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Was Classical Music the Popular Music of its Time?

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

There was a tweet that really inspired this blog post in the first place. And it went something like this:

I’ve heard people say, “Classical music was the pop music of its time” before and unfortunately that cannot be further from the truth. One of the main reasons folks are led to believe this is the way in which “classical” music is held up on such a high pedestal. This makes it difficult to remember that folk music existed at the same time which likely were much more popular melodies than any well-known classical composer of the time. It is yet another example of colonialism in music curricula. It seems, too, that popular music has been snubbed since recorded history has existed. Here is a quote from Pope John XXII describing popular music during his time:

The voices incessantly rock to and fro, intoxicating rather than soothing the ear, while the singers themselves try to convey the emotion of the music by their gestures. The consequence of all this is that devotion, the true aim of worship, is neglected, and wantonness, which ought not be eschewed, increases. We hasten to forbid these methods, or rather to drive them more effectively out of the house of God than has been done in the past. Pope John XXII, Docta Sanctorum, 1323

Folk Musics in 18th-century Europe

Like the majority of folk musics, these melodies and lyrics are often passed down orally, as traditional knowledge. This makes them difficult to study, which is one factor as to why the study of music in a university largely ignores these songs. It is very similar to popular music of today, which are also largely ignored in conservatory-model music education in North America. To be able to study folk musics, a degree in ethnomusicology is often needed. Even studying classical music of other cultures of the world also requires an ethnomusicology degree. This odd dichotomy creates the notion that real music is music of the Central European Classical tradition and that others do not matter. Even though folk music (with extremely popular melodies, I might add) existed in central Europe at the time, we very rarely hear about them; thus, perpetuating a false assumption that no other music worth studying existed at the time. Check this infographic that organizes my thoughts on this:

The difference between music degrees and ethnomusicology degrees in post secondary education.

Broadside Ballads

Broadside Ballads were one of the earliest methods for distribution of popular (folk) music most common between the 16th and 19th centuries. Popular melodies and songs were printed onto single long sheets and distributed throughout England, Ireland, Scotland, and North America. The invention of the printing press made this relatively easy. Often, melodies written in organum and other early European Music notation were printed onto the broadsides, but it was also common where only words with something like, “to the tune of…” were written at the top. These ballads would often share stories, news, or tales of the day and were a cheap form of entertainment. Almost anyone could afford to buy a broadside ballad making them incredibly accessible. One of the most popular broadside ballads still very well known today is “Greensleeves,” originally titled, “A Newe Northern Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves.”

In essence, Broadsides were the Spotify of the day. Even lute tablature was incredibly common in the Middle Ages, but it is never really spoken about at all in school music (much like modern tablature). It really only came back into popularity with Pete Seeger’s banjo books in the 1960s and then developed from there to be one of the most used notational systems in the Western world.

But Haydn!

But, Mozart!

Both of them, as well as many others, used folk melodies in their music. One reason for this is because folk melodies were often catchy and well known so why not capitalize on that? And like today, composers of classical music likely hear popular catchy melodies all the time. The only difference is that the popular music today is copyrighted and they have to be careful about what is used in their compositions.

And, yes, Haydn and Mozart were well-known (especially Haydn) in their day but their concerts weren’t cheap or affordable for as many like the Broadside Ballads were. Their concerts were very much catered to the elite at the time, meaning folk melodies were likely much more widely known than any of their–even most popular–melodies. And Broadsides likely weren’t even needed in many cases because those folk songs would be passed down using other methods like being sung at drinking holes, in the streets, and in homes like popular music is today. Haydn seemed to be much more well known in his day than he is now and I wonder if that was because of his, often, extensive use of popular folk melodies. Mozart wasn’t as well known during his time, but is a house-hold name today.

This post only scratches the surface of this issue. I do not claim to be an expert in Musicology, nor in Ethnomusicology. I am planting seeds here for further discussion. Feel free to comment further to help in adding nuance to this discussion. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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