, sometimes only one, and never the 3 minutes common to a pop song.

Obviously, to appreciate classical music requires a different mindset.  I assume I am just too poorly educated to appreciate classical music, both in its technical nature, and in the training of my ear for listening enjoyment.  I also assume if I worked at it, I could learn to love classical music.  I should be embarrassed to admit this, but even pop fluff like Katy Perry or Ke$ha are thousands of times more exciting to me than any classical piece I’ve ever heard, and Bob Dylan is so far beyond them, that I’m in a different world.

My musical upbringing made me primarily attuned to the sound of the guitar, bass, and drums, and secondarily to organ and piano.  Later on I picked up a feel for the saxophone, mandolin, banjo, steel guitar, fiddle, trumpet and other instruments as folk, country and jazz influenced rock.  Eventually I worked backward in time through jazz and big band eras and acquired a taste for their sounds.  I have always liked symphonic music when it was played as movie soundtracks, but I’ve never been able to feel for music written before the 1920s.

To be completely honest, I’ve never learned to love jazz and big band like I do rock and pop, but I have learned to crave their sounds, to hunger for the feelings their tunes pull out of me.  Maybe one day I’ll be able to say I’m in the mood for a classical piece.

When I say feel for music, I mean, it makes me high.  It stimulates my emotions.  I crave it like a drug.  So far, classical music doesn’t get me high.

Classical music was a lot more popular in its day, but I’m not sure if it the common folk often hummed its tunes.  Few people got to hear Mozart’s compositions in his day, unless it was in church.  Folk music was probably more popular, or music from taverns and dances.

I’m mostly a self-educated person, even though I have a college degree.  I’ve read books about other places and times where the main characters were cultured, very well educated and spoke beautifully of the emotional depth of classical music pieces they loved.  That has often inspired me to buy classical music, but it just never worked.  I never felt what the characters described.  I’ve bought two separate recordings of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, decades apart, because of the powerful written descriptions I’ve read about his performances.  Each time I was painfully disappointed.  I could sense their intellectual achievement but they were cold and passionless to me.  Simone Dinnerstein warmed up the Goldberg Variations quite a bit, but not enough to make them hit songs with me.  Maybe Roy Bittan should give them a go.

I know classical music offers greatness, I just can’t perceive it.  Over the decades I keep trying.  I’ve bought a couple dozen classical CD sets over the years trying to perceptually break on through to the other side.  Haven’t made it yet.  Last night performance encourages me to keep trying.

I went with three women to the performance last night, Ann and Anne, and Robyn, a woman who teaches and performs classical music.  I grilled her for information, and I asked her about her tastes in pop music.  I got the feeling she doesn’t share my passion for rock and pop that I do.  Were we each conditioned to like only what we grew up listening to?  Is it genetic?  I wished I could have telepathically tuned into the heads of my three companions to see how they each perceived the performances.  Just how different are our inner worlds?  Are classical and pop music such distant lands that they are each alien landscapes to the other?  Are classical music lovers mentally different from me?

Of course, we all have our own unique collection of passions.  I am never moved to yell or high-five a friend over a football play on television.  I absolute love Breaking Bad, a television show my wife feels only psychopaths could embrace.  My friend Peggy thinks about dancing the bop or shag all the time, but I’m never moved to get up and boogie.  My wife and her family are mesmerized by golf games on TV, while I sit around wonder where’s the Kool-Aid I should have drank to feel such happiness.

Maybe I’ll never love classical music, but I’ll keep trying. 

I do worry that learning to love classical might change the way I love rock.  Does it work that way?

JWH – 9/2/12

10 thoughts on “Pop Music versus Classical Music”

  1. No James it does not work that way.

    While I admit that my heart belongs mostly to electronica of all varieties, two of my absolute favorite pieces of music are Beethoven’s Fur Elise and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Dorian). Now, music doesn’t get me high (still need drugs for that), it does move me which is why I so love the classical pieces I mention here. And so does some serious head bobbing techno. It’s a personal taste.

    So don’t worry you can love your rock and pop as well as classical (pre-1920s) music, they aren’t mutually exclusive. Most importantly, if it bores you, don’t listen to it. It’s not like it makes you a lesser person, just a person who is not all that thrilled with classical music. Big deal. No shame in that game, bro.

    So, keep on rocking and be happy with your tastes.

    1. Craig, since I don’t use drugs anymore, music is about the best high I have left. I keep pushing myself to try new music hoping to find new highs.

      By the way, do you listen to electronica versions of Bach and Beethoven, or regular symphony versions? Remember Switched On Bach? Sometimes I think I’d like classical composers if they added electric guitars to symphonies.

  2. I was in a similar state of mind last December and downloaded Beethoven symphonies and a few sonatas, just because I had never paid much attention to classical music, and I had a long flight to Hawaii.
    I am at a loss for words to describe what it did for me. And I mean, seriously, this is not the prevue of words. Uncharacteristically, I decided to not learn about the music. In my soul, I know that any word based analysis of Beethoven would be a poor substitute for understanding. It’s a Heisenberg thing.
    I don’t listen to much else anymore. I have a 50 year collection of pop, rock and blues that no longer interests me. And that’s not to mention some very fine stereo equipment I’ve ignored in favor of good FLAC downloads and decent ($25) ear-buds that needed breaking in with a few hours of pink noise.
    It’s staggering that I reached this age (same as yours) and had only heard Beethoven in bits and pieces. I recently heard someone say, “I don’t listen to Beethoven now… It makes me shake”.
    Well, I accidentally listened to “Storm and Fury” at sunset … at Mount Haleakala. Shake? I truly thought there must have been a grenade go off.
    So don’t give up yet. Try it as a solitary experience. Something meditative where you shut off the internal voice and just listen to genius struggling for perfection, a man so very, very blue. It’s an evolutionary force.

  3. I go through the exact same thing of trying to learn to appreciate classical music. I’ve given up on trying to like it the way I like Rock music. Like you said Rock got into us when we were young and nothing else will ever be able to dwell in that place.

    But I would like to be able to identify composers even if I haven’t heard the song I want to be able to understand and know what I’m listening to in a way that is above a casual listener.

    But it does always end up feeling like I’m just forcing myself to take the medicine so my explorations of classical music never last long.

    If you’ve never heard it I do recommend Holst’s “the Planets” “classical” music from the 20th century.

  4. Jim, I got interested in classical music in college (a friend was a fan). I’m not musically-inclined, and I discovered that I had to listen to a piece of music several times before I really started liking it. (To a lesser extent, that might be the case with most music, for me.)

    But I picked up a little book in a used bookstore – “How to Build a Record Library” by Howard Taubman, which was obsolete even when I found it – and I bought a few records: Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Beethoven’s Third and Sixth, Sibelius, Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, etc.

    The thing is, I didn’t like any of them very much until I listened to them four or five times. It was really kind of funny. But I really got to love them after that.

    I, too, had trouble with their lack of a beat, at first. After all, I was used to rock music. But I discovered that they did have, as you put it, “a hook, a catchy phrase or melody that’s repeated.” I just didn’t pick up on that before I’d listened to them repeatedly. Well, as I say, I’m not very musical.

    I’m still this way. I’m bored by classical music the first time I hear it. It just takes me awhile to ‘get it.’ But you might be different. Certainly, you listen to a lot more music than I do! And taste in music varies. (I get really bored with jazz, but I have friends who love it.) There’s nothing wrong with different tastes.

  5. I feel similarly. I grew up with ‘classical music as background’ – my dad used to have it on and you weren’t allowed to talk or make a noise,but I didn’t listen to it other than to the ‘romantics’ (Tchaikovksy mainly). Pop songs give you words to attach meaning to, classical music is on a different level. You sort of have to acclimatise yourself to it.

  6. Starting with FRANZ LISZT is like starting with Barry Manilow. The Goldberg Variations are kickin, but you can’t expect to grasp the whole thing with one hearing. Put it in the player, hit repeat and let it go all day, three days, a week, a month, a year… Baroque music is a good place to start most of the movements in multi-movement works are much shorter than the Classical stuff Try Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Try chamber music: small bands. Try Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet. Try
    Brahms’ g-minor Piano Quartet. Try Beethoven’s String Qgainuartet #7. Attend a live stringquartet concert. Find a classical
    music radio station a leave it on all the time…You don’t get Dostoyevsky or Proust or Faulkner just by looking at the dust jacket. Experiment, dig, hit repeat play, again and again and again.
    My favorite band besides the Beatles and the Stones were the Dead. But pop lyrics sound sort of silly these days, well except love songs…
    An old rocker turned stringquartet nut.

    1. I keep trying to get into The Goldberg Variations. I hope they will grow on me. I’ve been going to classical performances at my local university music department. I’m not giving up. I’m slowly adding classical pieces and opera to my main Spotify playlist.

  7. Dear James,

    I have perused this post entitled “Pop Music versus Classical Music” and can appreciate your sustained attempt at understanding and making sense of classical music. Since I have composed a lot of music and some of which are fusions of Pop Music and Classical Music, I wonder whether they might be of some help and interest to you. In any case, I admire your persistence and self-appraisal in the world of music listening and appreciation.

    Yours sincerely,

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