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Complexity in Popular Music

In european societies the music of Bach, Mozart and Brahms is generally considered to be a part of high culture whereas Lady Gaga, Sia and Coldplay have to settle with the label „popular music“. Many essays, scientific articles and even books have been written on the dividing line between classical and poplular music. One feature of classical music to which musicologists often refer is its complexity. While countless pop songs are based on simple four chord structures, classical composers tend to apply richer harmonic progressions.

The 4-Chord-Song of The Axis of Awesome is emblematic of the lack of harmonic resources in popular music.

Proponents of classical music often argue that it is a more sophisticated and intense way of creative expression due to its greater level of complexity. Supporters of this point of view are firmly convinced that the simple chord progressions in popular music limit its capacity for portraying emotions. James Young from the University of Victoria puts it like this:

"Classical music (understood as common practice composition) has greater potential for expressiveness and, consequently, has more potential for psychological insight and profundity. The greater potential for expressiveness in classical music is due, in large part, to its greater harmonic resources. The harmonies in classical music are more likely to be functional, more contrary motion is employed, and modulation is more common. Although popular music employs rhythms not found in classical music, on the whole there is less rhythmic variety in popular music than there is in classical."

So even though some pop songs like "Bohemian Rhapsody" for example show a certain amount of harmonic complexity, according to Young they constitute an exception to the general rule. Nevertheless it is important to keep in mind, that it is not easy to emperically validate the claim that classical music is based on greater harmonic resources than modern popular music. One particular great challenge consists in finding convincing definitions of classical and popular music as well as harmonic variety. For the sake of brevity, I won't examine this subject here, but rather assume that classical music has indeed greater harmonic resources than popular music.

However, harmonic variety is only one dimension of musical complexity among many others. In my view there is an important dimension of musical complexity which is represented in popular music but not at all in classical music. And this dimension is sound design.

In modern popular music, shaping sounds has become a major part of the production process. Nowadays, musicians work hours and hours on their drum kits, their synths, guitars and what have you. The process of intentionally developing original sounds requires a lot of experience with and understanding of the respective plugin. But it is the pathway to completely new musical territory.

One could look at it like this: in popular music new instruments are invented for every track. Which classical composers invented there own instruments for their pieces? Only a few.

Proponents of classical music often praise Harry Partch for creatively developing new instruments for his music. In the era of digital music production however, this process is rendered invisible and therefore innovative sound designers cannot hope for similar appreciation of their art.

Conseqeuntly, one could argue that popular music has the potential for portraying emotions in a more nuanced way than classical music because the former has a far greater set of instruments at its disposal. Since modern popular music can draw on traditional instruments but also on millions of new digital sounds, its multitude of tonal colours makes up for its lack of harmonic complexity.

In my opinion it is completely nonsensical to solely measure the value of music by standards of classical european music. In the eyes of Chopin lovers „Poker Face“ might be considered as really bad music because of its simple chord progression. But from the perspective of modern electro music there is also a horrifiying lack of sound design in the piano works of Chopin. The animosity and arrogant attitude of many classical music lovers towards Lady Gaga, Sia and Coldplay does not say much about the latter. It only demonstrates that some fans of classical music take pleasure in feeling superior.

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