How do we tell pop music from serious music?

As I've shown before, I'm interested in why different types of music appear good (or not). It struck me the other day, I'm not really sure how we tell the difference between different kinds of music. Specifically, how do we tell, just by listening, that a piece is pop/rock or serious? (I'm using 'serious' for what's often called 'classical' music, as I want to include music from the medieval up to the 21st century, rather than just from the classical period.)

One obvious factor is the way pop/rock etc. use drums (or electronic substitutes) and guitars. But of course lots of serious music uses drums, and some pieces use guitars (if rarely the electric variety). Admittedly, though, the need to have a constant drum beat is almost entirely absent from serious music, and guitars are used in a very different way. So that's one distinction. But let's take that away, strip it down. How do we know that an a-capella boy band is pop, but an unaccompanied choral piece is serious?

You might say it's because the serious music will have more sophisticated harmonies - and you certainly won't get pop with the kind of harmonies you'll find in the Eric Whitacre piece in the post I've linked to above. But that's not always the case. Take something like the Schubert Sanctus from the Deutsche Messe:

The harmonies are simple and predictable like pop music. It has a tune (of sorts) like pop music. How do we know instantly this isn't pop? (Pretend the words weren't Latin and were about romancing someone.)  Admittedly it's slow, but some pop is slow, and I'm sure it's not just that.

All suggestions welcome.


  1. It reminds me of the tale of Herr Slossenn Boschen in Jerome K Jerome's 'Three Men in a Boat'!


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