Elton John

Pop Music’s Classical and Romantic Eras

Early next week I will have the pleasure of conducting what is arguably one of classical music’s most powerful works: Mozart’s “Requiem.” It was the last piece Mozart composed, and in fact it was left unfinished, completed by one of his former students, Franz Xaver Süssmayr.

By the time the Requiem was composed (1791), the music world was moving in a new direction. At that point, Beethoven was 21 years old, and beginning to create a musical style that would eventually become what we call 19th Century Romanticism.

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Entire books have been written about the main differences between “Classical era” music (roughly 1740-1800), with composers like Haydn and Mozart, and “Romantic era” music (the 19th century), with composers like Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss. If you were to listen to a Mozart symphony (Symphony No. 40), and then, let’s say, a Strauss tone poem (“Also Sprach Zarathustra“), you’d hear the orderly structure of Mozart, and then the emotional flamboyance of Strauss. Classical and Romantic music are very different when you listen to them side by side.

In the pop music world, there has been a similar transition from smaller, structured songs (1950s pop) to songs that are more elaborate, more emotional and more flamboyant (1960s-70s):

1950s POP:

  • “Lucille” – Albert Collins, Little Richard (Little Richard)
  • “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” – Kal Mann, Bernie Lowe (Elvis Presley)
  • “Peggy Sue” – Jerry Allison, Norman Petty, Buddy Holly (Buddy Holly)
  • “The Great Pretender” – Buck Ram (The Platters)
  • “All I Have to Do Is Dream” – Boudleaux Bryant (The Everly Brothers)

1960s-70s POP:

  • “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – Jagger/Richards (The Rolling Stones)
  • “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” George Harrison (The Beatles)
  • “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – Paul Simon (Simon & Garfunkel)
  • “You’re So Vain” – Carly Simon
  • “Philadelphia Freedom” – Elton John, Bernie Taupin (Elton John)

In the musicology world, you’ll hear the experts say that while Classical era music favoured form over content, the Romantic era favoured content over form. So a Classical symphony, if it started in the key of C major, would typically make a transition to G major part way through the first movement, because that was an important part of the form of classical music.

But a Romantic era composer had far more interest in melodies and how they interacted with chords, all in a bid to make the audience feel some powerful emotions. So Strauss’ “Zarathustra” is about a philosophical journey, but that classical symphony I mentioned? That’s about C major!

You can hear that kind of change in pop music as well. In early pop, the topics were simple, and usually about simple, uncomplicated love, as we hear in “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” But “You’re So Vain”? That’s a much more complex story, with far more complex emotions.

Because the Classical and Romantic eras took place at a time when the world was very different, both sociologically and technologically, it took close to a century to make the transition from music that was all about form, to music that was all about content. But in the pop music world, the equivalent transition took only ten to fifteen years, such was the power of media.

It wouldn’t be true to say that early pop songs didn’t have an important emotional element; they did. But music at that time was certainly less complicated, more structured, and more predictable.

Music historians will say that the issue of form and content is what music is about, no matter what genre you’re talking about. You’re either living in an era where content is more important than form, or where form is more important than content.

When I look at music right now, I find myself thinking that the structure of pop songs is simple and clear, and the emotions today’s songs generate don’t seem to be very complex ones. In mainstream pop, do we have the equivalent of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” being written today? Perhaps in the indie world, but less so in mainstream pop.

So if you find yourself bemoaning the fact that music today seems a bit uninspired and derivative, you might console yourself with the possibility that in a short while songwriting will move back to something a little less predictable and more inspiring.

Do you have thoughts on this topic? I’d love to know what you think. Please leave a comment below.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for this article; I hadn’t thought about songs this way before, but I can see the truth of it. This will keep me thinking for a couple of days or more, and, I hope, improve my songwriting.

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