Two Musical Traditions
D. L. Stieg

Dating as far back as the ancient world, there have always been two musical traditions. In contemporary usage, the two traditions are normally referred to as the classical and non-classical traditions, but classical music as we know it is a relatively recent development. The real distinction between the two traditions is that one is a formal tradition (for example, horn fanfares at official functions in ancient Rome), and the other is an informal tradition. The informal tradition began when the first vocal melody was sung, and is sometimes referred to as the folk music (music of the people) tradition. People have sung melodies and fashioned musical instruments since before history was even recorded, and the informal tradition has produced well developed and well established folk music traditions in a wide variety of world cultures. The scope and compass of the informal tradition have been expanded greatly since the second half of the 19th century by the development of many new styles of popular music. From the beginning of mankindís fascination with music until around the middle of the 20th century, the informal tradition was based almost exclusively on the oral learning method (learning by imitating).

During the Medieval era in the Western world, the types of music associated with the two musical traditions can best be described as sacred and secular. The formal musical tradition was the province of the church, a formal enough setting, and the formality of this tradition was augmented by the development of musical notation in the second half of the first millenium. During the early Renaissance, church music began evolving into what is now the classical musical tradition, which accounts for the fact that much of the repertoire of classical music is sacred music. The classical tradition is based on the formal study of music, and classical music is normally performed in a formal setting. Classical musicians typically concentrate on a particular instrument or on singing, and must devote years of study and practice to the attainment of a high level of technical proficiency and musicianship. Composers, music theorists, and music historians must similarly devote themselves in order to achieve a high level of accomplishment in their respective disciplines.

Prior to the middle of the 20th century, the two musical traditions tended to be mutually exclusive and generally unaccepting of one another, which is well demonstrated in the early history of the guitar. When the guitar emerged in the musical landscape of Europe around 1400, it gained immediate popularity among folk musicians, and very early on came to be associated with troubadours, gypsies, and vagabonds. This perception persisted throughout the early history of the guitar, even though the guitar did enjoy great popularity in some of the courts of Europe, most notably in the court of Louis XIV (around 1700), who was himself a guitarist. The power and persistence of this perception were so strong that a few of the leading figures in the early development of the classical guitar tradition, in the 19th century, actually kept their involvement with the guitar a secret, for fear that their social standing would be ruined if their activities were discovered. Interestingly enough, this same perception has since that time probably had much to do with the development of many new styles of play on the guitar by musicians who regarded themselves as outcasts from privileged and mannered society. This outcast mentality persists even today among professional non-classical guitarists, but the guitar itself has become so popular and so ubiquitous that it is no longer regarded in a negative light.

Since the middle of the 20th century, the historical antagonism between the two musical traditions has eased somewhat, which is well demonstrated in the recent history of the guitar. The proliferation of tablature and guitar TAB scores has added an important formal learning dimension to the non-classical guitar tradition, although a continued reliance on oral teaching methods can still be observed in the considerable number of guitar teachers and guitar instructional videos. Elements of classical music and classical music ensembles have been included in recorded arrangements of guitar-based music in numerous genres, and the results have in many cases been interesting and effective. Classical guitarists have become increasingly aware of the many contributions that have been made to the guitaristís art by non-classical guitarists, and some classical guitarists are even receptive to the idea of playing classical music on a steel string guitar. However, the domain of classical guitar music will always exist apart from non-classical guitar music, and in a larger sense the same is true of the classical and non-classical musical traditions.

Although most musicians gravitate toward one tradition or the other, all can benefit from an increased exposure to both traditions and to the learning methods associated with them. Non-classical musicians can benefit greatly from learning to read musical notation (staff or tablature), and would do well to consider the value of elements of the classical learning model like disciplined practice and the use of a metronome. Many folk and popular musicians have found that developing an understanding of music theory has been very helpful to them in developing their craft. The crossover benefit is not as clear for classical musicians, and probably has more to do with classical music educators than with the musicians themselves. Many classical musicians also have non-classical musical interests, and in the pursuit of those interests, they learn by alternative methods like listening to recordings or using tablature notation. Classical music educators would do well to consider that these alternative learning methods are just as valid as learning from standard notation, provided the end result (musicianship) is the same, and that techniques and forms of musical expression that are normally associated with other genres of music can sometimes be used to good advantage in classical music as well.

The most important distinction between the classical and non-classical traditions is the fundamentally different character of the music associated with each tradition. Each of the two basic types of music has its own beauty and logic, and each serves needs and evokes emotional responses that the other cannot. Musicians who concentrate on one basic type of music or the other can generally benefit from a familiarity with both types, but must also remember that in any case music has to make sense. For example, singing a classical aria in a popular vocal style, and singing a popular song in an operatic vocal style, are equally ill-advised, because neither makes any musical sense. Musicians will continue to experiment with crossover and fusion styles of music, and these experimentations will likely contribute to a better understanding of the common denominators of all music. But the distinction between the classical and non-classical traditions will continue to be of great importance, because there will always be people who are drawn to, and who most enjoy, one basic type of music or the other.