If the question of understanding and explaining the differences between musics is not problematic enough, there is the current reaction against the "music of dead white males" that was formerly the focus of this canon. This reaction basically contends that the old material was there just as a result of political and ethnocentric reasons; a contention that is probably somewhat true. Today there is a plethora of articles dealing with the political notions behind what many consider relevant music, so I will not add to the discourse on this topic here. Nevertheless, the fact that some of these contentions are valid does not necessarily reduce the value of the music considered relevant in the past. Perhaps more importantly the fact that if this music is included with other music, a differentiation must be made between some of it and the other non-canonic music being deemed as relevant. If this differentiation is more than just a stylistic one, then what is this difference that I am alluding to? In my view there are differences in function and in the perception of these different musics that can be clearly understood and discussed by those interested. Given the limitations of space, the following are general notions not to be considered as all encompassing or complete, but instead, as some concepts that may help clarify the situation. In addition, I do not rule out the possibility that there exists some music that crosses categories.
To begin, popular, ethnic, commercial, etc., musics can be understood as being functional (i.e., they have relatively obvious and direct social functions) and some of the music from the Western Art music tradition does not (i.e., it exists primarily for its own sake). Historically functional music has been created to communicate with a large number of people while non-functional music has been devised to be consumed by a smaller number often somewhat versed in its musical language. Examples of functional music include (1) songs that recount historical, political, and socio/cultural events, (2) music for celebrations and rituals, with or without dance, and (3) music written with the express purpose of generating money. The target audience for this music was and still is usually a large group of people. Although important, these are simplistic notions and distinctions that need to be, and will be, clarified shortly.
Much non-functional music has origins as functional music. A good example of this is Western sacred music which had the task of inspiring worshipers to come close to their deity. Later the main purpose for the composers of this music became pleasing the royalty commissioning it (many of whom were musicians themselves). Its value often increased based upon the composer's ability to create a more abstract and complex experience for the patron and court. In the past, composers of non-functional music often created functional music as well to supplement their earnings. This phenomena is rarely seen in the 20th century. As the system of patronage more or less ended, the more abstract music was left standing as absolute music, generally speaking, with little if any function except to exist for its own sake. Since it was not understood or written for the masses, it was, for the most part, not economically viable. In the 20th century, institutions such as governments and universities became the supporters of this work. This music, heard by smaller numbers, was and is often revered for its potential to elicit powerful reaction by audiences; both for and against it.