The Differentiation Between Classical and Street Music


How Past Societies Differentiated the Music of the Classical, Highly Trained Musicians and That of the Untrained Masses

©2006 Mark B. Anstendig

Society has always differentiated between two types of music-making, the music-making of the well-trained “classical” musicians and that of the untrained populace. Today we still differentiate between the two. However, lately we use the terms Classical and Popular for both types of music, i.e., Classical Rock, popular classics, classical Jazz, etc. The differentiations have blurred. But in general, there still remains the original, basic differentiation between “classical” and “popular” or “pop” music. Both categories of musicians use the same notes, meters, pitches, and even, to a great extent, harmonies. So what clearly differentiated both groups in Mozart’s day and still differentiates most today?

The answer lies in their manner of performance. Specifically, in how each group managed the flow of the sounds in time (the flow of the music in time, if you will). The difference lies in how each group kept track of the orientation of the sounds in time, i.e., how they kept track of the rhythm, the note values, etc. Even more specifically: how they were able to manage themselves, their own person, in short, their control over and use of their own bodies in regard to preserving the orientation of the sounds in time.

In Mozart’s time, the complete control of the flow of sound in time was grouped under the single term “Tempo”. That concept of “Tempo” included:

Precisely keeping time and preserving note values in time when desired.

Being able to vary those note values at will, if desired, without losing track of the underlying rhythmic pulse, or beat.

Being able to vary the rhythmic pulse at will if desired.

Being able to control the reverberation of one’s own body and mind in relation to a set beat that is in progress, so as to be able to change the flow of that beat/pulse whenever and however one might desire to do so, for expressive purposes.

Being able to adhere to a set beat or purposely and knowingly change it at will, even within a single phrase or a section of a composition, while preserving an aesthetic-artistic concept.

Before explaining in detail, I can simply state that the differentiation is in whether the performer has to keep a steady beat going, either in a percussion or rhythm section or in his/her own body, by tapping a foot or other such overt physical means of keeping track of the beat, or whether the performer does not having to do so and can remain physically calm and unmoving, while still preserving all the capabilities described in the paragraph above, i.e., without having to physically tap the beat or have something like a drum or other percussion keep the beat, etc.

Jean-Pierre Marty wrote a book called “The Tempo Indications of Mozart”, published by Yale Press1, which I consider the most important book on music interpretation. The book shows how to find the probable speeds of all the tempo indications of Mozart, of Mozart’s period, and, by implication, all tempo markings before and since. At the beginning of that book Jean-Pierre alludes to the fact that the word “Tempo” meant much more than simply the speed of the beat/pulse of music. Rather than choose passages, I include the whole beginning of the book:

Jean-Pierre Marty

In a letter to his father, dated Augsburg, October 24, 1777, Mozart writes the following about the way the daughter of Stein, the famous piano manufacturer, had played for him the previous night: “Sie wird das notwendigste und härteste und die Hauptsache in der Musik niemahlen bekommen, nämlich das Tempo, weil sie sich von Jugend auf völlig befliessen hat, nicht auf den Takt zu spielen. H. Stein und ich haben gewiss zwei Stunden miteinander über diesen Punkt gesprochen.” This means: “She will never achieve the most necessary, the hardest, and the main thing in music, namely Tempo, because from her very youth she made sure not to play in time. Mr. Stein and I have discussed this point a good two hours.”
          It is to be lamented that no stenographer was on hand to take down for posterity what would have been priceless teachings. Yet, these few words, written in Mozart’s own hand, have more significance than a superficial reading would yield.
          First of all, let us note that in this letter written in German Mozart uses the Italian word tempo rather than a German equivalent. Actually, it is a word which is used in many languages, but its full significance is difficult to grasp at once. Tempo suggests an idea rather than expresses a clear concept. This vagueness, inherent in the word, is even increased in Mozart’s letter by the three superlatives, with which he attempts to pin down the notion: “the most necessary,” “the hardest,” and finally “the main thing in music.” But there is more to it.
          Mozart says that because Miss Stein does not play in time, she will never achieve that mysterious element. Obviously he means by this that playing in time is not the same thing as playing in tempo, but that it is a necessary, though by no means sufficient, condition. Playing in time is the first prerequisite to achieve (bekommen) tempo, but playing in time does not automatically guarantee that tempo will be “achieved.” A better performer than Miss Stein might very well “achieve” that tempo, which is not only “the most necessary, the hardest, and the main thing in music” in performing (spielen) but in music itself (in der Musik).
          All that Mozart tells us in this passage – and this is of considerable importance – is that tempo is the core of music and that this core, this mysterious element without which music is not really music, is entirely the performer’s responsibility. Let the performer play “in time” for a start and let us hope that he will then “achieve” tempo (end of quote).

Sound is vibrating space flowing in time. Music, the sonic art, is ordered space flowing in a controlled manner in time. However, anything flowing in time, even our everyday movements, does so in rhythm, i.e., in some sort of pattern or other. In music, the flow of the space in time is organized in relation to a chosen, set pulse, called the beat. Therefore, the beat(s) and the organization of the tones in time according to the beat(s), which we call the rhythm, is the most important part of music, without which there would be no music, just plain noise. (I place the “s” in “beats” in parenthesis, because it is possible to vary and change the beat patterns within the same composition, even within short spaces of time, as in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and many modern and even old musics).

But establishing and maintaining rhythm is a very elusive, difficult thing. It was especially difficult in the beginnings of music, until the metronome was invented. The rhythm and speed, or tempo, of the notes in relation to the beat was the most elusive aspect of music, and still remains difficult, even with the modern metronome. Music started as a living, breathing, rhythmically flexible thing that naturally followed human expression and mannerisms, and did not always adhere strictly to an absolutely steady, inflexible set beat. The pulse of music had flexibility according to the whim, fancy and logic, etc., of the person making the music and still does. Even today, playing metronomically seems unnatural in most music and, in fact, careful analysis finds few performances of music metronomically exact. For music to come alive in meaningful, more humanly expressive, and/or more sophisticated ways, the “tempo” has to allow flexibility, sometimes to a great degree, and the musician has to be able to control that flexibility. So the teaching of “tempo” in Mozart’s time first trained and thoroughly drilled the student in keeping exact time, and then taught the student how to vary that exact time/beat while still remaining in control and not losing track of the flow of the music in time.

Man started as a vulgar, uncontrolled, inelegant beast, incapable of refined higher experience. We still do, when we start out as babies. During those times, when civilization was refining itself and finding the felicities and values of refined, controlled personal discipline, manners, refinement of manner and being, elegance, sophistication, etc., were the strived-for aim of all civilized societies (and still are….or at least should be). The first expectation of all society when classical music was developing was that refined, educated people be in control of everything about their physical person. Allowing one’s body to wiggle, scratch, or follow any uncontrolled impulses was considered vulgar. Why? Because the word vulgar comes from the word vulgate, the uncontrolled populace of the street, which was the untrained, disadvantaged masses that did not have access to training or circumstances that developed higher personal self-control. Only the advantaged of the time had access to upbringing and training that taught self-control, elegance, refinement and physical control in all circumstances, including those of music-making.

The differences between the formally well or exquisitely trained musicians and the untrained musicians of the vulgar populace showed itself most obviously in their ability in, and ways of keeping, a beat and of keeping a rhythm in relation to the beat, i.e., in their keeping time. Tapping one’s foot or physically using any other part of one’s body to keep time was then a vulgarity, plain and simple, and actually still is, today. The street musicians always had a drum and often other percussion instruments thumping out the beat while they played, tapping their feet and otherwise jiggling, usually uncontrolledly, in time with the music. Popular music today, for the most part, still does that, however more subtle some have become at it. Popular music is, therefore, still firmly rooted in the realm of the street-music, the vulgar, etc., some tenuously some quite firmly. But a problem of differentiation these days is that classical musicians have very much regressed to the point where the original mastery of the myriad aspects of the flow of music in time, i.e., of “tempo”, is reduced to little more than simply trying to keep a steady beat and still needing some overt physical means of keeping the pulse in order to not lose one’s control or not lose one’s place in the score altogether. Many conductors out there today wave their arms mostly to keep their own place in the music, and would lose their place if they did not beat the time steadily. Such conductors waving of their arms is the modern equivalent of tapping one’s foot or having a background drum going to keep the time.

By Mozart’s time, wherein society differentiated just about everything according to station and advantages in life, the level of one’s upbringing and place in the musical society was differentiated mostly by one’s deportment in regard to keeping the beat and achieving excellent, flexible rhythm/”tempo”. That means that the level of one’s music making was differentiated by how finely trained one was in rhythm and “tempo” and by what means one employed to keep the beat and achieve the tempo, or, rather, by one’s ability to keep and vary the rhythm and “tempo” at will, without vulgar means like tapping one’s foot or other displays of vulgarity.

To recapitulate:

The basic, most obvious difference between the finely trained musicians, of Mozart’s ilk, for example, and the street bands and other not formally trained musicians was that the musics of the untrained musicians was characterized by a drum beating time, by foot tapping, and by otherwise moving along with the music in order to keep track of the beat and the progress of the music. Whereby, in the finely trained music circles such behavior would have been considered vulgar and out of place. Well trained musicians of that day were drilled thoroughly and rigorously in what was called “Tempo” until they could establish a keep a rhythm and everything else the word “tempo” implied in that day, which was considerable, without extraneous, so-called vulgar movement. The differentiations went far into the deeper meanings of “Tempo” and included the ability to vary the tempo at will, without any extraneous physical means of beating the changes in speed in order to keep track of what one was doing.

1 Jean-Pierre Marty, The Tempo Indications of Mozart. (New Haven: Yale Press, 1988), p.ix

The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit, tax-exempt, research institute that was founded to investigate stress- producing vibrational influences in our lives and to pursue research in the fields of sight and sound; to provide material designed to help the public become aware of and understand stressful vibrational influences; to instruct the public in how to improve the quality of those influences in their lives; and to provide research and explanations for a practical understanding of the psychology of seeing and hearing.