Strength of Pop
Which is a better sport: baseball or basketball? Is this an absurd question? It's difficult to say what makes any sport "better." But if we can agree to certain criteria of evaluation, then we can formulate a reasonable answer. For instance, if we define the better sport to be the one that requires more running, then basketball is the better sport; if it is the one that requires more throwing, then baseball is.
What's important here is not whether we believe one or the other; it's that raising the question reveals two dimensions along which we can measure sports: running and throwing. If we went through with the same exercise for popular and classical music, we would end up with an analogous list of dimensions by which we can measure music. What follows is one half of that list - four ways in which popular music is better than classical music.
1. Currency. Say what you will of pop music; it is the music of today. It is written, performed, and consumed by people of the modern day, and it dominates modern musical culture. It is global, even ubiquitous, and it tells the story of our present fears and aspirations. These qualities are in direct contrast to those of classical music, which defines itself by the past (and to a far lesser extent, the future). But a music that is defined by the past cannot be current.
Currency is critical. There is a reason the word is synonymous with money - both imply a sense of flow (i.e., a "current") that dictates the direction of the zeitgeist. Popular music is not merely a reflection of our times, it is a determiner of it. It maintains a continuous and symbiotic relationship with the present that classical music fundamentally lacks. The largest philosophical rift between popular and classical music is currency.
Currency also implies that the songs of today are about today. No single piece of music is greater evidence of this than Pitbull and Ne-Yo's Time of Our Lives, whose chorus runs:
Not only does the song speak to the cultural conditions of the modern day - financial hardship, profligate partying - it is literally about prioritizing today over yesterday or tomorrow. Popular music is not merely current, it is metacurrent.
Currency also has purely musical consequences.
2. Accuracy. Just 60 years ago, computers were people who performed calculations; now, we live in an age when machines can calculate 10 trillion digits of pi. Computation is just one of the areas in which our faith in technology has exceeded our faith in ourselves - another, more recent one, is driving. And why would we trust ourselves? Human beings are fallible and inaccurate. Machines are not.
Thus it is that the popular music of today is infinitely more accurate than classical music. Technologies like Digital Audio Workstations and autotune have made it possible for producers to create musical artifacts of perfect intonation and rhythmic execution. The rough edges of human and acoustic performance have not been tidied up; they have been disinfected, sterilized.
Popular music, as created by machines, is simply more accurate than classical music performed by humans. True, human beings may have other redeeming qualities, like feeling or nuance, but they nevertheless have terrible rhythm and pitch relative to machines. If perfectly tuned chords and precisely paced rhythms - both of which, by the way, many classical musicians aspire to - bring you sonic joy, then you'll appreciate popular music more than classical music.
3. Timbral Diversity. Music is little more than the summation of sound waves. The combination of those waves determines, among other things, the timbre - the quality of sound distinct from the pitch, often referred to as color. Synthesizers, mixers, and other inventions have given us the ability to manufacture any one of those component waves, and therefore, any sound that is the sum of those component waves . Indeed, synthesizers are literally just that: they manufacture sounds which do not occur in nature - their products are synthetic.
Popular music leverages this access to an unlimited trove of sounds, using the technology to create novel auditory palettes. Classical music eschews it, instead relying on a finite set of discrete instrument types. A complex orchestral work, for example, will have 25 different types of instruments - that is, 25 different component sounds. And even granting that a violin is different when sul ponticello than when sul tasto, the number of possible basic ways these instruments can sound is necessarily bounded. On the other hand, the basis of sound in popular music is unbounded.
So long as classical music refuses the admittance of technological sound production into its arsenal, its timbral diversity will fall short of that found in popular music.
4. Singability. As we observed in a previous post, the measure of success for popular music is how popular it is. A corollary of this fact is that popular music is extremely singable. For if it were not, it could not be easily remembered or reproduced, and songs that cannot be remembered cannot be popular. Recognizable tunes, catchy melodies, and memorable lyrics: these are the pillars of pop.
There was a time when classical music operated by the same precept. After the Prague premiere of The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart boasted:
Indeed, there is a great deal of classical music that is singable. But there is also a great deal that is not. Insofar as a singable melody requires both brevity and simplicity, any music which seeks to develop it - as in the German symphonic tradition - will be less singable. Leonard Bernstein explains this point very clearly.
More modern classical music - say, since Schoenberg - has exhibited even less concern for whether it is easily sung and remembered. Much of modern classical music is constructed out of timbre, harmony, or rhythm; the homophonic texture baked into popular music is no where to be found.
Singability is important not just for the sake of popularity. It provides listeners an immediate conduit to the music, allowing them to simultaneously experience and participate in it. The singability of popular music enables its fans to partake in its performances, whereas classical music deliberately enforces a separation between performer and audience in the form of musical complexity.
The strength of pop lies in its currency, as well as the musical values currency implies: accuracy, timbral diversity, and singability. This doesn't mean, though, that popular music is the better genre - there are other axes by which we can appreciate music. In a future post, we'll take a look at what classical music has to offer.