Classical vs Modern Music Training

Modern music training has its roots centuries-old classical traditions.

Classical music has been a professionalized art form since at least the 1600’s.┬áThe classical school has set the standards of legitimacy and professionalism for hundreds of years. Other than Telemann and Elgar, few classical composers were self-taught.

Until the 1950s, the classical school was the only school. ‘Music training’ meant ‘classical training.’ Since the 1950s, colleges have modernized their degree programs. Now colleges offer commercial music programs. Classical and commercial music programs both emphasize technical skills, that is playing your instrument well. Both emphasize sight reading and interpreting written music. The main difference is the repertoire, and the environment each one prepares you for.

Commercial music programs for guitar usually emphasize jazz standards and classical pieces. The classical pieces are written in standard notation. The jazz parts are written as ‘Real Book’ style charts, a single-line melody with symbols for the chord changes. Most of the time, the guitar doesn’t play the melody, though you learn the melody to any song you play. As the guitar player, your main job is playing rhythm chords.

Is this good preparation for a career outside of orchestras and conservatories? Elsewhere in the pro music world, this kind of music degree doesn’t qualify you over another player with adequate skills. It doesn’t qualify you over anyone else for a major tour or a record deal.

In the 1970s, Guitar Player Magazine had an article about careers in music. They compared two pyramids representing the number of jobs in classical versus popular music. The top of the pyramid represented the best-paying, most prestigious jobs. The classical pyramid was flat, meaning only a few jobs at the top, many jobs at the bottom level (almost all teachers), and not much in between. The commercial pyramid was taller, meaning more jobs near the top, more gradations between the top and bottom levels. The popular music pyramid reflected a greater diversity of jobs, and more jobs overall.

The industry has grown since then, but the job distributions are about the same. Today, ‘classical’ as a genre owes its commercial existence to a modern distribution infrastructure built upon the sales of rock, country and pop music.

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