Classical and pop music: 200 years of rivalry

classical music composers (vs pop music)Is classical music or pop music better? Perhaps you’ve seen conversations on sites like or Did you know that these arguments have been going on for more than 200 years?

Typically, someone will ask if classical music is superior to pop music, or if classical music has to be elitist. Or perhaps someone will post a putdown of one, which will attract passionate defenses.

It amazes me how little people in these discussions actually know. Some of them, for example, contrast classical music and modern music. That’s on both sides.

They seem not to know that popular music existed before Elvis Presley, or even before Frank Sinatra. They apparently don’t know that plenty of modern music is written for symphony orchestras or other typically classical ensembles.

How the argument began

“Classical” music has at least two different meetings. The so-called classical period refers to the time of Haydn and Mozart. It was named by people who identified as “romantic” and wanted a handy label for older music. They claimed Beethoven as one of their own.

More broadly speaking, the concepts of classical and popular music grew out of the aftermath the French Revolution. In the late 18th century, there was only music.

The music of Mozart and Haydn, was immensely popular throughout Europe. It appealed to people of all social classes. It appealed to connoisseurs of musical art. It appealed to people who didn’t know much about music at all besides what they liked.

Orchestral music was based on just a few familiar forms. The different sections of each form were easy to distinguish. The better composers could do clever but subtle things with the structures.

The more sophisticated listeners delighted in hearing the subtleties. They liked to hear the same pieces over and over, because they always heard something new. Most of the audience didn’t notice. They appreciated novelty and always wanted to hear something new.

Concert life in Paris and London ceased for about 20 years. The quality of orchestra performance in Vienna declined dramatically. By the time concerts revived, the less sophisticated listeners were no longer used to recognizing when the music shifted from one section of a form to another.

Beethoven classical music vs pop music

Beethoven. Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

What’s more, Beethoven had started to hide the seams. His music was still popular. That is, a wide segment of the public enjoyed hearing it.

But it wasn’t easy listening like Haydn. Connoisseurs had to study the written notation to find and understand all the cool stuff.

Instead of one audience, therefore, there were two. One wanted an artistic experience. The other wanted novelty. They no longer got what they wanted from the same music.

During the concert hiatus, publishers treated music more like a businessman than art form. Composers of songs and piano music churned out superficial pieces by the dozens. The majority of customers for sheet music found a comforting combination of familiarity and novelty. And so they kept coming back for more.

The songs all sounded pretty much alike. The piano pieces had more flash and dazzle than artistic substance. Pianists got fabulously rich playing trite variations in wealthy people’s salons.

There was no point in composing symphonies or concertos. Without orchestra concerts, no one could get them performed. There was hardly any more point in composing artistic piano music.

Since fewer people were interested in music that requires knowledge to understand, publishers didn’t push it as much. But the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven still continued to delight connoisseurs.

As the two audiences diverged, they began to argue about music in the press. Classical music came to mean the music of dead people. People who didn’t appreciate it accused connoisseurs of living in the past and being snobs.

classical music vs pop music

Rossini. Caracature from Le Hanneton, July 4, 1867


Popular music came to mean the commercial products of the music business. Classical music fans looked down their noses at its superficiality. After all, many of the people who composed it couldn’t even read music.

For example, Michael Kelly, resident composer at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in the 1790s, simply hummed his tunes to a musical hack. The hack wrote them down and figured out what chords to use. Audiences still bought tickets.

Today we think of opera as classical music. It’s easy to forget that it counted as popular music until the time of Wagner. Classical music lovers despised operas by Rossini as much as they despised all of those songs and piano pieces.

Is classical music elitist?

Children at the symphony classical vs pop music

Children at the symphony

Who wrote for and read the magazines where these disputes took place? Members of the nobility or upper-middle-class.

People of lower classes probably never read them. If they could afford to spend anything on entertainment, they went to the dance halls. Johan Strauss and others provided the music there.

In the off-season, dance orchestras gave promenade concerts. They  included music every bit as superficial as upper class popular music. They also included classical music. The audience appreciated all of it.

I have described the tension between classical and popular music as it existed in the 1830s and 1840s. The arguments for and against each kind haven’t changed in nearly 200 years.

Nowadays somehow, some people have gotten the idea the classical music is elitist. They say it appeals only to rich, old white people.

Of course, these people don’t go to classical concerts. They don’t notice the racially mixed audience. They don’t notice people who are not wealthy enjoying the free concerts given by community orchestras. They don’t notice the delight children always take in hearing classical music.

Online defenders of classical music point out that true understanding requires knowledge, which come only from experience and study. Performance at a high-level requires excellence. Elite, then refers to people with the knowledge and excellence.

The argument is entirely defensive and unnecessary. Elitism does not mean merely the existence of an elite, but the assumption that somehow the elite is inherently superior to other people. And what does that have to do with music?

If you have noticed ignorance that takes place on both sides of these arguments, please share this post.


Source: William Weber. Music in the Middle Class: The Social Structure of Concert Life in London, Paris, and Vienna. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1975.

Photo credits:
Classical composers montage. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Beethoven. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Rossini. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.
Children at the symphony. Some rights reserved by michale.

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