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Timeline: Popular Music And Classical Music

James Stewart
Musical genres are usful, but do they stand in the way of experiencing the human expression of music?

Originally aired March 20, 2017...

Musical labels are useful. The title of a genre or style comes in handy in the record store, on the radio or for streaming services. But these labels can also be problematic and divisive.


Today there are many labels that separate the musical landscape but none are more controversial then the terms, popular music and classical music.

Popular music isn’t an invention of the 20th century. There have always been songs and tunes that resonate with people; something to whistle and hum throughout the day. Every culture on the planet has developed their own brand of popular music.

What happened in the 20th century was a shrinking of culture. The world was getting increasingly smaller and more connected, allowing access and influence across geographical and political boundaries.

Commercial interests and studios began to systemize the production, image and presentation of the music and the artist performing it. By the 1950s “rock 'n' roll” had made its way across the western world and in the 80s, nearly every person on the planet had heard the name Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop."

Today, classical music seems to mean anything either written before World War I or something with strings and orchestra. But, there are a thousand years of works stretching back along our shared history and the term “classical” is a poor way to define them.

The actual classical era (the time of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven) barely covers five decades of the 18th and 19th centuries.

It’s also important to remember that this music was popular and these composers would often reference, preserve or create the folk tunes of their day. Mozart’s style is an amalgamation of genres from across Europe. Beethoven would often quote popular tunes within his chamber works. Brahms preserved and arranged 144 German folk songs. The Russian Five created a national style that embraced their heritage. Bartok, Smetana and Kodaly devoted a good portion of their effort to recording the folk traditions of their homeland. And Sibelius wrote tunes so familiar to the public consciousness that most honestly believed they had always existed.

History, circumstances, culture and time is what truly decides what music remains.

Sometime in the future, these songs and artists that we consider to be “popular” today will become “standards” and eventually “classics." Not everything heard today will stand the test of time, but we do have a rich repertoire of songs, symphonies, concerti, operas, music that already has.

So, don’t let the labels stand in the way of exploring this human expression of music.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

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