The sophisticated side of pop

Lewis Coenen-Rowe explains why pop and classical music are really the same thing.

I turned on the radio the other day and found myself confronted by a wall of noise: an orchestra surging forwards with unstoppable momentum, a mass of sound inexorably rising upwards, violin strings strained to breaking point, the whirr and shriek as the tension mounted to cosmic levels and just as the dissonance became unbearable… silence… broken by a blisteringly powerful final chord ringing on a disturbingly long span before fading, finally, into silence.

So who was the music by? It was not, as might be expected, a work of avant garde classical music but the conclusion of a song from the very heart of the pop music canon: A Day in the Life from The Beatles 1967 classic Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The very fact that the distinction between the two could be anything but obvious really exposes one of the greatest flaws in how we tend to think about music: the concept that classical and pop music each have essential characteristics of their own creating a clear and irreconcilable divide. In actual fact, the two have been consistently intertwining ever since the 60s. The Beatles not only had working relationships with classical sitar player Ravi Shankar and composer John Tavener, but take a look at the cover of Sergeant Pepper and who’s that figure on the back row? None other than Karlheinz Stockhausen, a figure from the very forefront of 20th century classical music.

Much of the diversification and expansion of pop music in the late 60s and early 70s, that is now considered somewhat of a golden age, can be attributed to the way that bands began to adopt aspects of classical music; from The Who’s rock operas to the The Velvet Underground’s noise rock under the influence of experimental classical musician John Cale as well as Pink Floyd’s experiments in Prog Rock especially in the case of The Wall.

However the relationship can be uneasy with pop musicians seeking to obtain the claims to high art and seriousness seen to be essential to classical music while simultaneously remaining unwilling to forgo the idea of pop music as representing rebellion and teenage subculture. The Wall is in fact a case in point producing as it does a seeming dichotomy between its appropriation of classical music for structure and instrumentation in tracks like Comfortably Numb and it’s use to represent oppression and ‘the establishment’ in The Trial. The theory and practice do not match up.

On the other hand there have since been much more healthy cultural exchanges. The intensely dissonant textures of Sonic Youth show the influence of 60s composers Gyorgy Ligeti and Krystof Penderecki and, significantly, they recognised their debt by producing albums that consisted of collaborations with classical musicians performing works of composers like John Cage alongside their own. On a similar note Talk Talk seemed to find a neutral middle ground between pop and classical in their 1989 album Spirit of Eden, while Brian Eno has succeeded in straddling the two camps utterly, defying any attempt at categorisation.

The evidence is insurmountable. The influence of classical music on the modern day music scene is beyond calculable despite its reputation as a specialist discipline. Further than this, there really is no longer a point where classical music ends and pop music begins; they are in fact simply different facets of the same edifice, different points on the same spectrum. The idea of two distinct camps only exists on a mental level. The single barrier to a musical rapprochement is all in the mind, as it was in 1979, and the sooner we can realise this the sooner we can abandon our bigotry and open up a whole new range of possibilities for the future.


A Day in the Life- The Beatles

Heroin- The Velvet Underground

Quadrophenia- The Who

Halleluwjah- Can

Franz Schubert- Kraftwerk

Zawinul/Lava- Brian Eno

The Rainbow- Talk Talk

The Monolith- The Beta Band

Treatise- Sonic Youth (their interpretaion of the composition by Cornelius Cardew)

Only Skin- Joanna Newsom

A Piece of the Sky- Swans