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Why classical music is superior to popular music, and always will be

Popular music is here today, gone tomorrow. Each new recording gets more and more stale as time goes by, where classical music can always remain fresh and new.

Yes classical music is superior to popular music. Not in every way perhaps, but it has one advantage that popular music threw away years ago.

Let's start with Elvis Presley. Some say that there was no music before Elvis. Clearly there was, but clearly too he was important.

But the 'was' in that last sentence is very significant. Elvis, contrary to the belief of some, is dead. All we have of him is his recordings. And many impersonators.

The recordings are great. But the problem is that every time you play one of Elvis's records, it's always the same. However great a record may be, it gets increasingly tired and stale as time goes by.

Even if Elvis were alive today, he wouldn't be the same Elvis. Not the youthful innovator and shaker of pelvic bones. Nor the reinvented Elvis of the 1968 NBC TV special. Nor the 'fat and cuddly' Elvis who could still enthuse an audience, although some of his performances didn't exactly do the songs justice.

If Elvis were alive today he would still be singing his old hits. But it wouldn't be the same. The original records are the definitive performances, and they will never be equaled or surpassed by anyone.

So that is the problem - recording!

Somehow, popular music has focused on the record as being the definitive version of a song. Whoever is the first to get a hit record with a song defines how that song should sound for eternity. Anything else can only be an imitation.

Now let's compare that with classical music. In the heyday of classical music, there was no recording. So the only way to preserve music was to write it down.

And the written score has come to be regarded as the definitive version of any piece of classical music.

We can't go back in a time machine and hear a performance directed by Mozart. All we can do is perform the music as best we can from the score.

But that is surprisingly advantageous. Because there is no definitive recording of any piece of classical music (even modern works regard the score as the original, even if the composer has conducted a recording), it is open to anyone to give their own individual interpretation of that music.

And performance styles can change over the years. No matter how much historical evidence we can gather, we will never know for sure how music was performed prior to the era of recording.

So, because there is no definitive version of Mozart's 40th symphony, for example, we can go on performing it and re-interpreting it forever.

But popular music... well we'll always have to listen to those old recordings, because the recording is the definitive version and it can never be bettered.

Still, let's not dwell on negatives. I propose two solutions to this problem...

One, that we all go out and buy violins.

Or, maybe we shouldn't be so focused on recording. Maybe it's the song that is most important, and a recording should merely be seen as a version of that song. Anyone can come up with a new version, and no version is considered to be the definitive recorded performance.

By David Mellor Monday March 29, 2010