For a while, I have been afraid to write this. I respect all of these artists, and some of them are even inspirations to me. Therefore, before any assumptions get made, I want to be clear on what this article’s purpose is. I am not suggesting contemporary classical music is bad, nor am I suggesting it is worse than previous periods of classical music. I am merely criticizing a trend that I dislike about the genre.

The way I see it, contemporary classical music takes advantage of us in a few ways. These composers love using the piano, and the string section. They love using very basic chord progressions. Lastly, they love to emphasize minimality – some of these composers are arguably minimalists just as much as they are “contemporary classical.” Why do I feel like this is cheating? The short answer is that I feel like they could be doing more – these are often classically-trained musicians and composers, with many talents, but they stick to a very small toolkit in order, I suspect, to appeal to more people. The long answer is as follows:

There has undoubtedly been a lot of research into why people like the sound of the piano and of stringed instruments, but not having looked into it too much myself, I’d argue that it is because all of these instruments are polyphonic; they are capable of playing a chord. One person is able to be more expressive on a piano than they would be able to do as a lone brass instrument player. It is the same with stringed instruments, although they will often come in groups (as a string quartet, for example), because hey, people love harmonization. There is a reason the piano has permeated nearly every genre in the world, and the tuba has not been as successful.

What I find, indeed, is that contemporary classical music will often ONLY use a piano, or ONLY use a string section (of some size), or use both. Take I Giorni, by Ludovico Einaudi, for example. While you’re at it, notice our favorite chord progression during the main portion of the song, because I am about to get to that. The song is ordinarily played on the piano alone, but when given the opportunity to make the song more “passionate” with orchestral backing, we get just the string section. There are a lot of pianists in contemporary classical music (as I suppose there have always been a lot of pianists in all eras of classical music), and they just do not seem to want any brass or woodwinds cluttering up their emotional soundscape. But isn’t it only as emotional as it is because they’re purposely using the piano and strings? It’s not like you can’t have a powerful song with a full orchestra. Without going too much further, I’ll just share some more examples so you can get a feel of what these guys do: Nils Frahm, Giovanni Allevi, Roberto Cacciapaglia (seems like he uses everything BUT brass and woodwinds in this one). Again, these are all great songs, but I just can’t say how much of the “greatness” is due to instrument choice as opposed to the music itself.

Speaking of the music itself, as you probably noticed in all of the songs so far, but especially I Giorni, not many tremendous liberties are taken when it comes to chord usage. It only gets more ridiculous. Listen to Colori, by Fabrizio Paterlini. By around 3:31 into that song, we have entered Blink-182 territory. I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s a bad song by any means, but it is fair to say that it is not the most creative song ever written, and there is no box that Paterlini went outside of to think this one up. All the same, I’d expect a lot of people would actually fall in love with contemporary classical music by hearing this, because it’s hard to mess up a time-tested progression, and he’s done a good job.

Another, more interesting case is the relatively common chord progression used by Max Richter on his song On the Nature of Daylight. This song was the crown jewel of the exemplary soundtrack to the film “Shutter Island” (although it was incidentally written much earlier), and any time I hear it used in media, it always “works.” While we’re on the subject, I also recommend listening to this terrific mix of the song by Robbie Robertson.

Richter wrote a great song, and it is very passionate, and perhaps that is why it reminds me of a song of Ólafur Arnalds’ called Himininn Er Að Hrynja, En Stjörnurnar Fara þér Vel (you should hear the story behind that one). Or it could be that Arnalds utilizes the same progression, albeit with different timing. I have no idea which one of the two songs is better – I like them both. But this happens too often in contemporary classical music. It seems like they find the chords that work, and those are the songs that become the “greatest hits” by that artist. It can get predictable and boring, as with any other genre that capitalizes on a few well-known progressions.

Of course, the last problem I have with contemporary classical music is that even beyond the fact that they restrict their chord choices to a few very popular ones, they rarely do anything that surprises you within the bounds that they’ve set (for an example of someone who doesn’t have this problem, see Hauschka). I mean, listen to H in New England, by Max Richter. Admittedly, Richter IS one of the self-stated minimalists of classical music, but what was accomplished in this song? Again, I can’t call it a bad song, but it certainly isn’t a very good one, especially given the skills at his disposal.

A particularly odd case I found involves River Flows In You, by Yiruma. By the way, I’d like to remind anyone who is going to call me on the “pianists are not the same thing as classical composers” issue that Yiruma is considered a classical artist whether you like it or not. This is what contemporary classical music – at least in the mainstream – has become. A guy went on So You Think You Can Dance in 2012 using River Flows In You as his music, and from what I gather (I could be wrong about this), Fox didn’t want to pay for the rights to use the song on TV, so they commissioned Patrick Griffin to write a legally-acceptable copy of the song. We got Shadow Bird as a result. While I recognize that the song was designed to be a copy (and if it wasn’t, that’s all the more damning), it is absurd to me that you can get two different songs to sound so identical. More specifically, it is absurd that CLASSICAL MUSICIANS can have this problem; of course this is a situation that happens frequently in pop music.

There are a couple of conclusions to be drawn, here. The first is that well-known contemporary classical artists these days aren’t doing a whole hell of a lot to distinguish themselves musically. They are, in truth, writing pop songs with pianos and string sections. It’s probably safe to say that they could do better. The second is that if YOU want to be a well-known contemporary classical composer, you’re probably going to want to get used to writing pop-punk tracks masquerading as aristocratic from behind the grand piano.


7 thoughts on “Are contemporary classical composers cheating?

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  2. I’m a classical contemporary composer and strongly believe that there is much more to contemporary classical composition than what you say in your article.

    I personally prefer melodic phrases, jazz and polyrhythms to create descriptive and captivating original music, because I think that our appreciation of a new musical composition depends on our capacity to be amazed when it differs greatly from our expectations and to foresee it, at least partially, whilst embracing it.

    Ciao, Livio


  3. I agree with you, Livio. I know that there is more to contemporary classical music than what I highlighted, but as I said at the beginning, I see it as a trend. A lot of the contemporary classical music I run into sounds like what’s in my post, and I personally find it lazy. Over-reliance on simple piano arpeggios and string sections, from musicians who are theoretically capable of much more.

    Thankfully, your song seems more imaginative than that. It certainly brings to mind the more typical definition of “classical music” when I hear it.


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  5. Completely disagree with you. There’s nothing at all wrong with what any composer writes. It’s the type of music that speaks to the artist. If its simple, then so be it. H in New England for example isn’t a masterpiece, but you have no right to call it “not good” as to me and plenty of others it IS good. There’s more to it than just the string arrangement. When you start looking at music from a production standpoint as well as a musical standpoint you’ll get it.

    I don’t see it as a trend and would never compare contemporary classical to pop music. Maybe it should be called minimal music and not “classical”. The term classical is often misused for modern acoustic music.


  6. I always get nervous when I see a reply to one of my older posts, because my thoughts have often changed. However, this time I stand by the intent of my post, if not the manner in which it was made.

    I will agree outright that classical is not the right term for this music, and that the sweep of “contemporary classical” has grown too broad. I have no problem referring to artists I’ve recently found like Mark-Anthony Turnage or Unsuk Chin as contemporary classical composers and musicians, because to be frank, they compose and play classical music, or what can also be referred to as “art music” [1].

    And while it may be easy to call it semantic nonsense, these dime-a-dozen “nu-classical” artists like Arnalds, Richter, Yiruma, O’Halloran, Goldmund, Einaudi, Johannson, and what-have-you fit the academic definition of “popular music” [2]. Their music can only be judged on its aesthetic value (inoffensive, soft, introspective, and melodious), because it has no compositional value. Pointing out the production is not much of an argument when they’re all sufficiently competent at it, as indeed are most decent artists across the entire spectrum of music. That’s like saying that metal is good because it has talented guitarists.

    In fact, I don’t have to stop at calling it merely “popular music” in the academic sense, because as I said in the article, some of it is genuinely approaching ACTUAL pop music. You could add song lyrics right on top of Yiruma’s music [3] because it already perfectly subscribes to the verse-chorus-verse-chorus format. He’s not the only one. To say the term “classical” is misused when referring to these artists is an understatement.

    That’s ultimately what I was complaining about in the original post. It seems nowadays that if you get some moody piano playing and optionally include a string section, you are now considered “classical”. To this day, many artists only include these elements for cheap effect. I feel wholly substantiated in calling that pattern a trend. Not only are there a myriad of artists playing this genre of music (again, I think it might be appropriate to call it “nu-classical”), but as the Patrick Griffin example [4] shows, often their compositions are entirely interchangeable! How could it not get boring to listen to these artists?

    I know first-hand, because I enjoy all of them, and I only wrote the post out of frustration at the apparent lack of creativity that I found in their music. Even two years ago, before many of the notable shifts in thinking on music that I’ve gone through, I was tired of their sound. It is a disappointing imitation of the style of music to which it owes its name.

    [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_music
    [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popular_music
    [3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XsTjI75uEUQ
    [4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-jGE0O7yw0


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