Gray zone: composers stuck between contemporary classical and pop music

An increasing number of composers are currently in the gray zone between classical contemporary music and pop music. At least that’s the impression I’m getting. Since pop culture is so strong on a global scale, this should not surprise you in the least. If you check Spotify, there is an endless amount of piano music in some sort of pop/classical style. Ludovico Einaudi is a good example of this. I’ve also noticed that the piano is among the most common instruments these composers use. I suppose it has to do with them taking classical piano lessons in their youth and then coming back for some classical and pop improvisation later on.

This week, I decided to include a list of 10 composers that come to mind when considering this classical/pop music mixture.

One of the many reasons for this crossover is the fact that everyone has easy access to all the world’s musical styles on their smartphones or computers. Back in the day, composers like Erik Satie had to visit the Paris World Exhibition or travel great distances to hear music from other parts of the world. Basically, being exposed to different styles of music was not an everyday thing.

Back in the day, composers like Erik Satie had to visit the Paris World Exhibition or travel great distances to hear music from other parts of the world.

Nowadays, we can simply choose anything we want. Actually, it would be more difficult to not be influenced by various kinds of music. Personally, I’m very used to listening to many different styles. I would still say that pop and rock music are without any competition when it comes to influencing both young and not-so-young composers. It is similar to the impact jazz had on composers like Stravinsky in the 1900s.

Many, if not all the composers in this list fit the description of post-minimalism.

You will notice stronger pop influence in some. This is the type of music that can serve as background music in elevators or airports. It also comes as no surprise that most of these composers write for film and TV. Some of their music kind of reminds me of a more modern-sounding Erik Satie. He was a precursor to minimalism, inventing both the concept of repetitive music, as well as background music, sometimes called Muzak.

Anyway let’s move over to the list of composers in the gray zone between classical and pop music. A great way to get started is to listen to Yiruma’s piece River Flows in You to get a feel of what kind of music we’re discussing. It’s the most typical example, but of course there’s much more to this niche. Creating beautiful artworks by collecting the sheet music, photography, and graphical design into a finished physical product (with its own value) is just one scenario where we can see artistic overlapping in some of the following artists.

The list is in alphabetical order. Enjoy!

  1. Ólafur Arnalds
  2. Ludovico Einaudi
  3. Nils Frahm
  4. Jóhann Jóhannsson
  5. Ellis Ludwig-Leone
  6. Dustin O’Halloran
  7. Max Richter
  8. Nico Muhly
  9. Yann Tiersen
  10. Yiruma

For me, most of these composers are pop musicians notating their music. Not classical composers becoming lighter or mainstream. The only exceptions here would be Nico Muhly and Max Richter. Some of you may argue that Philip Glass is a sort of pop composer. While I do disagree, he definitely has taken influence from names like David Bowie.

As a bonus, I find this clip very funny, but also deep and meaningful in the context of this article. It’s an interview with American post-minimalist composer John Adams where he speaks about pop music/culture and its influence on America and the music life in the USA. I think it represents pretty much all of the western world’s countries’ development in regards to the position of classical music in society. It’s only 3 minutes long, so definitely see what it’s about.

Ultimately, let me know if there are composers I should add to this list. And of course, enjoy their good music!

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