Defining Classical Music


MusicI listen to classical music a lot, even more than before since the arrival of the new classical FM station in Collingwood. But while my listening at home is through a selected collection of CDs, the content played on radio – internet radio included – is more eclectic. Airplay often includes soundtracks, music from musicals, even some modern pieces (the other day I heard a well-known tenor singing a somewhat romanticized version of Besame Mucho in Spanish, with orchestral backup).

While I don’t object to this mix – in fact I enjoy it most of the time – it did get me wondering what the definition of “classical” music really is. I only recently discovered from my internet searches that the very term is relatively new, and the first reference to music as ‘classical’ only dates to 1836, and it was in specific reference to a period that included Baroque music, although we use the term much more broadly today. Wikipedia isn’t helpful because it simply muddies the waters:

Classical music is art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western music (both liturgical and secular). It encompasses a broad span of time from roughly the 11th century to the present day. The central norms of this tradition became codified between 1550 and 1900, which is known as the common practice period.

I have a personal definition, as we all do, but it’s murky: when I was pondering that question, I realized I find it difficult to express it. I can list composers, conductors, singers, and musicians whom I would label “classical” – Bach and Yo Yo Ma, for example. But what of the music itself?

Among my collection of music is Gregorian chant, Medieval songs, Baroque suites, Enlightenment symphonies, Industrial Age operas, Victorian operettas and post-war tone poems – a range of about a millennium. All of which I vaguely categorizes as ‘classical.’

I have in that collection works by John Cage He’s contemporary avant-garde, but is he classical? Wikipedia’s page allows for a broad temporal range that would allow him to fit in but is his style suitable?

The major time divisions of classical music are as follows: the early music period, which includes the Medieval (500–1400) and the Renaissance (1400–1600) eras; the Common practice period, which includes the Baroque (1600–1750), Classical (1750–1830), and Romantic eras (1804–1910); and the 20th century (1901–2000) which includes the modern (1890–1930) that overlaps from the late 19th-century, the high modern (mid 20th-century), and contemporary or postmodern (1975–2000) eras, the last of which overlaps into the 21st-century.

Another definition Wikipedia tosses up is how classical music is composed:

The most outstanding characteristic of classical music is that the repertoire tends to be written down in musical notation, creating a musical part or score. This score typically determines details of rhythm, pitch, and, where two or more musicians (whether singers or instrumentalists) are involved, how the various parts are coordinated.

As a collector of vintage sheet music, I can tell you that popular music has been so written, too, and I have scores dating back to the late 19th century. Most of my collection is dated from the heyday of the ukulele craze in 1924-34; many songs are arranged for a combination of voice, piano – and, of course, ukulele.

The written quality of the music has, in addition to preserving the works, enabled a high level of complexity within them: Bach’s fugues, for instance, achieve a remarkable marriage of boldly distinctive melodic lines weaving in counterpoint yet creating a coherent harmonic logic that would be impossible in the heat of live improvisation.

I also have a few scores of popular tunes arranged for jazz orchestra that are as complex as anything written for a classical quartet or small ensemble. And many ‘classical’ radio stations play soundtracks that are written for orchestras but are also popular pieces (who can’t hum the theme from Star Wars?) So clearly the notation and complexity are not in themselves sufficient to define classical music. When I Goggled the question, up popped this definition:

serious or conventional music following long-established principles rather than a folk, jazz, or popular tradition. (more specifically) music written in the European tradition during a period lasting approximately from 1750 to 1830, when forms such as the symphony, concerto, and sonata were standardized.

Serious? As in ‘long haired’? Stodgy? Stiff? You can see by the 2Cellos video at the top, ‘classical’ music can also be fun. Just watch Vanessa Mae or Bond performing, too, and you’ll see another example where classical isn’t ‘serious’ and can be quite entertaining. Or this flash mob performing Beethoven:


That latter part of that definition would leave out a lot of composers and musicians of the last two centuries. And the former – there are many modern composers who have incorporated jazz into their work – Shostakovich, for example, but also Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copeland and George Gershwin – who also wrote a copious volume of pop songs – among them.

And how do you classify Moondog?

What about Ennio Morricone and John Williams? Both get lots of airplay on classical radio, but are movie soundtracks really classical music? If they are, is there a real distinction between classical music and entertainment music? Apparently that boundary is quite permeable and depends more on the presentation than the piece itself.

David Thomas attempts to answer this question on his blog,offering, among his suggestions:

Classical music (even some serious pop music) is often associated with beautiful sadness, deep joy, dramatic battles (between themes or characters). The experience of music can also be cathartic for listeners, urging them to tears, with or without reason for the release.

Yet popular music – what is ‘serious’ pop? he doesn’t explain the difference – can do the same. Emotional response to music – any music – is a very human reaction. Emotional response also belies the idea that classical music is necessarily ‘serious.’ How can something be serious if it can make you burst into tears but still feel joy?

Similarly, Lowell Hohstadt tries to answer:

..the term “Classical Music” has come to be known as a term for a genre of music that spans the course of hundreds of years, including all the music from Palestrina to Stravinsky, to the current day. Many people are unaware that Classical music is still being composed today, although it is far different than what was created several hundred years ago.

He then lists 19 elements he believes should be included in order for to be classified as ‘classical’ including some tenuous terms like emotional balance, an illusion of motion, tonality, inspiration and an economy of means. And at the end, he concludes,

In my opinion, the best definition of ‘Classical Music’ is music of any genre or style that is birthed from a pure and sincere motivation, empowered not by the energies of one’s self, but rather by something greater, which exists beyond time, history or culture.

Which is, to me, poetic, but rather too vague and subjective for practical uses. Someone might argue that country and western songs or rap songs are “birthed from pure and sincere motivation” even if they sound to me like derivative pap that raises hives on my own flesh.

Most definitions of classical wrap themselves around Western music, but I also have some of Ravi Shankar’s classical sitar ragas, and classical Japanese and Chinese music. These are categorized more in the notion of classical as a matter of age and culture, but they don’t fit the same structural format as, say, Tchaikovsky – so where else could I put them?

Perhaps the most exhaustive definition comes from the late composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. First he notes the difficulty in defining what the term means:

…everybody thinks he knows what classical music is: just any music that isn’t jazz, like a Stan Kenton arrangement or a popular song, like “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love Baby,” or folk music, like an African war dance, or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” But that isn’t what classical music means at all. People use this word to describe music that isn’t jazz or popular songs or folk music, just because there isn’t any other word that seems to describe it better. All the other words that are used are just as wrong, like “good” music for instance. You’ve all heard people say “I just love good music” – meaning that they love Handel instead of Spike Jones. Well, you know what they mean, but after all, isn’t there such a thing as good jazz, or a good popular song? You can’t use the word good to describe the difference. There’s good Handel, and good Spike Jones; and we’ll just have to forget that word.

Then he adds:

The real difference is that when a composer writes a piece of what’s usually called classical music, he puts down the exact notes that he wants, the exact instruments or voices that he wants to play or sing those notes – even the exact number of instruments or voices; and he also writes down as many directions as he can think of, to tell the players or singers as carefully as he can everything they need to know about how fast or slow it should go, how loud or soft it should be, and millions of other things to help the performers to give an exact performance of those notes he thought up.

So Bernstein’s definition would include the orchestral works of film composers, as well as those of George Gershwin. But I’m still a bit confused about how a popular song like Besame Mucho gets into the mix. Is it because the song was arranged in a classical manner, as Bernstein describes? But what about the arrangements for bands like Benny Goodman’s or Glen Miller’s? Surely they are written in as exacting manner as any symphony. Bernstein takes that into account:

…if we take a popular song, like for instance, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love Baby” there’s no end to the ways in which it can be played or sung. It can be sung by a chorus or by Louis Armstrong or by Maria Callas or by nobody. It can just be played without words by a jazz band or a symphony orchestra or a kazoo, slow or fast, hot or sentimental, loud or soft. It just doesn’t matter. It can be played through once or repeated fifteen times, in any key, even with the chords underneath changed. Even the tune itself can be changed and improvised on and fooled around with…
So now at last we have a better word for classical music — exact music, —and while there may be even a better word for it (which I can’t think of at the moment) at least “exact” is not a wrong word; and classical is a wrong word.

For Bernstein, ‘classical’ is the same temporal definition we encountered in the earlier reference:

Classical music refers to a very definite period in the history of music, which is called the classical period. The music that was written in that time is called classical music… this classical period … lasted about a hundred years – from about 1700 to 1800, which is, as you know, called the 18th Century… classical music does not mean just long hair music, but certain special kinds of long hair music that were written in the eighteenth century by such people as Bach and Handel, then by Mozart and Haydn, and finally by the great Beethoven.

Naxos music – publishers of many fine classical albums – uses a similar definition:

In the most general meaning of the word, classical music may designate fine music or serious music. More technically the word may refer to a period in the history of music, the later 18th century, the age of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The classical may be differentiated from the so-called romantic, the relatively experimental and less formally restricted kinds of music that became current in the 19th century.

Which brings me back full circle because, while it may be more technically correct to frame it within a specific period, that’s not the popular understanding of the term, and certainly not what these radio stations mean by ‘classical.’ Their playlists – and mine – are wider than this narrow framework. So I really don’t have a clear definition I can rely on.

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