For Parents

Classical vs. Pop Music: Which Is Better For Piano Learners?

By Hoffman Academy Team

Learning about classical & pop music for pianists and why you should learn to play classical music and pop music

Can’t wait to learn how to play all your favorite pop songs on the piano? Or are you most excited to play the great piano classics from the concert hall? If you’re a beginning pianist, you may be wondering if it would be better to focus on learning to play classical music or pop music when you first start out. The answer is that you can get great benefits from learning to play classical music and popular music.

What’s Great about Learning to Play Pop Music?

The ability to play a popular song you love can be a great motivation to practice. It’s so much fun to sit down at a piano and play a tune that your friends will recognize and enjoy, and maybe even sing along with you. Also, because popular music is often simpler than classical piano pieces, you’ll be able to play pop music songs early in your piano studies. Most pop music relies on basic chord progressions and a strong melody line, which makes pop songs easier to memorize and play by ear than classical music.


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Why Should I Be Familiar with Classical Music?

While popular music is fun and usually easier to play, there’s a whole world of inspiring classical music for piano learners to explore. Many great classical composers, such as Bach, Schumann, and Kabalevsky, have written marvelous pieces with piano students in mind. These pieces are not too difficult to learn and will do a lot to improve your musical skills. Classical music tends to be more complex and technically challenging than pop music, with a variety of structures, chords, dynamics, and tempos. Playing classical music from many different time periods will enrich your piano studies and your appreciation for music in general. 

Learning to Play Classical Music Vs. Pop

Here’s a quick comparison of Classical and Pop Music:

  • Chord progressions: When you play pop music, chords are much more predictable and repetitive than in classical music. Around 80% of pop music uses only four basic chords. A typical Bach piece uses dozens of different chords in amazingly unique combinations.
  • Melody: Pop tunes generally use a lot of repeated notes, short repeated melodic phrases, and very simple melodic lines. This makes pop songs easy to learn, easy to remember, and simple and fun to sing or play. Classical melodies have a more complex structure, tend to have longer repeated phrases, and can be much more challenging, and more rewarding, to learn and perform.
  • Instrumentation: What if, instead of playing solo, you want to play with a group? Most popular music is performed by a small group of musicians. Along with a keyboard, you’ll typically have a drummer, one or two guitars, a bass, and a vocalist. On the other hand, you’ll find many classical pieces written for a piano and a full orchestra, which will include about fifty to a hundred musicians.
  • Rhythm: There’s one way in which pop music tends to be more sophisticated than classical music. Pop music has very complex rhythms. It can be really tricky to read and perform the rhythm of a pop melody. Drum patterns in pop music layer different rhythms for bass drum, snare drum, and hi hat, and when you put all those together it really makes you want to tap your foot! Most classical music isn’t as rhythmically interesting. For example, some Bach pieces consist of nothing but straight sixteenth notes.

A Little History of Classical and Pop Music

Did you know that a lot of what we think of now as classical music was pop music in its day? In fact, when Handel’s famous piece, “The Messiah,” was performed for the first time, some listeners were offended to hear sacred Bible texts set to the sound of “popular music,” like they were used to hearing in an opera house instead of in a church. Now, a few hundred years later, Handel’s “Messiah” is considered to be an iconic, classical sacred work!

Other popular music from the past has come down to us in the form of folk songs. These are the tunes that were enjoyed by people everywhere as they worked, played, and spent time together with those they loved. Most of the piano pieces in the first few units of the Hoffman Method are based on folk songs like these, which have stood the test of time and are still enjoyed today.

The classical music tradition in the Western world came from musical performances in more formal settings, such as a royal court or a church. Classical music was written down and meant to be performed by highly trained musicians. This meant that it could use complex harmonies and many different melodies working together to create a very sophisticated sound.  

With the coming of radio and now the internet, both classical and pop music can reach huge audiences all over the world. Amazing classical-style orchestral scores are written for blockbuster movies, and the latest catchy pop tunes are shared by millions of listeners on music streaming platforms. We’re surrounded by so much great music of all styles. 

Getting Started with Classical Music

With so much music to learn, where should you start? Here are some suggestions. 

Some great classical music melodies that beginning pianists can learn include Ode to Joy by Beethoven, Minuet in G from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Anna Magdalena Notebook, and In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg. You can find simplified arrangements of many more famous classical pieces by taking a look at the Faber Piano Adventures Classics series. 

Spend some time listening to classical music as well. You can start with our Hoffman Academy “Classic and Cool” Spotify playlist. As you begin to explore classical music, think about what composers and time periods you enjoy most. Even if you’re not a big fan of classical music yet, there’s so much variety out there that you’re sure to find something you like.

Getting Started with Pop Music

Want to learn some fun and easy popular tunes? Hoffman Academy has lots of popular song video tutorials for beginners that cover music from hit movies, video games, and even holiday favorites. Visit our “Learn Popular Songs for Piano” page where you can search by category and difficulty level to find a video lesson that’s just right for you.

If you want a challenge, one way to find popular music that’s more complex is to go to movie soundtracks. Orchestral composer and conductor John Williams has created the music for over eighty major films. Everyone will recognize his themes from movies like Harry Potter and Star Wars. There’s also some good video game music out there that can be fun and challenging to learn. 

It’s Not a Competition! Classical AND Pop Music for Total Music Awesomeness

A well-rounded music education encompasses the sounds of the past and the present. Don’t miss out on any of the fun. Make sure you listen to, learn, and enjoy both great classical music and great pop music.

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