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Violin vs. Fiddle (A Quick Comparison of Classical, Rock, and Folk Music)

No, there won’t be any fiddle jokes here. This article is a (kind of) technical description of classical violin playing and folk fiddling. I will also mention that rock songs are similar to folk songs in regard to chord progressions. I will also touch upon how certain rock and folk songs follow the chord progressions of certain famous classical works.

So what does it mean to be “classically trained”? This is debatable. Technically, it could simply imply that if a person is trained by classical musicians to play classical music, then he or she is considered classically trained. So, if you play classical music are you classically trained? Yes and no. It’s not exactly black and white. There is huge grey area between classical musicians and the rest of the world. There are classical musicians that can’t play folk or rock, and there are folk musicians that can’t play classical (and probably don’t want to). BUT, there is a rare breed that can play both (even jazz) and still make it sound good. What’s the big difference?

A lot of it has to do with reading music. If you went to a conservatory, then you definitely were taught to read music. If you grew up playing rock or folk, you may have learned more by hearing (or feeling) the music around you, and the only sheet music you were exposed to may have been chord charts.

Many classically trained musicians will look at a piece of sheet music and think to themselves about the time and key signature. They determine what notes are sharp or flat, and how many beats a certain note or rest will take. Then they proceed to play every note on the page, from start to finish. In other words, typical classical musicians are trained to follow strict instructions and are often criticized for playing what is written without much feeling (like a computer or robot).

To take this a step further, there is also something known as “sight reading.” Sight reading is the ability to look at a piece of sheet music and play it “on the spot” with no rehearsal. This takes a lot of training and practice. Many musicians are not good at sight reading and must hear (and practice) a piece of music before attempting to perform it. There are other (classically trained) musicians that make a living by sight reading music.

Have you known somebody in school that gets “A’s on all of there tests, but they seem a bit “shallow”? They excel at using their short-term memory. They learn just enough to get the job done. Then they move on. They are competitive. They may be good at video games and math. They like to be good at whatever they do. Classical musicians can be like that. As you may have heard, classical musicians can be snobs. They pride themselves on graduating from big name conservatories and playing with big name orchestras. They also tend to stay within their circle (or clique if you will).

Rock and folk musicians, on the other hand, may use sheet music as merely a guide (if they can read at all). Once they get the basics of the music, they let their emotional side take over. It may be safe to say that rock and folk are more about “feeling” and rhythm than accuracy of the notes being played. That’s not to say that there is no feeling in classical music. Classical music can be quite moving and passionate, but missing a note is unforgivable in the classical world. In the rock and folk world missing a note can be cured by sliding into the correct note, thereby making it seem as if it was intended. Brilliant huh?

There is a movie titled Harmony Cats that illustrates the difference between classical and folk musicians with great humor and accuracy. Some of the best jokes are so true! It’s about a violinist that has a cushy job playing in a symphony orchestra. The orchestra unexpectedly loses funding and is shut down, forcing the conductor to “lay off” his employees. The violinist suddenly finds himself unemployed. He panics. To pay his bills, he takes a job playing bass with a touring country band. This turns out to be a great learning experience for both the violinist and the country band. Check out this movie if you ever get the chance!

OK, I’ve talked about the differences between rock and folk music, and classical music. Now I’ll show the similarities. I’ll start with a little bit of music theory. (Don’t worry, this will be relatively painless.)

If you understand the concept of key and time signatures, you are way ahead of the game. Time signature determines the pace or tempo of the music. The most common time for rock is 4/4, meaning each measure gets four beats (say out loud 1-2-3-4…1-2-3-4 etc…). Waltzes are in 3/4 time, meaning each measure gets three beats (say out loud 1-2-3…1-2-3 etc…). That’s all you need to know for this article.

Key determines what notes are sharp or flat. It can also be the basis for chord progression. The example I’m doing to use is the Pachelbel Canon in D. If you have ever been to a wedding, you probably have heard this. It is probably the most recognized piece of classical (technically Baroque) music in the world. It is in the key of D, so the F and C notes are sharp (meaning if you play a D scale, you will notice that F and C are sharp as opposed to natural or flat). The simple version is in 4/4 time so if you play a D major scale, and play the notes in sets of four, it may sound a little like the Pachelbel Canon in D.

What does this have to do with folk or rock music you ask? Well, if you know that the Pachelbel Canon is in the key of D then you know that the base chord is D. This is also known as the I (Roman numeral one) chord in folk and rock music, assuming the song is in D. (If the song is in the key of C then C will be the I chord.). Are you with me?

If you break the Pachelbel Canon into chords, you get this progression: D-A-B-F-G-D-G-A. If you translate the letters into Roman numerals you get this: I-V-VI-III-IV-I-IV-V. If you are lost, start with the D chord and count up five notes. You will find yourself at A. (D,E,F,G,A is the same as I, II, III, IV, V). Got it?

OK, here is where it all makes sense (I hope). Have you ever heard the song With or Without You by U2? The chords are D-A-B-G. You may notice that the chords are very similar to the Pachelbel Canon. The only thing that is missing is the F chord. In musical terms this is called an obbligato, meaning that the chord progression can be play played over and over while the soloist or singer improvises. (Not all classical music follows this pattern. This is just a simple example.)

Let me give you another example of this simple chord progression. The song Wagon Wheel, by Old Crow Medicine Show, is based on an old (unreleased) Bob Dylan song known as Rock Me Mama. It uses the I-V-VI-IV pattern, but in a different key.

It may be easier to see the similarities if I present the three songs like this:

Pachelbel Canon (Johann Pachelbel)
D-A- B- F- G- D- G- A

Wagon Wheel (Old Crow Medicine Show)
I- V-VI- IV- I- V- IV
G-D-Em- C-G- D- C

With or Without You (U2)
D-A- B -G

If you play the chords, I’m sure you will hear a similar pattern. Another example of a pop song based on a classical piece of music is the Lover’s Concerto (recorded by The Toys in 1965). It is based the melody on the familiar "Minuet in G major" (BWV Anh. 114) from J.S. Bach's Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. Yet another example is A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum. The tune is based on Bach’s Air on the G String.

So can classically trained musicians play Wagon Wheel or With or Without you? Sure, provided they have the sheet music. Can a folk or rock band play the Pachelbel Canon? Sure, provided the soloist knows the tune and the band can follow the chords. And there you have it…a quick comparison of rock, folk, and classical music.

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