The Age Old Argument: Classical vs. Contemporary Music Education.

There is no comparison more symbolic of the struggle between new and old than the one we're going to be tackling today: Classical vs. Contemporary music education.

This one really hits home to me, because I really existed with one foot in both pools for the majority of my upbringing as a young musician. I started off playing percussion in school band class at a young age, which led me deep in to the classical territory. I was learning all about a percussionist's role in a symphonic band, how to read music with strong proficiency, etc. But a few years in, my parents bought me my first drum set, and I joined a garage band and jazz band at school. All of a sudden music took on this alter ego. I didn't have to read all the notes I played, and I was playing music that was more reminiscent of what I would listen to on the radio. I proceeded through the majority of high school and college operating essentially as a "switch-hitter" musician; I was the percussionist in the pit orchestra for operas who also played in a rock band with his friends.

During all of this, though, I was torn mentally. I spent a lot of time wondering which of the two avenues I "should" be devoting more time to. I figure there are probably a lot of students and parents who currently wonder the same thing when considering a route of music education for their young ones.

So, to help you navigate your way better through the decision-making process, I put together a short comparison of what your student will truly get out of both the Classical and Contemporary approaches to music education, separated out in to six important categories. Enjoy!

1. How music is passed on.



Huge emphasis on reading music. From day one, students are taught how to read and play sheet music note-for-note, and they continue developing their reading proficiency for the rest of their life. Pros pride themselves on being able to play anything you put in front of them.



Huge emphasis on playing music by ear. Students are usually taught how to imitate/emulate their teacher, and they are encouraged to memorize the music they hear as quickly as possible. Pros pride themselves on being able to hear a song one time and play along with it the second time.

2. Playing technique.



The classical approach would most often suggest that there truly is an optimum performance technique to employ when navigating an instrument. There is a right way to hold drum sticks in traditional grip, and there's a wrong way. There's a right way to shape your embouchure on the saxophone, and there's a wrong way. The best sound and proficiency is attainable only by using the best technique.



In the contemporary mindset, good technique is crucial at the fundamental level, but technique takes a backseat to quality of sound and proficiency.  See how the two approaches seek the same thing but achieve it in different ways? According to the Contemporary approach, if a pianist transcribes and plays an Oscar Peterson solo clearly and with great sound quality, then it doesn't really matter if he's using the "correct" technique or not.

3. Music theory.



This category makes for an interesting comparison. The typical consensus is that Classically trained musicians know music theory better. They study notes on a page, they learn all the Classical theory rules, and they can analyze written music accurately. A great Classical musician applies their analysis of the music into a performed interpretation that coincides with the theoretical principles.



What I've found is that Contemporary musicians have an approach to music theory that is different - not worse - than that of their Classical buddies. Since Contemporary musicians rely more heavily on improvisation in their playing (due to the more open-endedness of their parts), the role of music theory in Contemporary playing is to provide a framework for what a musician should play in a song. They use theory to guide their performance.

4. Performance opportunities.



The scope of performance opportunities for Classical musicians is a bit more narrow than their Contemporary counterparts. Typically Classical musicians find themselves playing in symphonic, orchestral, marching, or theater productions. But, the skill set developed by Classical musicians can lend itself to performing in the contemporary arena.



Since Contemporary music is - by definition - more generally popular than Classical music, that makes two things true: 1) There are more performance opportunities for Contemporary musicians, and 2) There are more Contemporary musicians. Food for thought... Also, the skill set that Contemporary musicians develop does not usually lend itself to performance in most Classical settings.

5. Standard repertoire.



This kind of goes with out saying, but the Classical approach focuses heavily on learning to play Classical music...go figure. Pros are expected to have played their standard repertoire to the point of having their parts worked out so they are easily executable.



The same, "no duh," statement applies here as well. Contemporary musicians play standard Contemporary repertoire. The difference here relates to Point #1: Professional Contemporary musicians are expected to have their standard repertoire memorized. Often on gigs, professional jazz, blues, country, and rock bands will perform tunes that are called on the fly.

6. What are the results?

To me, this is the most important question. What kind of musician results from being trained with this method?



In the end, a perfect Classical musician will:

  • have tremendous reading skills,
  • be able to play their instrument with flawless technique, giving them the ideal Classical sound,
  • possess a deep understanding of Classical music theory and use it to interpret the notes they read on the page,
  • know and appreciate Classical music and repertoire,
  • and have the tools needed to perform difficult, written-out music.



After being brought up with this approach, a perfect Contemporary musician will:

  • be able to play anything they hear very quickly,
  • have a high attentiveness to sound and be able to create the specific sound they are trying to attain,
  • employ music theory in a way that will help them fit in to the musical context they are playing in,
  • know and appreciate Contemporary music and repertoire,
  • and have the tools needed to thrive in a large variety of musical settings.

Have you noticed that I'm not telling you which approach is better than the other? That's because my conclusion after years of involvement in both schools is that both approaches are hugely beneficial in their own ways! 

Unlike many Rock-music-only music schools that barely even skim the surface of what music students are capable of learning and loving, Vibe Music Academy offers a well-rounded approach to music education that lasts our students a lifetime. Sign up for a free music lesson today.

- John Gotsis, Owner and Music Instructor at Vibe Music Academy, Fishers, Indiana.