Brock Willard managing editor
Popular music and classical music are often seen as being vastly different. One is usually considered “highbrow” and the other, “lowbrow” (I’m purposefully not delineating which is which). They have different approaches to pedagogy, history, performance, as well as many other things. However, I believe this massive dichotomy is misguided. Popular music is just as important as classical music, and vice versa. They both deserve to be appreciated and celebrated in their own rights.
Firstly, popular music has a unique ability to connect with people on an emotional level. This is not to say that classical music, only that it is different. Popular music often deals with simple harmonic information, making lyrics and narrative information extremely clear. This is why popular songs have such an effect, especially in love songs, protest anthems, and heart-wrenching ballads. Classical music can do these things too, of course.
In addition to its emotional popular music also reflects the shape and culture of the time period it is written in, just as classical music does. Art in every form does this, from paintings to sculpture to movies to television and so on. From the blues of the 20th century to the hip hop pioneered in the 90s, popular music acts as a mirror that shows us what artists value as important. Classical music does the exact same thing. The two are not so different. A rather cogent example is the exorbitant number of protest songs that came out of the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and the Vietnam War era of the 70s. These songs were integral parts of the fight for equality and gave people a sense of hope in a bleak world. Punk was a reaction to the disillusionment and rebellion of the 70s, and these threads can still be felt today.
Additionally, popular music is a diverse body of repertoire just as classical music is. Within “popular music,” there is a multitude of different genres that we are probably all familiar with. Some of these genre labels include pop, rock, disco, jazz, punk, electronica, house, and so on. Classical music has genres too, although it is not used in exactly the same manner as in popular music. In classical music, genres usually delineate the kind of ensemble that typically performs the music, such as opera, string quartet, art song, etc. Each of these approaches to the word genre are valid and encompass the full breadth of what music is.
Lastly, the idea that classical music is superior to its popular cousin is just simply incorrect. Both groupings of music have their own merits and hang-ups, and it is unfair to compare them in such a binary way. Classical music may be more complex and technically challenging to create, but that does not make it better. Popular music is generally more accessible and immediate but again, this has nothing to say on its moral standing. Both forms can enrich our lives in wonderful ways and it is important as consumers of music to celebrate a healthy diet of both styles.