Bridging the Gap Between Classical and Pop Songwriting

There are many differences between classical music and pop music. Some of those differences are easy to hear. For example, pop music often relies on rhythmic syncopations and obvious rhythmic grooves, while classical music tends to use syncopation sparingly, and not in a way that sets up a groove.

You’ll also notice that pop music tends to use a different basic instrumentation. Whether it’s guitar, bass and drums, or perhaps synthesizers, pop music has a sound that’s usually different from what you’d be hearing at a concert performed by the local symphony orchestra.

How to Harmonize a MelodyHow to Harmonize a Melody” shows you how to add chords to that melody you’ve got rolling around in your musical mind. It gives you a useful step-by-step process for adding chords to any melody, and shows you how to come up with good chord substitutions.

Another difference that’s easy to hear, but not one we think about a lot, is the fact that classical works are often longer than pop songs. A typical pop song might last 3-to-4 minutes, while a classical symphony or other work might last half an hour or more.

If you have a love of classical music, but you also like pop songwriting, you might try fusing the two worlds, and try to come up with something that takes the best of both. The advantage to creating a blend of classical and pop is that it’s easy to create something that’s uniquely yours, something that’s hard for other songwriters to copy. And audiences typically find this sort of music more interesting and thought-provoking.

This blend is what many progressive rock acts such as Genesis, Yes, and others had in mind when they created their big works of the 70s. But rather than simply trying to bring progressive rock back, think of this blend as an opportunity to try something new.

In that regard, here are 3 important tips to help to give your pop songs a bit of a classical touch:

  1. Listen to lots of classical music to boost your familiarity with the many possibilities. We use the word “classical” as if it’s one big genre. But just as with music we call “pop”, there’s an almost infinite world of sub-genres. If you want to hear how different it can all sound, go to YouTube and look up the following composers: Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Ravel, Gershwin, Stockhausen, and Berio. You’ll hear that the word “classical” is very nebulous, and hardly describes much of what you’ll hear.
  2. Develop a more diverse instrumentation. Giving your pop music a classical touch will happen easily simply by using instruments that you’ve not considered before. So consider writing for string quartet, woodwind quintet, brass quartet for a start, but then branch out. You can use a standard pop ensemble of guitars, keyboards, drums, etc., but add other interesting instruments such as solo violin, oboe, french horn, baritone, etc.
  3. Write longer pieces. Writing a longer piece of music is tricky, because that usually means that you need to develop a more involved musical composition. The standard verse-chorus formats may not do it. So rather than thinking of verses and choruses, try thinking of simply writing one section to follow another, making sure that each section is distinct from the section that came before it.

That 3rd tip above is the trickiest one, because it’s not simply a matter of writing longer songs. The songs need to show a bit more musical development than you might find in a typical pop song.

The kind of musical development I’m talking about might be writing melodies for each section of your song that bear a resemblance to each other. So when the audience hears a melody in the second section of your song, for example, they might hear an “echo” of ideas that came in the first section. This kind of relating sections usually takes a higher level of importance than writing a hook-based tune, and it acts as a kind of musical “glue”, pulling everything together and helping the audience make sense of it all.

Keep in mind also that just because classical music usually uses orchestral instruments, that choice is completely up to you, and these days, so-called “classical” composers are making great use of the kinds of instruments you might hear in a modern pop band. It really comes down to how you write the music.

If you’d like to hear an example of what I mean by writing sections rather than verse and chorus, first listen to the song cycle “Carmina Burana” by German composer Carl Orff. Then listen to one of my favourites, “Supper’s Ready” by Genesis, and hear how they do a similar thing: create a larger work that has the rhythmic and melodic ideas typical of pop music, but on a larger scale, formatted like a song cycle, as if it were a piece of classical music.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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