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Classical v. Popular Music

What is classical music? What is popular music? What were they used for?

Bring citations and examples here for consideration.--TerryH 07:53, 12 March 2007 (EDT)

The article seems to imply that "tame" music unlikely to cause riots is more moral than more raucous music. While it is obvious that music has a great deal of emotional content that affects one's moral behavior, I'm not sure if we want to implicitly support "tame" music over "wild music", so perhaps the last paragraph could be rephrased. ColemanFrancis 01:31, 27 March 2007 (EDT)

Hi, there. Good question, and I'll give you a straight answer, from one music lover to another.
We both agree that music has what each of us would call "emotional content." If you saw my footnotes, you'll see that I found one to substantiate my statement that music does more than reflect emotions; it induces them.
I also have heard story after story, taken from the police blotter and also making it to the front page, about rock-and-roll events that end badly. This is not necessarily true of every such event. But the last time we heard of a riot starting at a "classical" concert was the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Srping. I never heard, for example, of Eugene Ormandy or Leopold Stokowski starting any riots with any of their concerts.
So now we have to ask ourselves: How and why do certain genres of music cause riots? Do they truly cause the riots, or might they make the atmosphere conducive to riots? Or--is the "wild" music part of a subculture whose members characteristically abandon self-control on certain occasions--such as when they are "getting into" certain music that they know will drive them wild?
And ask yourself this while we're thinking of re-phrasing that paragraph you mentioned: why do the lives of so many of the performers and composers of such music often end badly? In fact, that seems to be a part of rock-and-roll that its artists and listeners brag about. I recall a motion picture that was all about a young rock-and-roll bandleader who drove his car off a bridge into a creek, while he was working on a rock-and-roll version of the Faust story. Maybe you remember the title: Eddie and the Cruisers.
Hm-m-m-m. Lots of Eddies out there, or so it seems to me. Think maybe their music has something to do with it? Not so much one exposure as a steady diet, day after day after day? Or as a doctor might say, not an acute effect but a chronic one?
Before this day is out, I'm going to take another look at that paragraph and think about a rewrite. But I'd like you to think about it, too, and to think about what I said above, in deciding how you would advise me.--TerryHTalk 10:50, 27 March 2007 (EDT)
Excellent points. It's fairly obvious that music can induce different emotional reactions. However, I will suggest that riots at classical concerts were far more commonplace in the past than they are today (any biography on Liszt or Paganini will describe the madhouse-like atmosphere at their concerts, where women would literally rush up to the stage and try to grab a lock of hair or some other memento from the performer). One could argue that this became less commonplace as classical music became more of a mark of "high culture" (there's a reason why people don't riot when "The Rite of Spring" is played nowadays). In addition, I would caution against the use of the word "sedate": the vast majority of pop music these days is pretty sedate, while most classical (assuming a decent performance) is not. Obviously there's a reason why classical concerts are much less likely to start riots, and I'm not trying to discount the role of music in influencing human behavior, but I think much of the different sets of behavior corresponding to different sets of music comes from cultural expectation of a particular genre, and general differences in musical taste, which should be accounted for in the article. I'm sure many of these rioters have more in common than what music they listen to. ColemanFrancis 17:22, 27 March 2007 (EDT)
Thanks for writing back. You can see how I have modified the last section--and in fact, I found a way to quote Mark Twain, by way of suggesting how he might have taken the music controversy. Not to say that he was right; only to suggest what sort of position he might have agreed with.
I'll be going out-of-Internet-reach this weekend. But if I might suggest, you made an interesting statement about Franz Liszt having to deal with "groupies" in his day--and I suspect that Mozart had the same problem. Maybe we ought to start with those two composers, or someone's going to ask for a citation.--TerryHTalk 18:06, 27 March 2007 (EDT)

This is far too European in view. It does not take account of music outside of European and Judeo-Christian societies, such as Chinese music, native meso, south and north American music, African music, etcetera. Please amend. I think you should also consider looking at the role of folk music in societies. It is not purely for personal enjoyment, but as a way of venting and expressing frustrations and grievances. Popular music is also a contributor to folk music, and takes much from folk music from around the world. Blues is southern black folk, and blues is the root of rock and most other modern musical genres. Classical music is also not the be all and end all in music, and it does not make you a more moral person if you listen to Mozart than if you listen to Alice Cooper. It just makes you more pretentious. In the past few centuries, music has seen a lot of change, and classical music was essentially the equivalent of popular music in its day.—The preceding unsigned comment was added by Blackjuice (talk)

To Blackjuice: Have you knowledge of other musical styles? I must tell you that I stand by the research I have done on the effects that certain types of music tend to have. But beyond that, if you have anything further to add, I'd like to see it--and I keep watch on this article. I don't know how much material you have, so perhaps you would consider writing multiple articles, each on a particular musical tradition or style, and including links in this article.--TerryHTalk 10:11, 24 April 2007 (EDT)

Improvements for featured article

This article is listed to be a featured article (as from 10th April if the order is not changed). It's quite good, but could do, I believe with some pictures of notes and other musical notation to illustrate the description in the Rhythm section, and perhaps even the addition of a Musical notation section. Philip J. Rayment 07:04, 25 March 2008 (EDT)


There are some weaknesses in this article, which I will attempt to improve. Statements to the effect that "music can be the most dangerous art form, when misused" are unverifiable and highly debatable. It comes across not unlike those old warnings that "negroid dance rhythms" would corrupt the nation's youth. Biblical references are fine, but in their own section and not the opening paragraph. I'll write more here when I'm done. Eoinc 11:03, 4 May 2008 (EDT)

You also said in your edit comment that you removed "unsourced" material, but the material you removed had a source (which you also removed)! I can sense a reversion coming. Philip J. Rayment 11:20, 4 May 2008 (EDT)
I've moved the Bible section because of poor positioning (see my edit comment), but what was wrong with it where it was? It was under history, and it was talking about the history, so it's original position seems to me to have been entirely appropriate. Philip J. Rayment 11:44, 4 May 2008 (EDT)

Not all of the material was unsourced. When I said that I removed "unsourced and debatable" material, I should have said "some unsourced, and some debatable" material. The part about "considered by many to be the highest of all the arts" was unsourced. It may well indeed be the case that some people think that, but it's like saying that "many people consider chess to be the highest board game" or "many people consider Denmark to be the best place to live". It's not useful information.

The debatable material had a source, that's true (although the source was "a private phone call with Terry H"), but the statement itself that music "can be the most dangerous of the arts, when misused" is terribly vague (what constitutes a "misuse" of art?) and very arguable: haven't people rioted over stage plays too? And there has been huge outcry over certain works in the field of visual arts which were considered offensive, or blasphemous. I don't know how one could quantify such things, so I can't see any reason to include the statement. Eoinc 12:09, 4 May 2008 (EDT)

Regarding the Bible / History section, I made two separate sections because Biblical statements about Lucifer being the first musician, or post-flood music dating from the time of Abraham are not verifiable by the methods of historians. Eoinc 12:11, 4 May 2008 (EDT)

Thanks for explaining that first bit in more detail. I'll leave it to TerryH to see how much he agrees, as he's the author of that section.
Regarding the biblical history part, this seems to be special pleading. The way that historians of ancient history "verify" things is mainly from ancient documents supplemented where possible by archaeological evidence (which is usually far less specific, except regarding location). So the Bible being a reliable ancient document, what's the problem?
Philip J. Rayment 20:03, 4 May 2008 (EDT)
Some of the Biblical statements in the article have been verified true (that the psalms were intended to be sung); some have not been verified but in principle could be (that King David had a 4,000 voice choir); and others cannot be confirmed (that music began in heaven and that Lucifer was the first musician). The first sort of statement should certainly belong in a history section; the second sort probably could; but the third sort definitely shouldn't. It was because of the third type of statement that I created a separate Bible section. Having done that, it then made more sense to me to have the other Biblical references there too.
How about a compromise, where the History section mentions the psalms and King David's choir, while the Bible section goes into greater detail on these, and also mentions those things which are not a matter of history (that the Bible mentions music more than any other art form is a fact, but is it a historical fact?), and those things which cannot be verified by the historical method? Eoinc 06:37, 5 May 2008 (EDT)
As far as the third paragraph is concerned, I agree that's not history. But as for the rest, you still seem to be making a flimsy distinction. You say that the claim that David had a 4,000 voice choir has "not been verified but in principle could be", but then make a distinction between that and the bit about music beginning in heaven and Lucifer being the first musician. What sort of "verification" would you want? Why are you prepared to take the Bible's word on the first but not the second? Now, having said that, it appears that TerryH has supplied the wrong reference, so I don't know how certain those two claims are, because the reference doesn't support them, but my argument assumes that there is a supportive reference that can be supplied. Philip J. Rayment 09:02, 5 May 2008 (EDT)
The difference lies in whether or not we could find independent supporting evidence for the propositions. I take the Bible's word (mostly) for it on King David's choir because musicians and choirs are staple parts of most royal courts, and one would particularly expect this to be the case with a figure such as David, given what else is written about him. I'm more skeptical of the 4,000 figure, but supporting evidence for it could be found in the form of third-party accounts, pictures or carvings of this enormous choir, that kind of thing.
In the case of Lucifer and music being created in heaven, there is no independent evidence that I know of which would support the claim. Indeed, how could there be? If Lucifer really was the first musician, in heaven, what evidence for it would we expect to find on earth? As such, accounts of this nature cannot be verified as any more or less true than a claim by any other religion of music's origins. If, say, Muslims believed that the archangel Gabriel was the first musician (and I have no idea if they do; I'm just using this hypothetically), we would have no independent basis to adjudicate between the two claims. These sorts of statements, in other words, cannot be verified by the historical method, whereas the other sorts of statements can. That's why I draw the distinction. Eoinc 07:05, 6 May 2008 (EDT)
Sorry, that doesn't cut it.
You don't know that you could find independent supporting evidence for David's choir either. You're simply taking the Bible's word for the claim, because it sounds reasonable. And I could theorise that it's possible to find independent supporting evidence for music starting in heaven (we've already found one bit of evidence, the Bible, so why not another?), and to me that claim sounds reasonable as well.
Comparing the Bible to sources from other religions reduces the Bible to a fallible book produced only by humans, and totally ignores that the Bible has been shown to be a reliable source.
It seems that you do not have a valid reason for the distinction.
Philip J. Rayment 08:56, 6 May 2008 (EDT)
Regarding supporting evidence:
A choir of that size would leave evidence behind, in the forms of contemporary accounts of their singing and so on. Whether or not any such evidence has survived is another matter, but in principle it could still be found.
Regarding Lucifer, an event in heaven would leave no direct evidence on earth. You say that you could theorise such evidence: could you please give me an example? We have the Biblical account, but we cannot use the existence of a claim as evidence in favour of itself.
I say that King David's choir (leaving aside questions of size) is a reasonable possibility, because members of royalty throughout history have often been patrons of music or owned private musical ensembles, and because David is said to have been a keen musician himself. On what basis can one judge the plausibility of Lucifer being the first musician? We are not privy to the normal course of events in heaven, and with what else could it be compared? Eoinc 10:13, 6 May 2008 (EDT)
Someone other than one of the biblical authors might also have recorded that music started in heaven, having learnt that from an angel, prophet, or etc. That would be an independent supportive evidence.
The very fact that we have the capability of singing would support the idea that music was "invented" in heaven, making the claim entirely plausible.
Philip J. Rayment 08:26, 7 May 2008 (EDT)

(undent) If another source was found which claimed, independently, that music started in heaven, it would not count as evidence in favour of the first claim. Consider a counter-example: if a man is accused of murder by another man, the police would start to investigate the claim by looking for evidence. If a second person came forward and also accused him of murder, it would not change anything: the police might have greater cause to take the claim seriously, but they would still need to find evidence before they could proceed any further. Even if ten or twenty or a hundred people unanimously accused the man of murder, his guilt could not be proven or disproven unless there was evidence which supported their accusations. Regarding our capability to sing, I do not follow your reasoning. The fact that humans can sing does not in itself suggest anything about music's origins. We can also run, hunt, build tools, swim, have sexual intercourse... Does it follow that, since humans can do these things, they too were started in heaven? Eoinc 13:20, 7 May 2008 (EDT)

If various people all accused a particular person of murder, then presumably they are not all just making it up, but at least some are witnesses to the murder, and witness testimony is evidence. In fact a large proportion of the evidence tendered at court cases is the testimony of witnesses. "Evidence" is not limited to physical artifacts, and in fact physical artifacts are in some ways inferior, as physical artifacts, despite the common saying, do not "speak for themselves", but have to be interpreted by someone. Witness testimony rarely has to be interpreted: it stands on its own. The Bible says that a matter should be decided on the testimony of two or more witnesses; it doesn't say anything about physical evidence. So another, independent, source, does constitute supporting evidence.
Regarding the capability of singing, the answer is "yes and no". "Yes", if by saying "started in heaven" we mean "thought of, invented, or created in heaven". "No", if by saying "started in heaven" we mean that it was actually being done in heaven. We can only run because we were designed (i.e. by God in heaven) to run. It's likely true that we can only swim because we were designed to be able to swim. We can only have sexual intercourse because we were designed with the equipment for this. We can only sing because we were designed with this capability. That can't be said of everything. Some things, like hunting, would be a case of using abilities that were designed for other purposes. But in each of the things I just mentioned, I believe that it would be the case that we were designed with those capabilities.
Whether that constitutes "began in heaven" depends on the meaning of that term. I didn't write it, so I'm not sure exactly what it means.
Philip J. Rayment 08:03, 8 May 2008 (EDT)


TerryH, I added the uncited template onto two sections of this page that contained numerous claims of fact and assertions and lacked a single source for those assertions. That would seem to be the express purpose of the template and its ideal use. You removed it without a word to me or even an edit summary. Would you care to explain?--Tom Moorefiat justitia ruat coelum 20:56, 9 June 2008 (EDT)

I made a judgment that the sections in question were stating elementary facts on the order of the sum of two plus two. Now if you have an alternative definition, present one. Better yet, if you think any particular section of any article could stand some more citations, you would better serve yourself and this project by finding those citations on your own.--TerryHTalk 21:55, 9 June 2008 (EDT)
If they are elementary facts on that order, why did AliceBG just correct one of them? You appear to have been mistaken.
I added the template rather than looking for citations because I know relatively little about music, so I wouldn't have the first clue of how to look for sources or interpret them well. I am, however, capable of seeing when there are assertions without any sources. If people aren't allowed to use that template, why do we have it?--Tom Moorefiat justitia ruat coelum 22:07, 9 June 2008 (EDT)

Classical vs. Popular (redux)

TerryH, there's a lot of valuable insight on this page, but one anachronism in the "history" section weakens the article.

While the "popular vs. classic" dichotomy is real today, it's a stretch to say that it holds true for any time period before 1850 -- there's a very good reason for this date, which I'll get to in a moment. It is especially not accurately applied to the Renaissance or the Baroque.

The first difficulty with this model is that the designation 'popular music' can mean so many things. In today's sense, it seems to imply both the audience (almost anybody, with no musical education necessary to appreciate it) and the performer (invariably a 'star' who has a formidable presence in the culture). It also sometimes carries the implication of dancing. In the first sense, popular music exists, and presumably has existed, in all cultures at all times; but to say that the duality between high and low culture has always come with this is problematic. In the second sense, the problems multiply when talking about music from the Renaissance to the Classic, because if there were superstars, they were the 'classical' composer-peformers such as Mozart and Liszt. To talk about dance music also carries a related difficulty, as all historical indications we know of show its presence in a wide variety of world cultures; but in the Western classical tradition, dance music as it has come down to us is that rarified form such as in Couperin or Bach, which was debatably never danced to. They certainly sprang from an older tradition of dance-music, but we simply don't know enough about this improvisation-based tradition to make meaningful judgments that we can relate to today's experience.

A more useful distinction which definitely existed from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and beyond is "sacred vs. secular." The Baroque terms "sonata da camera" and "sonata da chiesa" illustrate this dichotomy well (see discussion in chamber music). Bach's cantatas are divided between sacred and secular as well. And as other editors have challenged before, no one considered a concert to be a serious affair until the canonization process took hold after 1850. Beethoven related gleefully in a letter after the performance of the 9th symphony that the Viennese audience burst into spontaneous applause after the surprise entrance of the timpani in the second movement, implying that it was nothing unusual for the Viennese public. Your mention of the performances in salons is one piece of evidence that, like today, much of the music was intended for elite audiences, but this was also a venue where highbrow dance-music was played. I'd counter that the Italian opera tradition, which was never an elitist affair: Google the term "cognoscenti" to get an idea of what I mean.

A third stream which fits somewhere outside of this duality of sacred vs. secular is the music intended for home or pedagogical use, of which Bach's entire keyboard output is a typical example.

The reason I use the cutoff date of 1850 is because the revolutions of 1848 and 1849, while failures, had the effect of freeing up public expression. A colleague of mine did research into Viennese newspapers, and discovered that in the week after the revolution, there was literally a tenfold increase in the number of public concerts. Populist-oriented "revolution" music was part of that explosion, and included elements that set the stage for a real popular music tradition in Germany and Austria. The other thing that happened in the decade after the revolution was the establishment of a Germanic musical canon. In the decade of the 1850's many of the great orchestras and conservatories were founded in Europe, and their repertoire/curriculum started to resemble the classical canon we have today.

It is possible that some of the seeds for popular music were sown earlier, but with the political repressions in the early half of the 19th-century, there were severe restrictions on public gatherings, which included concerts. Thus, a complete picture is hard to come by.

That being said, there were always of course "songs," like the "Twinkle, Twinkle" example you used. Of course they've always influenced composers, but it's a bit odd to call them "popular music" as such. Did they feed into the eventual pop music genre? Certainly, but it's not the most reliable historical model for talking about earlier music. JDWpianist 19:18, 7 April 2009 (EDT) [edited 8 April for clarity and more detail]

To JDWpianist:

You obviously are far more familiar with the history of music than I am. I had begun to believe that a certain amount of "popular" or "low-brow" music had always been made. But this was not necessarily intended for any concert stage. The kind of "low-brow" music I speak of was performed or sung in taverns, in the farmer's fields, or on shipboard ("sea chanteys"). The content of the lyrics of these songs, especially the last, probably does not bear too detailed a description on a family-friendly site, if you catch my drift.

Ironically, Francis Scott Key's stirring poem The Star-Spangled Banner was ultimately set to the tune of a drinking song. (This probably explains the tremendous pitch range. It is one of the most difficult pieces for any soloist to perform well, because half the time it takes the singer past the treble or bass of his/her range.)

Your defense of 1850 as a date that saw the first performance of "popular music" on the concert stage looks sound. I gather you have references to support your historical analysis. It does make a great deal of sense, especially that it would be connected with the Revolution of 1848 and the ascension of Napoleon III.

I'll definitely accept your division of music into sacred and secular. Actually, my impression was that Bach considered all his music sacred. I recall—though I cannot find the reference—that Bach once said that one should never put hand to keyboard if one was not prepared to create something beautiful and glorifying to God. (I also recall the story behind his Tocatta in D Minor: that a local priest invited him to test the new church organ, or to give the organ a workout to blow the dust from all its pipes, and Bach composed this piece to satisfy the utilitarian requirement without sounding utilitarian in the least.)

Then again, Bach never wrote anything that he wouldn't be ashamed to hear performed on the concert stage. You mentioned his piano compositions; I gather you mean chiefly his Inventionen and Sinfonien. And I can confirm that those were primers to teach his small children to play. Modern primers are wooden and mechanical; Bach's two- and three-part inventions, by contrast, are as elegant as finely machined Swiss watches.

Back to the history section: I haven't looked at it in awhile, and possibly much of what you attribute to me represents the contributions of others who have come after me. You seem to have a sound analysis. Go ahead, though I would emphasize that 1850 was the first year in which "popular music" was performed in concert. Music is music, and any song is music. (My choir director once asked scathingly whether I considered myself a musician or a singer, by way of inducing me to co-ordinate my voice properly with other voices.) The difference is that what I call "popular music" made it onto the concert stage in or near the year that you named, and before had been sung only in strictly informal settings.--TerryHTalk 12:47, 8 April 2009 (EDT)

Reply to TerryH:

Thanks for the thoughtful reply, and for taking my comments in the vein in which they were intended. You bring up interesting points about the "low-brow" always being present. What makes it all difficult to draw together is that what we now call "classics" were by no means high-brow affairs when they were current; I suppose the same way that early performances of Shakespeare had plenty of low-brow elements. It seems that to keep the popular/classical duality intact throughout music history, one would have to speak purely about the social functions and how they evolved, rather than attempting to trace a musical progression. In other words, the sea chantys likely influenced composers just as much as classical music influenced popular music, so drawing a straight line between the two traditions seems fraught with peril.

It seems interesting that popular music as we know it today appeared a relatively short while after the sacred vs. secular distinction had lost its meaning. Although there were concert requiems by Romantic composers (Brahms and Verdi spring to mind), I would hesitate to call them "sacred" in the same line as liturgical music had been. I have read Germanic authors (I think it was Dahlhaus or Adorno) who write that the musical canon in a sense replaced sacred music's previous function, with the musicians as the priests and the composer as gods. The Musikverein concert hall here in Vienna (built in the 1860's, I believe) definitely supports that, with its golden nymphs lining the walls in the same ceremonious pose. Given the state of Germanic philosophy at that time, this would seem reasonable.

You're right about Bach, signing each volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier with "Soli Deo Gloria." (By the way, if you have time you can take a look at a page AlanE and I just collaborated on about the St. Matthew Passion.) When I talked about home and pedagogical use, I was actually referring not just to the Inventions and Sinfonias, but also both books of the WTC, the French and English Suites, and the Partitas. He specified a general teaching order for the aforementioned works -- I find that a through study of the Inventions still works wonders with my young students! Bach also published in four volumes under the modest title "Klavierübung" (Keyboard Practice) the Partitas, the Italian Concerto and French Overture, the other Suites, and then the Goldberg Variations, each with title pages that proclaimed their suitability for teachers or amateurs/dilletantes who wish to hone their musical skills. For Bach, the two uses seemed to go hand-in-hand.

At any rate, I'll consolidate my sources before making any significant changes to the page. In the case of the revolution, this will be a trick, as what I've learned was mostly from a symposium I attended last fall, but I suppose I can quote the lectures if the articles haven't been published yet. Unfortunately for the majority of the readers here, the sources I know are all in German, since the 1848-1849 revolutions are primarily a central-European interest.

Thanks again for your thoughts, and I'll let you know when there's something new on the page. All the best! JDWpianist 15:48, 8 April 2009 (EDT)

Music censorship

In ancient Greece, Plato mentioned music in the context of restricting or censoring it.

I heard that the Nazis banned the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, because dit-dit-dit-dah is Morse Code for "V" (meaning victory), and the resistance was using this motif to rally the citizenry.

Christians and Conservatives tried to get certain rap music banned, such as those with cop-killer or women-hating lyrics. (You know, bees and hoes.) --Ed Poor Talk 11:14, 14 October 2009 (EDT)

The literal first-person in bands

My last edit reminded me of this. It's extremely rare, but sometimes band music is sung in the literal first-person; i.e. the only person it applies to is the actual lead singer of the band. The only instances I know of are 10,000 Days by Tool and Troublemaker by Weezer. I don't think two instances justify an article section alone about them, so if any others come to mind, I'd like commentary on it before editing the actual page. --Pious (talk) 03:01, 21 August 2016 (EDT)

I am trying to understand your edit. Especially the the only person it applies to is the actual lead singer of the band. Why does it have to be the lead singer of a "band"?
AlanE (talk) 01:31, 22 August 2016 (EDT)
Excellent point- I realize that a great deal of hymns literally apply to the people singing them, which I should've said the first time 'round. My intent was to point out the rarity of literal first-person in modern bands that aren't strictly Christian, and inquire as to if there were any others. I edited the title of this talk bit accordingly.--Pious (talk) 02:06, 23 August 2016 (EDT)