Monday, August 31, 2009

Background: Classical & Popular Music

It's difficult to say when “Music” divided into “Classical Music” and “Popular Music.” There was always some music that was more popular than others but there was never the distinction made between one or the other until the 20th Century.


The history of music deals primarily with music that has been written down. The process of notation that we know of today, though, looking at a piece of music you can play on a piano, did not really develop until into the 14th Century, changing gradually over the next several centuries before it became standardized in the 17th Century.

By the 9th Century, musicians in the Christian churches of Europe began using symbols adapted from the old Jewish system of marks and symbols that, like letters, had to be learned – one symbol meant a particular pattern of notes; another symbol a different pattern of notes. It was a kind of musical short-hand placed underneath the text in smaller characters. The cantor would memorize these so he could reproduce the musical declamation of a line of sacred text. Otherwise, it was handed down from generation to generation and learned by rote.

Today, we can only assume (or guess) what these symbols might have meant so long ago and how they changed over the centuries.

But there was always music.

People sang when they worked in the fields. People danced when they celebrated a successful harvest. This music, though, was never written down. It was also passed on from generation to generation by rote. Parents would sing it, their children would hear it and then sing it so their children would hear it. This is called “the oral tradition.” It is the same way legends and poems, the rituals of daily life and the beliefs of the early religions survived from one generation to the next before there was a system for writing it down.

When the music for the Roman Catholic church service – especially for the sacred texts of the liturgy (the texts and music used during the service) – was being written down, they probably adapted songs that people knew from their daily lives. A melody associated with the harvest might become the basis for a chant sung to words of the liturgy (perhaps the Sanctus or the Lord's Prayer). Musicians in the 12th Century playing for a celebration of the harvest might take a fragment of something everybody knew from church and turn it into a dance. The priests might think that was inappropriate (or scandalous or downright heretical) but there probably was some kind of back-and-forth between music used in the sacred part of ones life and in the secular or everyday part of ones life.

The music for the church was completely vocal – religious texts that were sung. Instruments were rarely allowed. The music of the people – therefore called “popular” - was both sung and played on instruments.


Music had two basic functions – the sacred music of the religious service and the secular music that was associated with every-day life. This secular music was usually “practical.” It accompanied a function – whether it was celebrating the hunt or helping women pounded grain into flour. A song for one thing would not have been sung for a different function.

It wasn't mean to be sung for entertainment: it was sung to help make the work go more easily. In travel films today, you can see women in an African village pounding grain singing something rhythmic to help coordinate the continuous flow of their actions. People might add new text – advice women might want to pass on to their daughters, for instance, or maybe village gossip – in between a refrain about making bread. It helped pass the time.

Later, as people in Europe wanted to be entertained, music was sung or played after dinner. Dances now had no particular practical use beyond enjoying the movement of dance – not just about celebrating the harvest. Some of these were folk-dances from the country-side; others may have been specifically urban dances: they all had specific patterns, rhythmic sounds and national identities. Considering all the kinds of popular dances we have today, they had many different kinds of dances that became popular thousands of years ago.

Eventually, many of these in the 13th or 18th centuries, for example, became more stylized dances, like the 18th Century Minuet (right). This eventually became “art music” that eventually could be played in a concert that no one would have actually danced to. Music was now no longer “functional” but became “entertaining,” what is often called “decorative art.”

The music that survived from these very old times was the music that was written down. This was music to be played for feudal lords of the Middle Ages and their society of aristocrats. Rather than being as earthy as the music the townspeople might have danced to, drinking in a tavern, they became more representative of their economic class, more 'refined,' along with what was more acceptable social and moral behavior.


And so “popular” music – music of the people – developed more freely. “Art” music developed along similar lines but for a different demographic, as people in marketing would say today.

Popular Music is something we can listen to easily because we understand its context - we ARE its context.

Art Music usually requires an "introduction" because we're not part of its immediate or original context. Art Music usually demands more concentration to understand it.

Until the Industrial Revolution, there were basically two classes of people: those who ruled and the people they ruled. There wasn't much chance for people from the lower level to move into the upper one. Wealth and power were handed down through the family: a child would inherit the money and attitudes of his family. These became the noblemen of Europe, the aristocrats.

Even before the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Capitalism started creating a Middle Class, people who worked in as merchants or later in factories could rise to a higher economic status by hard work and become managers or owners of new factories. People in the town who sold the material the factories made became merchants who could make their money when other people bought their merchandise. Some made more than others. This money, too, and the ownership of factories and stores might be passed from generation to generation but it was more fragile and less restricted than the inheritance of the aristocracy.

And once people had money and became wealthy, they wanted to “show off” this wealth by building nicer houses, wearing better clothes and, imitating the aristocrats, developed a liking for art and music. A merchant of the “upper middle class” could have his portrait painted or employ a string quartet or maybe a small orchestra just like a prince could.

Felix Mendelssohn's father Abraham was a wealthy banker. They had a large home with a salon or music room that could seat a large number of people where they gave concerts for their friends on Sunday afternoons. Many of these performers were the Mendelssohn children: both Fanny and Felix played the piano and composed music (Felix also played the violin and the viola); Rebekkah sang and Paul played the cello. But they also had other friends who would come and play with them and, for several performances, Abraham might hire an orchestra or singers. Keep in mind that Felix's grandfather had been a philosopher and his great-grandfather had been a simple peddler.

Most people couldn't afford to do that, so instead orchestras went “public” and people would buy tickets to go hear them in concerts. Musicians now could make a living playing in an orchestra that made its money by selling tickets.


Lots of people enjoyed music and enjoyed making the music themselves. It was considered standard for young ladies to be able to play the piano and sing to provide their husbands and families with "live entertainment" in the days before radio, television or sound-systems. In a novel like Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," many scenes describe the daughters of the Bennett family entertaining their friends after dinner.

As the 19th Century progressed into the more democratic 20th Century, it was not necessarily an either/or class-oriented system, which type of music people could enjoy. Factory workers might have been accused of "putting on airs" if they went to concerts to hear Beethoven just as wealthy people would have been accused of "going beneath their station" if they were caught in the taverns and cabarets to listen to gypsy music or what became jazz.

Today, there is no reason anyone can't like any kind of music they want to.

In the 19th Century, composers probably made more money from the sale of their sheet music to amateur players who would gather in their homes to play the music for themselves and each other. They weren't thinking of the concert hall: just their own enjoyment of the music they played.

Musicians who were better than the average orchestra musician might become soloists and play a “concerto,” standing in front of the orchestra. The best became famous and people would buy tickets to hear their favorite performers. Some became so famous, they became “celebrities.”

You can read more about them in this post.

- Dr. Dick