The Pop-Classical Spectrum

The Pop-Classical Spectrum

It seems like the buzz in the comments from my article last week about The Road Not Taken derives from a misunderstanding of my definitions of “popular” music (the art of songwriting) vs. “classical” music. For reasons of both personal development and professional clarification, I’ve attempted a more in-depth explanation.

Composing is writing conscious of notation. Music that is self-aware. For example, if I’m writing a song, and the first thing I write is a really catchy chorus, what am I going to do with that chorus? Repeat it about five times throughout the entirety of the song. If I’m a composer and I write a really catchy tune, if I ever repeat it in the course of my piece it probably won’t be more than three times and each time I’m going to think carefully about building the piece and stretching my material to work up to that repetition, and most likely I will change something about that tune once I finally repeat it. Even if I’m a minimalist composer, at least I’m intentionally repeating my tune for affective purposes. Either way, it’s self-aware. I have a reason for doing what I’m doing. If I’m songwriting, then I do not. The pop world I’m talking about includes, well, pop, most modern R&B, hip hop, folk, country, indie, rock. It’s also called “commercial” music. Anything where the method of notation is sound—recorded audio—rather than paper (I recognize this definition gets tricky when you talk about contemporary electronic music, but let’s let that slide for now).

To prove my point I have embarked on what one might easily classify as The Single Most Ambitious Graphic Design Mission of My Young Adult Life: I’ve created a flow chart. Hold your applause, really, it’s just a draft. I’m so proud of this graphic that I might just name my first child after it. Without further ado, I present to you The Pop-Classical Spectrum.


Now there are lots of other music spectrums we could be discussing. We could talk about jazz, which is a world in and of itself, and its relation to pop music on the Jazz-Pop spectrum, or its relation to classical (notated) music on the jazz-classical spectrum. We could talk about the influence of world music on pop on the world-pop spectrum. Other “music worlds” include metal, noise, and electronica, because they involve a totally different aesthetic criteria and skill set. Same with film scores and musicals, because they serve a certain theatrical purpose and so have their own worlds as well. I’m not talking about jazz or world music or film scores or musicals. In terms of action, I’m talking about today’s world, contemporary music being created right now by people under the age of 50, but to help clarify my point about the spectrum I included a few oldies on the chart.

As I’ve already explained, pop music is less self-aware, whereas classical is more self-aware. There is a spectrum of things in between. Prog-rock, because it is technically challenging and conscious of structure and form, is more self-aware. Avant-garde pop/rock/indie is experimental in intent. Chamber/Baroque pop is conscious of instrumentation/arrangement. The order I’ve placed prog-rock/avant-garde/chamber pop in on this spectrum is slightly arbitrary—it’s debatable which is more and which is less self-aware. And don’t anybody dare mention Joni Mitchell again. No matter what she did later on in life, it was facilitated by her rise to stardom as a pure songwriter, and if anything she falls in the category of avant-garde rock/pop/indie, with her greatest achievement in Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter being world music crossover.

That’s why (for those who didn’t get the really obvious metaphor about The Road Not Taken), I’m looking for a third professional path: one that accommodates the midbrow composer. I’m looking for a business model (publishers and a record labels) as well as a model for education (conservatories that are rigorously classical but are open to accepting students with potential for originality as opposed to simply credentials) that accommodates someone who writes intuitive songs but notates their music and is conscious of form being engendered by the material, motivic development, counterpoint (both in vocal harmonies and instrumental arrangements), instrumentation, and direction. Someone whose music would thrive best in the type of crowd that appreciates a standing-room venue, but is written for classical performers (as opposed to being written by a band) who don’t, generally, tour. Perhaps for a Pierrot ensemble or a string quartet. Music that would be worthy of an article in Spin magazine, a blog on Pitchfork, and a performance at Carnegie Hall.

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31 thoughts on “The Pop-Classical Spectrum

  1. philmusic

    is conscious of form being engendered by the material, motivic development, counterpoint…

    There are many difference’s between the approach of being a composer and a songwriter or even an arranger some pretty technical (forms, the use of transitions etc.).

    This much is true; that in popular music and jazz counterpoint is mostly heterophonic based (weaves around the harmony) but in classical music strict species counterpoint the harmony is the result of the counterpoint. Does that mean that strict counterpoint is incompatible with popular music? I was in such a band “Jordan Kaplan”.

    I suppose you Joelle know that Stockhausen was on the cover of Rolling Stone.

    Phil’s transitional page

  2. JNarum

    It Ain’t Necessarily So
    Joelle, I’m glad you’re wrestling with these issues, but I have to respectfully say that I completely disagree with your spectrum. While it may be possible to chart music-makers along a spectrum of self-awareness, I think the reality would leave you surprised to see how many institutionally-trained composers are completely lacking in that area. Likewise even the pop-iest pop music can be made by people very aware of what they’re creating. (Lady Gaga, anyone?)

    In as much as this spectrum is unnecessarily flattering to some “classical” composers, it is also unnecessarily insulting to many pop musicians. The simplest exercise to judge that fact is this: Think about your favorite pop music. Do you really think those albums/songs/lyrics/etc. just fell out of a hat?

  3. Armando

    JNarum makes a great point. I might add that the criterion of composers/songwriters being under age 50 is rather arbitrary. Where, then, do musicians like Tom Waits, Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, Glenn Branca, Meredith Monk or even David Byrne fall? (Or Phil Glass for that matter?)

    If you’re looking for a school that will encourage you in all of your musical interests, though, you might consider the program at Cal Arts, or The University of Michigan (the composition department there is more on the classical side, but there are a number of composers–Erik Santos and Steve Rush come immediately to mind–who straddle the line and with whom you could work).

    Good luck.

  4. msargent

    The idea that classical/post-classical music, simply by being formally notated and not repeating itself is by definition “self-aware” is way way off. Good & fully aware music happens all over the “spectrum”.

    The argument in general seems awfully dated. If you’re talking about notating “intuitive songs”, etc. — I see that happening all over the place, in many many concerts that I attend. It is certainly a road taken, and a fine road to take, as any well-examined road can be.

    “All art is Heaven-sent. It’s the dogmatic naffheads who build the fences.” — Charles Ives

  5. Lisa X

    I too am happy to see you testing these sorts of theories. Truth is, the most extreme, illogical, and innocent positions I held as a student helped to propel me in many fruitful directions.

    That said, you might want to avoid developing large scale views based on completely unverifiable ideas. Your initial premise that there could be some sort of self-awareness spectrum is quit honestly absurd, even insulting.

    It might be worth getting to know young people deeply engaged in studying, socializing, and making music within very different tiny subcultures. You’d quickly find that these sorts of simplistic grand theories are incredibly common and that they often share a position of feeling at odds with some sort of dominant popular culture.

  6. scottleee

    I also would like to respectfully disagree you Joelle. I think self-awareness has no correlation with what type of music you create. To me there is very little difference in the example you gave between a pop song which repeats a chorus 5 times and a “composed” piece of music which repeats the tune 3 times. Do you really think that pop-artists aren’t aware of how they build up to a chorus or how the song is paced? I’m afraid that (whether you know it or not) you are implying that some types of music are inherently better than others. Even the simplest songs can have a lot more going on than meets the eye (or ear).

    Scott Lee

  7. Joyfulgirl

    Armando: You’re right, the under-50 comment was kind of arbitrary. I probably should have re-worded or edited that “under the age of 50” line and I apologize for not doing so. I just wanted to emphasize the “new and younger” aspect of things. Even those composers you listed, as awesome and original as they are, are in the later part of their career (no offense meant to any of them).

    JNarum: Good point. Maybe self-aware isn’t the right criteria. What criteria would you use (or anybody else who’d like to respond to this question, for that matter) to define the difference between songwriting and composing?


  8. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    “Self-awareness” is something that often gets pointed to in hopes of explaining the creepy stuff we’ve been composing for the last 60 years. Meanwhile, all the hip kids are out there having fun “just rockin'” while we’re stuck in our studios whining about being misunderstood.

    A thought: is it naive (read- not self-aware) to think of our music as highbrow? Not sure, frankly. Is my cimbalom quartet the Olafur Eliasson of 21st music, while rockers are the McDonald’s ads? Most importantly: does self-awareness really imply sophistication? And is sophistication measureable or even important?

    I’d posit this: we’re not so exclusively self-aware. We’re craft-aware. We fuss over techniques, while lots of popular artists seem to have a good sense for what they think sounds good. Now, to be clear- I try to think deeply about sound and branch out from “craft.” But still, isn’t all this awareness just centered on how we do what we do, not why we do it?

  9. Kyle Gann

    I’d say composers, in general and including myself, are neither highbrow, craft-aware, nor self-aware: we’re simply common-practice-averse. We avoid triads, catchy tunes, infectious beat patterns, and anything that sounds too “obvious” or reminds us of some other music. And it can be really easy to fall into unconscious clichés if you’re focused more on what you’re avoiding than on what you’re doing.

  10. Armando

    It’s the intent…
    I’d say it comes down to a question of intent (or affect, or purpose). A piece of music intended to be danced to extatically, designed to allow a consumer (I’m using the word here as a generalization. I hate thinking of art as something to be merely consumed, as though it were a lobster, or a big mac) is going to necessarily be different than a symphony meant to be consumed (see above) in an environment meant to command the audience’s undivided attention. Anything else is a matter of skill.

  11. Lisa X

    What criteria would you use to define the difference between songwriting and composing?

    A song is one of many types of composition. Your question makes as little sense as asking the difference between zebras and mammals, maples trees and trees, ales and beers, writing string quartets and composing, etc.

    In this field dominated by overlap, cross-pollination, and exceptions of all kinds I highly recommend relaxing and forgetting about pointless categories.

  12. robert.w.mcclure

    I agree with the above statement on intent or to put it another way, function. How does a piece of music function in the world? Certainly Lady Gaga’s (I hate that we all keep going back to her) music primary function is dance, chart-topping, and profit. But, getting back to Joelle’s main point – take Beyonce’s Single Ladies. Overall same function, however – truly listen to everything that is going on – “uneven” phrases, chorus baseline, very specific rhythmic elements, dynamic background vocals. The same function yet, perhaps a more complex and stimulating product. Even if the listener doesn’t catch the subtle of Single Ladies – they are still listening to it.

  13. philmusic

    “..Your question makes as little sense …”

    Songwriting is a very particular approach to creating songs. Elton John and Schubert both wrote songs but there is a difference in their approach. The fact that you don’t understand or wish to ignore that difference does not make the question go away.

    Phil Fried Phil Fried

  14. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    It seems a little disingenuous to talk about “consumption” of our music. We all love the classical concert format, and I doubt that many of us really work to have our music presented elsewhere. So, aren’t we really just filling a niche “market,” so to speak? If our aim is to please the new-music crowd, we’re on the right track. However, if our aspiration is toward some more abstract concept of consumption, then maybe we’re shooting ourselves in the foot- either by the kind of music we write (re: Kyle’s post about aversion), or by the context in which we present it.

    Also, to Lisa and Phil (and sorry to nit-pick)- songwriting and composing, two apples from the same orchard. Maybe file it under “writing” music, and leave the smaller category headings for those more concerned about defining themselves? You’re both right.

    Lastly, in response to the remarks about Gaga vs. Beyonce: Takemitsu and Feldman please me equally, but Feldman didn’t systematize his music at all. Subtlety of technique and craft is pretty hard to find in his music. Doesn’t mean it can’t kick my ass. We have to stop saying that “unsophisticated” music is fun and “serious” stuff is, well, serious. I get a legitimate, visceral, good old-fashioned-listening-to-music experience from Beck and Berio. Categories aside, maybe some of it is just….. shhhh…… “bad,” rather than unsophisticated. No?

  15. philmusic

    “…songwriting and composing, two apples from the same orchard…”

    I can’t agree.

    I thought the point was about a songwriter who was not taken seriously in a college situation because of their lack of compositional background. You misunderstand if you think that this is a value judgment. Rather in order to navigate the problem you have to understand the differences in order to reconcile them.

    Isn’t that being “craft-aware”?

    Its too easy to say these differences don’t exist especial when many music teachers and songwriters feel that they do and present their curriculum to reflect it.

    Phil’s nit pick’in page

  16. robert.w.mcclure

    in response
    yes. bad music is all around us. That’s what i was saying without saying it. As for Takemitsu and Feldman I don’t think system is the point in the Gaga/Beyonce. Technique is more to the point. And you can’t argue that either Takemitsu or Feldman lacked technique. However, with Gaga and Beyonce, there is a clear winner in regards to technique (even though its more likely a producer).

  17. colin holter

    I don’t want to get too embroiled in this debate – my opinion is that a Bourdieu-style graph of the social positions that these literatures occupy would be more useful than a spatialization of their supposed immanent characteristics, even a good-intentioned one like Joelle’s – but I do want to point out that according to Wikipedia the writing credit for “Single Ladies” goes to Beyoncé Knowles, Terius “The-Dream” Nash, Thaddis “Kuk Harrell” Harrell, and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart. On the other hand, Stefani Germanotta (i.e. Lady Gaga) and Nadir Khayat were responsible for LG’s “Bad Romance.” As I’ve remarked before, when we compare one pop idol to another, we’re really comparing one small army of musicians, technicians, and tastemakers to another. Whether Beyoncé herself deserves 25% of the credit for her hit tune and Lady Gaga half the credit for hers is of course difficult to ascertain based on the lists of names provided above.

  18. Armando

    Mischa, I think you’ve misunderstood my use of the word “consumption.” I used it in my comments above as an attempt at a neutral term to indicate intent. I’ve always believed that the only person a composer needs to please is him/herself. Period. The reason why a composer or a songwriter writes music should be an inherent NEED to write music because the author cannot possibly imagine NOT doing it (Messiaen’s comment to Claude Samuel as to why he composes comes to mind: you may as well ask an apple tree why it gives apples). But that’s just me.

    As to the difference between songwriting and composing: I’d say the state of mind is different. I’ve had this conversation recently with a good, old friend who is a classically trained composer but is working primarily as a songwriter these days. His songwriting, he tells me, is a lot less involved in terms of harmonization or orchestration. All he writes is a melody, lyrics and usually some chord tablature. The rest of the arrangement comes later and not often done by him. That’s a different mindset than what I, as a concert composer, go through when I write a piece of chamber or large ensemble music.

  19. colin holter

    The reason why a composer or a songwriter writes music should be an inherent NEED to write music because the author cannot possibly imagine NOT doing it (Messiaen’s comment to Claude Samuel as to why he composes comes to mind: you may as well ask an apple tree why it gives apples).

    That’s a nice little bit of mystification from Messiaen; there are lots of ways to answer definitively the question of why apple trees give apples, and just because the tree isn’t obliged to know doesn’t mean that it’s not important for us to figure out.

  20. philmusic

    “…the writing credit for “Single Ladies” goes to Beyoncé Knowles, Terius “The-Dream” Nash, Thaddis “Kuk Harrell” Harrell, and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart. On the other hand, Stefani Germanotta (i.e. Lady Gaga) and Nadir Khayat were responsible for LG’s “Bad Romance…”

    Excellent point Colin and yet another difference in approach between songwriting and composition.

    There is something else though. Many songs are not composed by the credited authors as they are ghost written. That is the song and the rights are bought in a private cash sale.

    The number of uncredited contributors to popular music is quite large I think and we only hear about them when they sue.

    This too; many times the true authors of a song are hidden for a time. For example the Doors songs were originally published as by the Doors but now we know which band member wrote which song.

    Phil Fried Phil’s page of mystery

  21. Armando

    That’s a nice little bit of mystification from Messiaen; there are lots of ways to answer definitively the question of why apple trees give apples, and just because the tree isn’t obliged to know doesn’t mean that it’s not important for us to figure out.

    “Mystification from Messiaen.” HA! I love it. :-)

    Anyway, Colin, I spent too much time devoted to mystical concepts and religious fairy tales to be too nostalgic about mystery and fantasy, but the why of writing music (at least as far as my writing my music is concerned) is a mystery I’m happy to live with.

    The reason is certainly not money, ultimately.

  22. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Good point about consumption.

    I think we agree that there is a large number of differences between composing and songwriting.

    My fear with both is that (although we’re all professionals), these words are a little loaded, and carry implications. Again, here I’m nit-picking, but although we all may love pop songs, can any of us say that we’ve never run across a composer who thinks songwriting is something of a lower art form? I guess that argument could be made, if you really wanted to pursue it, but I’d rather take it on a case by case basis.

    As for the idea of consumption- of course it applies. Sadly, I suspect that much of our handling of our own music is driven by underlying capitalist urges- success comes from measureable consumption, etc.- and maybe we forget to ask ourselves for whom we’re really writing. Armando, I’m glad you have it figured out, because lord knows I don’t….. :)

  23. sksnider

    Joelle, while I think I understand where this article was coming from and appreciate and identify with your struggle to find a place where you feel you belong as a composer, I cannot say strongly enough how much I disagree with the thinking behind it. Like many people on this comment thread have stated, you can find tremendous craft, self-awareness, and intelligence in any style of music. To say that pop is less “self-aware” is problematic not only because it insults all the great thinking pop artists who slave over every note and decision, but also because it creates a false dichotomy in your thinking that I fear will keep you alternating between two selves in your composition instead of merging all those interesting influences into one organic whole. I think it’s such a shame to attach “class” judgments (“high,” “low,” “middlebrow”) to music; by emphasizing labels and compartmentalizing things, you unwittingly create do’s and don’ts in your mind that block innate and potentially rewarding musical impulses. Why can’t a concert piece explore repetition of a catchy phrase five times? Beethoven and Ravel certainly found interesting ways to do that. Find your own interesting ways to do it. Challenge yourself to take the song you’re writing and apply your training to transform it into something that scratches both of your compositional itches, whatever you want to call them, poppy and classical, high and low — you’ll find you’re writing music that is incredibly self-aware. Maybe it winds up being poppier than some other things you’ve written — that’s in the ear of the beholder anyway — but who cares? The important thing is that it be good.

    That is the metric by which we judge every New Amsterdam CD submission: is it good music? Does it make us feel something? It is an honest and compelling musical statement? We’re not concerned about where something falls on the pop-classical continuum; what interests us is whether it engages the artist’s breadth of influences and love of music with thought, skill, and consideration.

    Which is why I was so saddened to see you group the entire “New Amsterdam roster” under the “alt-classical”/”midbrow” rubric. As you know, New Amsterdam houses a very diverse collection of composers and performers, swimming not only in widely differing pools of influences but also using wildly different compositional processes to achieve their results. While I understand the temptation to reach for a shorthand to talk about New Amsterdam, generalizations like “alt-classical” really do the label a disservice as they mischaracterize the work of so many constituent artists and rob them of the creative idiosyncracies they’ve worked so hard to achieve. And to call the work of New Amsterdam composers “mid-brow” or to imply that they are only moderately self-aware of what they’re doing is just patently ignorant, false, and insulting. I know from my close working relationships with these artists that many have sweated blood and lost sleep and shaved years off their lives stressing over every note on their albums. The fact that someone might presume otherwise simply because the music reflects a greater degree of popular music influence is a sad and regrettable vestige of 20th century musical academia. I, too, found myself thinking along some of these compartmentalizing lines when I first started studying composition; I still argue with many teacher’s lists of “do’s” and “dont’s” in my head as I compose. But that is why, personally, I take offense to your suggestion that as a New Amsterdam composer I am only applying moderate self-awareness to my work. I am and have always been a slow, methodical, obsessive-compulsive, self-flagellating composer, the kind that obsesses over every tiny detail, trying everything a million ways and striving to make the music intellectually unassailable before I commit to a decision. It drives me crazy. Today the music I write incorporates the music I love with far more honesty than the music I wrote 10 years ago did, but it is no less agonized over. I sweat over counterpoint and harmony, wrestle with rhythmic patterns, form, and orchestrational permutations until I can’t sleep. In some ways, being more honest with my impulses and influences has made all of this worse, as it means making sure that I am doing something of interest (to me) with them.

    I could write about this topic for a long time, so probably better that we continue it over tea or coffee sometime :) , but I do hope that if your summer with New Amsterdam offers you anything, it’s an accurate glimpse into what the range of composers there are doing, and how much thought, skill, and consideration go into the music they make. And, as your friend, to add a voice of dissension (reason?) to the accumulated voices who’ve incorrectly led you to believe that good music (as you say, King Crimson, Yes, Dirty Projectors, Bjork, etc.) might be made without a high degree of self-awareness.

    All the best,

  24. gtra1n

    Probably the best place to return to.

    I understand the seductive allure of classification/taxonomy, especially as a means to buttress an argument, but I think the chart has to go because it’s leading you away from your goal.

    The idea that music moves on a spectrum of quality (and when you lay out pop music to classical you are laying out a spectrum of lesser to greater quality, like it or not) based on its level of self-consciousness is, I would say, objectively false. How can you even measure self-consciousness and, if you can, how can you say Yes has less than Satie?

    You can’t go wrong, I feel, with Ellington’s view that there are only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. Good music is well made, no matter the style, and no matter if it’s notated or not. Notation does not make music ‘classical’ or not. William Britelle’s Television Landscape is completely notated pop music, deeply self-conscious. Where is Cecil Taylor on this spectrum?

    Make the music you want to make, be ruthlessly self-critical, get the sound that you want, make it well. If you need a thumping bass, put it in. If you need to write a scherzo for elephants like Stravinsky, do that. If you need to write fart jokes like Mozart, do that. The only quality to judge is intent, and the success of that.

  25. Joyfulgirl

    Wow. OK, I think I need to apologize. I’ve sort of always taken for granted the fact that I see genre as a chartable spectrum – it was the kind of graph I drew out on napkins to explain my music to non-musician friends – but I learned three very important lessons this week. First, that everybody sees genre boundaries differently, whether as a spectrum or a cube or as nonexistent. Second, that nobody likes being categorized. Third, that the phrase “self-aware” has all sorts of unexpected connotations and that I should be careful of misusing it in the future. Perhaps, as Armando said, “craft-aware” would have been more accurate… or even some sort of “intent” measurement….Grr, frustrating. Anyways I’m gonna call a temporary cease-fire on this debate and get back to you with my opinions after at least a good two years of introspection. Thanks for the thoughtful, respectful comments! And keep them coming if you still have more to say.


  26. Matt Marks

    Hi Joelle. Though I disagree with your thoughts about genre boundaries, I respect your courage in making your admittedly-works-in-progress ideas about the subject public, despite the possibility of a new music smackdown (which, ya know, happened.. ;) ).

    Despite this, I hope you don’t get discouraged from continuing to write your thoughts and opinions about this subject. We’ve all held opinions that could be considered ridiculous at some point, we just usually keep them to ourselves (some would argue that it’s best I suppose).

    Personally, I like reading your posts, even if they sometimes raise an eyebrow. You seem quite open to your ideas being modified based on other peoples criticisms, which is crucial. Please don’t wait two years. A follow-up to this article, noting how the comments have or haven’t shaped your ideas on the subject, would be interesting.


  27. rtanaka

    The pop-classical spectrum would probably be more accurate if it were based on some kind of economic model — i.e. capitalism vs. patronage. To what extent are the musicians reliant on ticket sales, as opposed to endowments and government grants in order to sustain their living? “Avant-Rock” bands, for instance, play at bars and standard venues, but at the same time, they are also known to perform at museums and galleries and such. Such a study would probably be more scientific and useful, in my opinion.

    Self-awareness is a product of postmodernism, which, at least in music, has always been more prevailent in popular culture than in the classical realm. The use of sarcasm, irony, and self-reflexive gestures seem to be pretty rare in classical music — it tends to be subtle and hard to detect unless you’re well-versed in the conventions of the medium AND be willing to conciously subvert it in order to make a point. You don’t get that combination too often, I don’t think.

    There’s always exceptions though — like PDQ Bach and these guys.

  28. mclaren

    I wouldn’t have thought of distinguishing between “less self aware” and “more self aware.” Also wouldn’t have thought of putting the boundaries of “midbrow” music where you put ’em.

    That’s a great post. It gets you thinking in new ways.

    One thing that fascinates me is that everyone (me included) recognizes there’s something called “midbrow” music. But music textbooks and music history tomes just totally ignore it. They treat it as though it doesn’t exist.


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