I remember reading a book by Julian Johnson called Who Needs Classical Music a few years ago. It was a defense of art music and Johnson discussed in length the difference between art music and folk/pop.
If you were to summarize the biggest difference (according to Johnson), it comes down to this: art music has more development. It takes its time to tell a story.
Here is what he is saying in more simple terms. Art music is sort of like a long classic novel that has boring parts and exciting parts. Both the boring parts and exciting parts are critical to the story and you accept the boring parts because you know they are necessary.
Art music is sort of like that. First of all, it is often quite long; it can be many times longer than a typical art song. And because it is long, the composer has time to really say things in a very thorough way (sort of like an author of a long book might take a page to describe a landmark.
That is why you might literally hear the same idea hundreds of times in a piece of classical music. A good number of those times might be exactly the same but many of them will be slightly different. For example, a little phrase might be repeated multiple times with different dynamic levels, instruments, or articulation.
On the other hand, pop/folk music is short; an average song is less than 4 minutes. There is no time for extended development. And there is certainly no time for boring parts.
There are many that have a big problem with pop music for this reason. They blame it on our culture’s need for instant gratification. They may have a point.
But on the other hand, I hardly see this as a moral issue. And because it is not a moral issue, it brings up a dilemma for writers: use extensive development and risk alienating the audience or compromise a bit and use less development in order to better reach an audience.
I am a bit pragmatic on this one. Actually, I am very pragmatic on this one. The culture we live in is what it is. It has its good points and its bad points. I don’t know if it is better or worse than the culture of 100 years ago and I don’t see the value in arguing whether it is better or worse either.
But I do know this: as a musician, I am not trying to impact the culture of 100 years ago. So, I have consistently made the decision over the years to write for the current culture, mostly eschewing extensive musical development in favor of quicker gratification. Most writers do that whether they consciously think about it that way or not. For the most part, they have no choice. The culture of the church demands it. For example, no church is going to accept choir pieces that are 30 minutes long regardless of how artsy it is.
As I am three weeks from a new recording, I am thinking about these things quite a bit at the moment. I plan to take some time over the next few weeks and discuss how this looks practically with some of the songs I am doing.