A Key Difference Between Pop and Classical

One of the things I have thought about is identifying a key difference between classical music and pop music. I know that the two genres generally sound very different. There is also a tremendous amount of variety in both genres. But I tried to pin down the one difference that holds true across almost all pop songs and almost all classical music pieces.

There seem to be some obvious answers such as a steady tempo. But there are many classical pieces with a steady tempo. You might say that it is the instrumentation. But there are pop songs for voice and piano. You might say complexity. But there are complex pop songs and classical music pieces with very simple melodies and textures. The differences I’ve mentioned so far seem to have all kinds of exceptions.

But there is one difference which seems more consistent. I am referring to repetition. In both genres you have a meter which repeats. But in pop music there is a different balance between new material and repetition. There is usually more repetition. There is a drum track. There is a kind of melodic or harmonic groove that can last throughout large sections of a song or the entire song. In classical music something is usually only repeated three times, then the composer writes different material. The overall balance is more towards new material and less towards repetition.

Maybe there are some other consistent differences that I am missing.


  1. I agree with you completely. I came to the same conclusion. This is why I listen to classical music instead of pop.

  2. i think its an emotional thing, its not just a technical thing. if you took a pop album and deleted all the repeats it would still sound different from classical, though as you say, the beat, drum, would still be critical. but there’s more emphasis on “texture” such as electronic effects, pulsation, and an overall energy. the beegees took the beethoven 5 and made pop out of it (http://youtube.com/watch?v=-Oeodd_cysY)

  3. And perhaps there is more love and appreciation for the music. For Beethoven, who said it was his art that kept him from comitting suicide, who said he’d rather write 10,000 music notes than a single letter of the alphabet, there is a real spark there. While it was his career, it wasn’t always all about the money, as supported by these two quotes. It amazes that some singers and pop stars do not write their own lyrics, or music, or harmonies; maybe even a combination of the three.

    You can even look to rap, which really his just poetry, right? It isn’t even sang with a melody or varying pitches. I like the example of trying to hum a rap song. It’s quite difficult!

  4. patrick, i think ‘art’ as you say is a difference. i agree that stars who dont write their own music or are otherwise in it just for the money dont count. so beethoven, bach, mozart, wrote something eternal and beautiful, whereas marvin gaye, sinatra, rolling stones, theirs is not eternity, transcendent beauty, but perhaps exuberance of life, simple, folksy, like what someone might hum while working or frollicking or dancing, just to laugh or smile or play. appreciating simple fun doesnt mean i feel any less the actual presence of god when hearing bach.

  5. Saying that the pop stars of today “don’t write their own music” is first of all a very general statement that makes it fairly ignorant. But it also ignores the fact that artists of every period performed other peoples’ works…

    Including anyone who has ever performed Bach or any other “classical” piece.

    It’s quite incorrect to say that the composers of years ago did not work for money either. Sure, they felt what they did. But they did get paid. That was their livelihood. Pop music, classical music…

    It’s kind of like saying the color grey does not and can not exist.

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