If you change your mind, I’m the first in line

My keyboard harmony students have reached the score-reading section of their assignment packet. It starts off with an exercise in reading alto clef: Beethoven’s duet “with two eyeglasses obbligato,” for viola and cello, WoO 32. Which means I’ve spent the week listening to WoO 32 being played very slowly. It’s fun, actually: substituting molto largo for allegro turns the piece into a nice little bit of post-serial conceptual sound art. That is, until measure 9, when it turns into an Abba song.

The downward sequence, the downbeat suspensions, the passage through the relative minor on the way to the subdominant—it’s straight out of Benny and Bjorn’s toolbox. Great minds think alike! I’m not claiming they consciously lifted from Beethoven; in fact, this little progression was probably already something of a cliché when Ludwig used it. The point is, for Beethoven, it’s just a starting point. He goes on to juxtapose it with other themes, and then develop it, and vary it, and transpose it, etc., etc. Whereas, for Abba, such a progression would be the entire song.

That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not much of one. When I think of the differences between pop and classical, the main one for me is that the actual music of pop music is non-developing. Once you’re presented with the main material of the song, not much happens to it: maybe a modulation, maybe some vocal embellishment, probably a gradual building-up of the orchestration. But try and think of a pop song that does something as simple as reharmonizing the melody, for example. Or a pop song with a bridge that’s a conscious manipulation of the melody of the chorus. It doesn’t happen very often; and, more importantly, it’s not expected to happen.

Not all classical music is developing—there’s plenty of pop-like examples in pre-Romantic song and opera repertoire, for example. But I think it’s significant that the bulk of the “canonic” repertoire at least nods in a developing direction. Most Schumann songs are ABA (or even AA) form, but the second A section almost always has a significant (if small) variation of phrase structure or melody or harmony. Brahms opted for exact recapitulations in a lot of his shorter piano works, but you can skim through the songs for a master class in all the ways to backload harmonic surprises. Even Ravel’s “Bolero,” the epitome of monomania, has that kick-ass modulation and coda.

Do I wish pop music were more like classical music in this regard? Absolutely not—I think it’s one of the main sources of pop’s appeal. A great pop song starts with a terrific melodic hook, or a great harmonic change, and then just fills your ear with it. It takes a catchy cliché, like the Beethoven example, and lets you wallow in it for a minute or three. Wallow in a good way, it should be noted; it’s like calorie-free candy. It’s not much of a journey—it’s more like a little objet d’art: you experience it all at once, and it’s pretty much the same at the beginning and the end. There it is, it’s lovely, and then it’s over.

This isn’t a criticism—it’s actually the way I like pop music to be: a perfectly crafted crystallization of a single emotion or idea. And yes, again, it is something of an overgeneralization. I mean, there is pop-esque music out there that does try to take you from point A to point B. Teenage memories of Pink Floyd spring to mind; I suppose some of the Beatles’ more experimental efforts might fit this mold. But even a lot of that only tricks out pop-song structure to give the illusion of development. Take one of the all-time great songs, “Good Vibrations,” by the Beach Boys. It has to be one of the least well-behaved pop songs ever. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus—and then there’s this wild contrapuntal bridge that leads to a completely new mini-refrain that finishes up on a totally open-ended chord, and then you’re back into the refrain, only it’s not, it’s another transition into an instrumental refrain that repeats and fades. I think “Good Vibrations” is a masterpiece of 20th-century music, but for all its variety, it’s not really developing the material so much as looking at it from all sides. If there’s demonic or sardonic or somber implications in any of those melodies, they remain untapped.

That’s why I always keep turning to non-pop, old and new. For all the joy of pop, a lot of the time, it doesn’t feel like life feels: constantly changing, sometimes uncertain, frequently frustrating, but always driven by the quieter but equally vital excitement of discovery. Sometimes your experience of the world coalesces into a single beautiful moment—that’s pop music. Those moments are rare; it’s why we go back to our favorite pop songs over and over, a little reminder of what those moments are like. Most of the time, though, there’s just a glimmer of something, something that may seem commonplace, but might just might end up somewhere wonderful, and you follow that thread with equal parts apprehension and hope. And for whatever reason—temperamental, psychological, aesthetic—that’s the music I keep trying to write.


  1. matthew, hi! thanks for writing, i’ve recently stumbled upon this mini-universe of musicologists (you’re all nicely linked together) and have been relishing most of the posts. i’d like to take you up on what i see as a challenge: “pop music” that regularly displays the complexities and developement of “classical music.” i use the quotes to hint at my displeasure with labels in general, music labels in particular. uggh. i’ve been tossing around the idea of writing a book-length work on the largely unwritten history of post-avant pop music in america. are your eyes rolling? believe it or not, this is quite a movement, and most of the bands are quietly producing huge quantities of music to mostly ardent fans who may or may not have the capacity to draw the parallels between the use of such techniques as you mention and the classical music traditions that first gave rise to these devices. you mention the beach boys, and we totally agree for the most part on that particular number’s greatness. but for an example that touches on that “demonic” or “somber” nerve you mention, look at their song “little bird.” it may not stray from conventional pop song structure but it does unearth some really dark and disturbing memes. there are so many contemporary practitioners who are employing the kind of developing structure you mention: joan of arc, the fiery furnaces, tv on the radio, cornelius, the list goes on. perhaps the reason i’m so aghast at your comments (aghast in a good way, cuz your love of pop does come through) is because i spent the better part of my youth following a band around who’s major compositions revolved around fugues and contrapuntal harmony!what i lack in academic or technical know-how i’m trying to make it for with exposure. so thanks for reading and keep up the good work on the blog!bestkevin

  2. Kevin: I should probably define my terms better. When I’m talking about “pop music,” I mean Top 40-type pop music. All the bands you mention (and I’m embarrassed to say the only one I already knew was TV on the Radio, but hey, I’m old, and it only gets harder to keep up) use elements of pop music, but I (and this is just my own personal terminology) wouldn’t call them pop. What would I call them? I’m not sure. (Try and figure out a better term for what’s sometime called “contemporary classical” and you run into the same sort of problem.)You’re exactly right about musical development in a lot of these bands. There’s a couple of Boston bands I follow on and off who come up with song structures that would give any modern composer a run for their money. I <>do<> still think that the developing/non-developing thing holds in a emotional sense, though. The majority of pop and pop-like songs out there are trying to come up with a musical representation that absolutely nails a particularly shaded emotion and then sustain it for the length of the song. The majority of “classical”-derived songs out there are trying to take you on an emotional journey that fits within a single structure. Again, it’s the majority, not all. But as a way of considering why pop and classical behave so differently, and what that says about why we listen to each, I think it’s a particularly fruitful framework. Thanks for your comment! What I lack in academic and technical know-how would still probably fill a truck. But that’s the great thing with writing and getting it out there: smart, nice people like yourself will come along and make you shore up your arguments. (And the not-so-nice people? You have the despotic pleasure of deleting their comments.)Matthew

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