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Classical vs. Pop Music Theory

Everyone has their own set of goals when it comes to lessons. Some students just want to play themes from their favorite tv shows, while others want to play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata". Still others find themselves in lessons because their parents put them there, and may just want to "get by" on minimal work. Parent expectations as well can look different at times, as some parents want their student to be the next Lang Lang while others want their students to play chords so they can accompany their own pop songs. In all these scenarios, students and parents all have an idea of what they think they should be learning in lessons, but they might be limiting themselves without even realizing it. You yourself may even have a goal of your own in mind, or may be wondering what approach you want to consider in your own student's lessons. Hopefully this article will help clarify that in the end, you may not have to choose.

Sometimes I get requests in lessons to teach my students a specific type of approach in music in order to meet their goals. At times I will have some parents enthusiastically encourage a classical theory education in music lessons, while others don't want to "bore" their kids with things of the past and just want them to learn basic chords. The irony is, by focusing in so much, some might be missing the point. What they should be asking is if there really is a difference between classical theory and pop theory at all.


So what is the difference between classical and pop music theory? Hoffman Academy generalizes three areas of difference in their article "Classical vs. Pop" (2014): Chord progressions, melody, and rhythm. The article explains it simply in that classical music tends to be more complex melodically and structurally (ie. chord progressions), while pop can be more rhythmically sophisticated. Whether or not pop is more rhythmically complicated in general is definitely questionable, but many people agree that classical is far more complex in melody and chord progression. "Hallelujah" (by Jeff Buckley) put it best when he said "It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift" and practically laid out your typical pop chord formula. It is for this very reason that people might generally prefer classical or pop. Many parents and students view classical as superior because it is more complicated, and in that sense challenging and academic. Others prefer pop because it's practical, familiar, easy to understand, and you can play many songs with the same formula after learning just one. Both present great benefits educationally and musically, and a lot of students like to focus on one or the other.


While both the desires for a classical music theory and a pop music theory educations are admirable, they do not need to be mutually exclusive. You may be surprised to know that the two approaches are actually deeply intertwined, and learning one oftentimes helps a student better understand the other. In the same way, they also are not stages of one another, but are coexistent, meaning you don't need to master classical to know pop or vice versa, but can learn each at the same time, which can help you better understand the other. Take for example Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata":


To the classical theory student, the chord progression in the first five measures reveals itself as: i - i4/2 - VI - N6 - V7 - i6/4 (nct) - V7 - i. Complicated, right? To the pop student, that seems to be total gibberish, yet after messing around they might discover the progression C#m - C#m/B - A - D - G#7 - C#m - C#m add2 - G#7 - C#m. For the student who understands both pop and classical music theory, they see that the two progressions are just two ways of saying the same thing. This allows them not only to make informed decisions about musical interpretation based on the classical chord progression, but also allows them to take the pop chords and rearrange their own jazz, guitar, simple chord or any version to their liking. A student that is well informed in both pop and classical terminology and methodology finds themselves at an advantage to translate music across multiple genres.


Not only can student skills transfer across genres, but the student who understands both pop and classical music theory also has a unique advantage when it comes to improvisation. Improvisation is a traditional art of being able to create music on the spot without reference to notation or chord charts. This goes way back even to pre-Baroque times, when it was a standard expectation that musicians would be able to improvise and create new music on a whim. Today, improvisation is less of the standard and more of a rare skill, yet it doesn't have to be this way. Students who understand both classical and pop theory can have the ability to improvise chords in a pop style, while using unique classical chord progressions (like the ones in "Moonlight Sonata") to add an individual flavor that breaks Jeff Buckley's pop rule. They can also freely improvise melodies over the chords using classical knowledge of scales, key signatures, etc., and create a sound totally unique to them.


I found this to be my own experience when I entered college. I'm so grateful that throughout my piano education up until that point I had a teacher who made sure I understood both classical and pop theory. By the time I got to college, not only was I able to understand the classical theory taught in my classical school of music, but I was also comfortable with a chord chart, which allowed me unique musical opportunities some of my peers did not have. When I did play chord charts in a pop context, I had another advantage that I was then better able to understand the structure of what I was playing as my classical training informed on my pop. I found that having an understanding of both allowed me to play more musically than I otherwise would have, as well as improvise freely. I say this not to demonstrate my abilities (as I still have a lot of growing to do), but because I truly believe my unique classical-pop education gave me this advantage, and other students can have similar advantages. This experience, which was really just a result of a teacher who believed in and poured into me, has in turn made me passionate about teaching my students both classical and pop theory.


Before I address how to teach classical and pop together, however, I must admit one key factor to understanding the difference between the two theories: there really isn't any difference. The real difference, at the end of the day is style, though one is admittedly more simplistic than the other. That's not to say that classical and pop music is the same when it's obviously not, but that classical and pop theory are really just two sides of the same coin, two different perspectives of the same topic. We can think of pop as a reduction or derivative of classical music theory (or sometimes in the case of rhythm, an evolvement), with a purpose specific to its own style. I will never forget that the same piano teacher who taught me to embrace both classical and pop was vexed when he heard Justin Bieber didn't like Bach. I remember him exclaiming "Justin doesn't like Bach, but little does he know Bach gave him his melodies!". As music has evolved over time we've just learned how to use the same elements in simpler ways.


When you begin to think of music theory as a whole as a way to understand how music components work together, you see how this rings true. Think back to the "Moonlight Sonata" example. When the chord progressions were analyzed by the classical and pop students, they both discovered the same things, but viewed them as different tools for however they would play. The beauty of the "Moonlight Sonata" as my old professor would say, is that it is "simple, but not simplistic". I believe the problem with pop music (and why many either love it or hate it) is that it is often simplistic. When we view pop music through the lens of a classical perspective, we can find unique ways of expressing new sound, such as the unique chords in "Moonlight", while keeping a pop "style".


For the parents wondering, "should I have my student learn pop music, or push them towards classical?", I argue BOTH. While some may worry that allowing their students to learn classical may bore them, having a pop perspective can actually help make classical more interesting. Listening for unique melodies they can sing along to, learning the chord progressions to make variations for their own songs, and adapting the rhythms in a pop style are all ways students can begin to appreciate and have a personal relationship with classical music. For the parents who don't want to dull their kids with rudimentary pop chords, students can learn the function of pop chord progressions from a classical lens. Whether it's playing a G7 because its a secondary dominant in the key of F (V7/V), or learning to write counter melodies for the main melody that follow classical counterpoint rules, students will find themselves uniquely equipped to be skilled musicians in both contemporary and classical contexts.


In the end, music education is about shaping the student as a whole in discipline, love for learning, and love for music. Limiting them to only one perspective of music is limiting them in where they can go with what they learn. Classical and pop music theory aren't two different elements, forever sworn to be juxtaposed enemies, but are two styles and perspectives of the same thing. To remove one would be halving centuries of music development and style. While many have their opinions about one style or the other, we live in an age where both classical and pop hold important places in music. In fact, if it weren't for the coexistence of these two styles, movie scores, theatre works, and even jazz wouldn't exist as we know them today. Having your child learn both is setting them up for success in our contemporary lives if we just embrace both the past and the present.


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