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Classical music

This article is about the broad genre of classical music in the Western musical tradition. For the period of music in the 18th century see Classical music era, for articles on classical music of non-Western cultures, see: List of classical music traditions

Classical music is a broad, somewhat imprecise term, but there are a number of ways that classical music is identified.

The nature of classical music

Classical music is primarily a written musical tradition, preserved in music notation, as opposed to being transmitted orally, by rote, or in recordings. While differences between particular performances of a classical work are recognized, a work of classical music is generally held to transcend any particular performance thereof. Works that are centuries old can be, and often are, performed far more often than works recently composed. The use of notation is an effective method for classical music because all active participants in the classical music tradition are able to read music and are schooled in the current performance practices. Normally, this ability comes from formal training, which usually begins with learning to play an instrument, and sometimes continues with instruction in music theory and composition. However, there are many passive participants in classical music who enjoy it without being able to read it or perform it.

Classical music is meant to be experienced for its own sake. It is unlike other forms of music that serve merely as a vehicle for poetry or other lyrical content -- in the classical song or Lied, the music is an equal partner to the text -- or as an adjunct to other forms of entertainment. Performances of classical music often take place in a relatively solemn atmosphere, with the audience expected to maintain silence and remain immobile during the performance, so that everyone can hear each note and nuance. The performers usually dress formally, a practice which is often taken as a gesture of respect for the music, and performers normally do not engage in casual banter or other direct involvement with the audience.

Written transmission, along with the veneration bestowed on classical works, has important implications for the performance of classical music. To a fair degree, performers are expected to perform a work in a way that realizes the original intentions of the composer, which are often stated quite explicitly (down to the level of small, note-by-note details) in the musical score. Indeed, deviations from the composer's intentions are sometimes condemned as outright ethical lapses. Yet the opposite trend--admiration of performers for new "interpretations" of the composer's work, can be seen, and it is not unknown for a composer to praise a performer for achieving a better realization of the composer's original intent than the composer was able to imagine. Thus, classical music performers often achieve very high reputations for their musicianship, even if they do not compose themselves.

Classical composition often aspires to a very complex relationship between the affective (emotional) content of the music, and the idea content. There is, in the most esteemed works of Classical music, an intensive use of Musical development, the process by which a musical germ idea or motif is repeated in different contexts, or in altered form, so that the mind of the listener consciously or unconsciously compares the different versions. The classical genres of sonata form and fugue employ particularly rigorous forms of musical development.

Another consequence of the veneration of the composer's written score is that improvisation plays a relatively minor role in classical music--in sharp contrast to traditions like jazz, where improvisation is central. Improvisation in classical music performance was far more common during the Baroque era, and recently the performance of such music by modern classical musicians has been enriched by a revival of the old improvisational practices. During the Classical period, Mozart and Beethoven sometimes improvised the cadenzas to their piano concertos--but tended to write out the cadenzas when other soloists were to perform them.

Art music and concert music are terms sometimes used as synonyms of classical music.


Musical works are best understood and enjoyed in the context of their place in musical history. The major time divisions are:

  • Medieval, generally before 1400. Chant, also called plainsong or Gregorian Chant, was the dominant form until about 1100.
  • Renaissance, about 1400-1600, characterized by greater use of instrumentation and multiple melodic lines
  • Baroque, about 1600-1760, characterized by the use of counterpoint and growing popularity of keyboard music and orchestral music
  • Classical, about 1730-1820, a brief but important era dominated by a handful of composers
  • Romantic, about 1815-1910
  • 20th century, usually used to describe the wide variety of post-Romantic styles composed through 2000
  • The term contemporary music is sometimes used to describe music composed in the late 20th century through present day

The dates are generalizations, since the periods overlapped. Some authorities subdivide the periods further by date or style. However, it should be noted that these categories are to an extent arbitrary; the use of counterpoint and fugue, which is considered characteristic of the Baroque era, was continued by Mozart, who is generally classified as typical of the Classical period, and by Brahms, who is generally classified as Romantic.

This chart shows a selection of the most famous classical composers. For a more complete overview see Graphical timeline for classical composers

Classical music as "music of the classical era"

Main article: Classical music era

In music history, a different meaning of the term classical music is occasionally used: it designates music from a period in musical history covering approximately Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach to Beethoven -- roughly, 1730-1820. When used in this sense, the initial C of Classical music is sometimes capitalized to avoid confusion.

Classical music and popular music

The relationship (particularly, the relative value) of classical music and popular music is a controversial question. Some partisans of classical music may claim that classical music constitutes art and popular music only light entertainment. However, many popular works show a high level of artistry and musical innovation and many classical works are unabashedly crowd-pleasing, thus not considered serious music.

The very distinction between classical and popular music is blurred in the border regions, for instance minimalist music and light classics, and are disregarded as art music. In this respect music is like fiction, which likewise draws a distinction between classics and popular fiction that is not always easy to maintain.

"Neat divisions between 'folk' and 'popular', and 'popular' and 'art', are impossible to find...arbitrary criteria [is used] to define the complement of 'popular'. 'Art' music, for example, is generally regarded as by nature complex, difficult, demanding; 'popular' music then has to be defined as 'simple', 'accesible', 'facile'. But many pieces commonly thought of as 'art' (Handel's 'Hellelujah Chors', many Schubert songs, many Verdi arias) have qualities of simplicity; conversely, it is by no means obvious that the Sex Pistols' records were 'accessible', (trashy?) Frank Zappa's work 'simple', (Frank Zappa is considered by many a serious composer) or Billie Holiday's 'facile'." (light?) (Middleton, 1990)


It might be argued that, at least on the average, classical works have greater musical complexity than popular music. For instance, classical music is distinguished by its heavy use of development, and usually involves more modulation (changing of keys), less outright repetition, and a wider use of musical phrases that are not default length--that is, four or eight bars long (however, much minimalist music goes against these tendencies, thus are considered by many non-serious music).

This not to say that popular music is definitively or always simpler than classical. The "default length" of phrases which classical music supposedly deviates from were set as the default by music of the common practice period. Both jazz and rap make use of rhythms more complex than would appear in the average common practice work, and popular music sometimes uses certain complex chords that would be quite unusual in a common practice piece. Popular music also uses certain features of rhythm and pitch inflection not analyzable by the traditional methods applied to common practice music.

One may argue that it is normally only in classical music that very long works (30 minutes to three hours) are built up hierarchically from smaller units (phrases, periods, sections, and movements). Structural levels are distinguished by Schenkerian analysis. Fred Lerdahl (1992), for example, claims that popular music lacks the structural complexity for multiple structural layers, and thus much depth. However, Lerdahl's theories explicitly exclude "associational" details which are used to help articulate form in popular music, while Allen Forte's book The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era 1924-1950 analyses popular music with traditional Schenkerian techniques. (Middleton 1999, p.144)

Moreover, there are "the segments combined into patterns, combined into verses, combined into songs [that] make Burmese music a multileveled hierarchical system...The Burmese musician manipulates the various levels of the hierarchy to create the song..." (Becker 1969, p.272)

Emotional content

Some classical music aspires to communicate a quality of emotion which could be called agape. Unlike most popular music, in which the communication of a highly personal and sentimental emotion is often prized, classical composers would often strive for a more universal form of emotional content, in religious works such as the Masses of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Dvořák, or in more secular and philosophical works such as Beethoven's setting of Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy in the 9th symphony.


Classical and popular music are distinguished to some extent by their choice of instruments. For the most part, the instruments used in common practice classical music are nonelectrical and were invented prior to the mid-1800's (often, much earlier), and codified in the 1700 and 1800's. They consist of the instruments found in an orchestra, together with a few other solo instruments (piano, harpsichord, organ). The electric guitar plays an extremely prominent role in popular music, but naturally plays no role in classical music, and only appears occasionally in the classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Both classical and popular musicians have experimented for the last several decades with electrical or electronic instruments (for instance, the synthesizer or electronic tape), and instruments from other cultures (such as the gamelan).


One criterion that might be said to distinguish classical music is staying power. For instance, some of the works of J. S. Bach are now almost 300 years old, yet they continue to be widely performed. In contrast, Big band music, a popular music genre of several decades ago, seems to be proving ephemeral in comparison.

Bach had many contempories whose music was mediocre at best, and today their music is forgotten, surviving perhaps in libraries. The repertoire of classical music is skewed toward works recognized as excellent by listeners over long periods of time.

It follows that genres of popular music that have existed for a long time might also produce works that show staying power. For instance, the work of Scott Joplin, a popular musician of about a century ago, continues to be played--often, curiously enough, by classical musicians. The advent of high fidelity audio recordings in the 1950s meant that the actual performances of popular musicians could be preserved forever, and this has raised the possibility that certain works popular music will achieve permanent status in their original recorded form. This may be happening now in the case of the most outstanding artists.

Influences between classical and popular music

Works of classical music sometimes achieve a sudden, hard to explain popularity, and thus take on the temporary status of popular music; for details, see crossover. Moreover, many popular songs over the years have made use of themes and melodies from well-known classical pieces; for a list of examples see List of popular songs based on classical music. Songwriters such as Paul Simon have used classical techniques such as, during his early solo career in the 1970s, the twelve tone technique, though Simon actually only employs the full chromatic rather than strict tone rows (Everett 1997).

Classical music has always been influenced or taken material from popular music. Examples include Erik Satie, Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, and postminimalism, as well as much postmodern classical music.

Classical music and folk music

Composers of classical music has often made use of folk music, that is, music created created by untutored musicians, spread by word of mouth. Often, they have done so with an explicit nationalist ideology; in other cases they have simply mined folk music for thematic material. See:

Classical music in education

Throughout history, parents have often made sure that their children receive classical music training from a young age. Early experience with music provides the basis for more serious study later. Some instruments, such as the violin, are almost impossible to learn to play at a professional level if not learned in childhood. Some parents pursue music lessons for their children for social reasons or in an effort to instill a useful sense of self-discipline; lessons have also been shown to increase academic performance. Some consider that a degree of knowledge of important works of classical music is part of a good general education.

Related genres

Composers of classical music

Terms of classical music


  • Everett, Walter (1997). "Swallowed by a Song: Paul Simon's Crisis of Chromaticism", Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195100042.
  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0335152759.
  • Becker, Judith (1969). "The Anatomy of a Mode", Ethnomusicology 13, no.2:267-79.

External links

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