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How Classical Music is Better than Popular Music

  • James O. Young


In at least one respect, classical music is superior to popular music. Classical music (understood as common practice composition) has greater potential for expressiveness and, consequently, has more potential for psychological insight and profundity. The greater potential for expressiveness in classical music is due, in large part, to it greater harmonic resources. The harmonies in classical music are more likely to be functional, more contrary motion is employed, and modulation is more common. Although popular music employs rhythms not found in classical music, on the whole there is less rhythmic variety in popular music than there is in classical.



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2 Theodore W. Adorno, ‘On Popular Music’, in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, third edition, ed. John Storey (Harlow: Pearson, 2006), 74–84.

3 Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987).

4 Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).

5 Theodore Gracyk, Listening to Popular Music or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Led Zepplin (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007).

6 Kidd, David Comer and Castano, Emanuele, ‘Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind’, Science 342 (2013), 377–80.

7 Björnberg, Alf, ‘On aeolian harmony in contemporary popular music’, Nordic IASPM Working Paper DK 1 (1989), 1 .

8 de Clercq, Trevor and Temperley, David, ‘A corpus analysis of rock harmony’, Popular Music 30 (2011), 4770 .

9 Smith, J. David and Melara, Robert J., ‘Aesthetic preference and syntactic prototypicality in music: ‘Tis the gift to be simpleCognition, 34 (1990), 279298 .

10 Op. cit. note 7, 2.

11 Biamonte, Nicole, ‘Triadic Modal and Pentatonic Patterns in Rock Music’, Music Theory Spectrum 32 (2010), 95110 .

12 Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 54.

13 Steinbeis, Nikolaus, Koelsch, Stefan and Sloboda, John A., ‘The Role of Harmonic Expectancy Violations in Musical Emotions: Evidence from Subjective, Physiological, and Neural Responses’, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18 (2006), 1380–93.

14 Sloboda, John A., ‘Music Structure and Emotional Response’, Psychology of Music 19 (1991), 110–20.

15 Allan F. Moore was among the first to note this feature of popular music harmony. See, for example, his Rock: The Primary Text, 2nd ed. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 52ff.

16 Op. cit. note 7, 3.

17 Lerdahl, Fred, ‘Calculating Tonal Tension’, Music Perception 13 (1996), 319–63.

18 Krumhansl, Carol L., ‘A Perceptual Analysis of Mozart's Piano Sonata K. 282: Segmentation, Tension, and Musical Ideas’, Music Perception 13 (1996), 401–32.

19 Moore, Allan, ‘The so–called “flattened seventh” in rockPopular Music 14 (1995), 190 .

20 See, for example, Brower, Candace, ‘A Cognitive Theory of Musical Meaning’, Journal of Music Theory 44 (2000), 370 .

21 Charles–Henri Blainville, L'esprit de l'art musical, ou réflexions sur la musique, et ses différentes parties (Geneva, 1754), 61–2.

22 Korsakova-Kreyn, Marina and Dowling, W. Jay, ‘Emotional Processing in Music: Study in Affective Responses to Tonal Modulation in Controlled Harmonic Progressions and Real Music’, Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain 24 (2014), 420 .

23 Hevner, Kate, ‘The Affective Character of the Major and Minor Modes in Music’, American Journal of Psychology 47 (1935), 103–18.

24 Op. cit. note 5, 18.

25 Not coincidentally, Brian Wilson composed the songs on Pet Sounds, the album from which ‘God Only Knows’ is drawn, after hearing The Beatles' Rubber Soul. Wilson resolved to match The Beatles' achievement on The Beatles' terms.

26 Johansson, K.G., ‘The Harmonic Language of the Beatles’, STM–online 2 (1999).

27 Carpenter, Francesca R. Dillman and Potter, Robert F., ‘Effects of Music on Physiological Arousal: Explorations into Tempo and Genre’, Media Psychology 10 (2007), 339–63.

28 Op. cit. note 27, 351.

29 Walton, Kendall, ‘Categories of Art’, Philosophical Review 79 (1970), 334–67.

30 Op. cit. note 8, 56.

31 Schäfer, Thomas and Sedlmeier, Peter, ‘From the functions of music to music preference’, Psychology of Music 37 (2009), 279300 .

32 Laiho, Luvi, ‘The Psychological Functions of Music in Adolescence’, Nordic Journal of Music Therapy 13 (2004), 4763 .

33 T.S. Eliot, Poetry and Drama (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951), 42–3.

34 Charles Batteux, The Fine Arts Reduced to a Single Principle, trans. James O. Young (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 140.

35 Edward Macan, ‘Bring Back the Balance’, in Scott Calef (ed.), Led Zeppelin and Philosophy: All Will be Revealed (Chicago, Il: Open Court, 2009), 199.

36 Scott Calef, ‘A Little of the Human Touch: Knowledge and Empathy in the Music of Bruce Springsteen’, in Randall E. Auxier and Doug Anderson (eds), Bruce Springsteen and Philosophy (Chicago: Open Court, 2008), 225.

37 An earlier version on this essay was written for a panel on popular art organised by Stephanie Ross and held on 19 February 2015 at the American Philosophical Association Central Division meeting in St. Louis. Subsequent versions were presented at the Dubrovnik Philosophy of Art Conference, 24 April 2015 and the American Society for Aesthetics Conference, Savannah, Georgia, 15 November 2015. Audience members at these talks, particularly Ted Gracyk and Stephen Davies, provided valuable comments. In the course of writing this paper, I profited from discussions with Craig Derksen.

How Classical Music is Better than Popular Music

  • James O. Young


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