Is Classical Music Irrelevant?

When the question was posed, it caught me completely off guard.  At first I was baffled.  The answer seemed an obvious no, yet I couldn't immediately formulate a succinct and logical argument that could irrefutably neutralize the nagging question.  After all, I was reminded, only a very small minority of the population attends classical concerts, purchases classical music, or actively participates in performing classical music.  Current contemporary classical tunes are not climbing up the popular music charts.  Classical pieces were not always popular even at the time they were written.  According to commonly cited definitions of success, classical music is not.

So, is it possible to be relevant if not necessarily popular or lucratively successful?  Relevance, as defined by Webster speaks to having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.  In this case, the matter at hand is assumed to be what is generally accepted as music today.  My purpose in this brief document is to point out possible correlations between classical music and today’s popular music and to suggest a conceptual model for relevance based on similar gaps between common and high-level disciplines in various fields of science.

In establishing the relevance of classical music, it might be interesting to look at parallels in other disciplines as well.  For example, is the study of differential calculus relevant to the mathematical skills necessary for ordinary day-to-day living?  What about quantum physics? Or biochemistry?  

Is music merely recreational art or applied science?  Few would readily identify mathematics as a recreational endeavor.  However, play a few hands of blackjack, a round of Yatzee or a hand of dominos and you suddenly realize that there is some recreational value, limited though it may be, to mathematics.  Even the beginner understands that it’s not enough to simply add up the numbers and roll the dice one more time.  There are statistics, laws of averages, odds, bell curves and standard distributions that suddenly begin to separate the players from the pros.

So sure, most of us don’t put the finer details of higher math to the test on a daily basis. Never the less, a good commute to work on the highway just might be the result of a traffic engineer that has a grasp of fluid mechanics and shock wave theory when he developed the formula the decides how long to hold you on the onramp before allowing you to merge with the rest of traffic.  And don’t you think it’s just remotely possible that some of the statistical analysis of actuarial data down at the insurance office has trickled down to the blackjack table as the mathematician unwinds on a long weekend in Las Vegas?

Is high math relevant to the blackjack table?  Absolutely.  Is it necessary to be a rocket scientist, to understand or even be cognizant of the laws and theorems to enjoy the game and even be mildly successful? No, not at all.  Is a detailed knowledge of physics necessary to put together a successful snowboard run down the half pipe?  No, but you might get a little snow down your pants.  Is a degree in astronomy necessary to appreciate the different colors of stars?  Of course not.  Many people don’t realize that stars are different colors!  These are recreational pursuits. A slight miscalculation or lack of knowledge will only result in mild embarrassment at worst, and at best, you come away with a new learning.

There are two aspects of learning involved.  First is the acquisition, assimilation and application of various levels of knowledge.  The player vs. the pro.  The weekend warrior vs. the expert.  A shot in the dark vs. consistent and predictable success.  Second, the contribution of the extremes – number theory, quantum mechanics – disciplines that seem so esoteric that they have little relevance to much of anything at all.  Yet, things as well understood as chemistry that produces the myriad of plastics that make western civilization what it is today was equally incomprehensible a mere hundred years ago.  Many of the things high school students today take for granted as absolute truth were controversial theories to their parents and grandparents.

Now back to the matter at hand.  We can begin to understand how every discipline has breadth, depth, and length.  It’s not so much either/or (calculus or algebra)  as it is how one is integrally dependent on the other.  Research at the extremes produces a trickle-down effect that over time can have a profound effect on the entire discipline.  Let’s think of the entire discipline of music – Jazz, Rap, Hip-hop, Ska, Bee-bop, Big Band, Country & Western, Folk, International, Tango, and the list goes on and on.  Each style of music has its own varying levels of popularity depending a wide range of factors.  Some people in Seattle probably still listen to Grunge.  

Personally, I used to think Country & Western music was irrelevant.  I don’t know anyone personally that listens to it, I couldn't tell you a single radio station that plays it, but you know, I found out a while back that Country music regularly outsells top-40 format.  How’d that one get by me?  But were getting off the subject again…

Many have drawn a line between classical and ‘popular’ music forms, placing the two classes at opposite ends of a musical spectrum, much as if the two styles of music were considered the antithesis of each other.   In establishing the relevance of classical music, it might be more productive to explore the areas where classical might have made significant contributions to popular music.

So, where does classical music fit into this overall scheme?  Is it possible that there has been some ‘trickle-down’ from classical music into more common forms of music?  Could it be that classical music is the ‘quantum science’ of the music world?  Is there a chance something Bach or Beethoven pioneered two or three hundred years ago is now in regular use in pop music today?  

I believe the answer is more than speculative.  Melodic and harmonic devices first used by Schubert make quite obvious appearances in the music of the Beatles.  Do you think that rap is a modern invention?  Not quite.  Metered, unpitched vocals appear in the music of Arnold Schoenberg in 1912.  The rules of four part harmonization devised by Bach in the 1700’s serve as the basis for all polyphonic music written today.  Jazz today borrows freely from late romantic chromaticism and proceeds to utilize atonal and aleatoric techniques pioneered by classical composers in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Jimmie Hendrix probably didn’t stir the music world any more than Niccolo Paganini did a hundred and fifty years ago.  Pull out a CD and listen to a few of the 24 caprices for violin performed by a passionate and talented artist, and you will instantly see the parallels.  Improvisation, a key element of instrumental music of all types, was built into the concerti of Mozart and Beethoven.  The continuo part in virtually all of Bach’s literature was realized from a chart not significantly different from those we play from today.

Classical opera has served as the model on which the modern musical are based, such as Evita, Les Miserables, and even the so-called Rock Operas like Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar.  The forms and emotional expression have direct correspondence.  Many modern musicals are indistinguishable from 19th century opera except for some pop idioms present in some tunes.

It is possible to be a high level musician and lack the basic knowledge and appreciation of classical music history and theory.  However, I also believe the studied professional will have a significant advantage over his less educated counterparts when it comes to the successful application of the musical arts.  The theories of melody and harmony, coupled with rules of voice leading and counterpoint, continue to prove themselves inseparable from quality music of any genre. A thorough knowledge of generally accepted rules governing music theory allow the practitioner to choose the most effective tools for his expression, rather than relying on trial and error methods, whether as a composer, arranger, orchestrator, songwriter or performer..

Why do we continue to use classical orchestras in Broadway productions and movie soundtracks?  Quite frankly, the volume of actual classical music in Hollywood productions over the years has been astonishing.  Frequently obscure works are used that are not familiar to large numbers of people.  Part of the attraction to classical music in films may be that the music, in many cases, can be used royalty free, thus reducing production expenses.  Additionally, there’s the real possibility that the music is capable of deep emotional expression that transcends the centuries and social boundaries.

A complete defense of the relevance of classical music could take on the form of a rather technical document worthy of a doctoral thesis.  It could demonstrate and document the direct links and influences of classical forms and theories on popular music over the centuries.  One curious example would be to compare the crude hymnody of the southern US in the 1820’s –1860’s with the more refined hymns coming our of Europe during this same period.  

To continue this particular document in this fashion might come off as somewhat defensive.  I believe I’ve touched on all the salient issues.  The classical genre has not only served as the development and testing laboratories for all forms of music, but has produced masterworks of musical genius that survive today, hundreds of years after contemporary popular music has completely vanished without a trace.  To deny classical music has relevance to music today is to deny history and perhaps proclaim ones ignorance of the academic study of music.