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.

Table of contents
1 The nature of classical music
2 Timeline
3 Classical music as "music of the classical era"
4 Classical music and popular music
5 Role of classical music in education
6 Related genres
7 Composers of classical music
8 Terms of classical music

The nature of classical music

Classical music is primarily a written musical tradition, preserved in music notation, as opposed to being transmitted in orally, by rote, or in recordings. While differences between particular peformances 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 as a vehicle for poetry or other lyrical content, 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.

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 1450. Chant, also called plainsong or Gregorian Chant, was the dominant form.
  • Renaissance, about 1450-1650, characterized by greater use of instrumentation and multiple melodic lines
  • Baroque, about 1650-1750, characterized by the use of counterpoint and growing popularity of keyboard music and orchestral music
  • Classical, about 1750-1820, a brief but important era dominated by a handful of composers
  • Romantic, about 1820-1920
  • 20th century, usually used to describe the wide variety of post-Romantic styles composed through 1999
  • 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.

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 often used: it designates music from a period in musical history covering approximately Haydn to Beethoven -- roughly, 1750-1800. 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.

It might be argued that, at least on the average, classical works have greater musical complexity. In particular, classical music 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). Also, it is normally only in classical music that long works (30 minutes to three hours) are built up hierarchically from smaller units (usually called movements).

This not to say that popular music is always simpler than classical. Both jazz and rap make use of rhythms more complex than would appear in the average classical work, and popular music sometimes uses certain complex chordss that would be quite unusual in a classical music.

Classical and popular music are distinguished to some extent by their choice of instruments. For the most part, the instruments used in 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 plays almost no role in classical music, even 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).

A phenomenon that arose in the last century is "cross-over"--the popularity, usually temporary, of certain classical works among people who ordinarily do not listen to classical music. Often this is due to the appearance of a classical work in a filmscore. Some classical works that achieved crossover status in the twentieth century include the Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel, the Symphony No. 3 by Henryk Górecki, Joseph Haydn's Trumpet Concerto (popularized by the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis), and the second movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto, K. 457 (from its appearance in a 1967 film entitled Elvira Madigan). Even atonal music, which tends to be less popular among classical enthusiasts, has a strong niche in popular culture, since (as Charles Rosen has noted) it is widely used in film and television scores "to depict an approaching menace".

An interesting speculation is whether works of popular music are likely to achieve the kind of permanence that works of classical music have achieved. Prior to the advent of audio recordings, this was not a possibility, since popular works are generally identified with the performance of the artist who created them. However, since high-quality audio recordings have now existed for over fifty years, the possibility of popular works achieving some kind of permanent, enshrined, status now presents itself, and is probably happening now in the case of the most outstanding artists.

Role of 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

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