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What is Classical Music?

Before we go any further, it’s important that we define what’s meant by “classical music.”

Much of what we think of as “classical music” was written during what’s called the “Common Practice Period,” roughly 1600-1900 CE. However, simply defining classical music as that which was written during this period is insufficient. To do so would exclude composers from the twentieth century onward, many of whom are extremely significant. Likewise, not all music written during this period can be considered classical: folksongs, for example. Dates alone aren’t enough.

Trying to define it by instrumentation doesn’t work either. Classical music includes both vocal and instrumental works, and there’s no specific set of instruments which are unique to it. While traditional European instruments such as violin and piano are the most commonly used, classical music has generally embraced all instruments to some degree. Electric guitars, synthesizers, glass armonicas, and (famously) cannons have all appeared in classical works. Defining classical music by instrumentation also ends up encompassing many movie scores. (Spotify, incidentally, does classify movie scores as classical music. I disagree though, for reasons that will become clear. )

So how can we define “classical music,” then? No definition can cover all the possible variations of the form, but we can outline a few traits that apply in most cases:

  1. Classical music emphasizes the composer of the work moreso than the performer.

  2. Performers are expected to adhere to the score while still demonstrating their own style.

  3. It involves multiple “layers” of music which interact with each other in complex ways.

  4. It is usually lengthy (a piece which can be played in under ten minutes is on the short side).

The first point is a particularly divergent one compared to most other forms of music. All classical ensembles are effectively “cover bands.” Most do not compose any original music, and any new music they do perform is usually written by a composer hired for the purpose. Classical musicians become well-known by the skill with which they perform and interpret existing works.

J.S. Bach, BWV 847: Prelude

As played by Glenn Gould

As played by Hélène Grimaud

The performer’s role in classical music may seem limited at first, but it is actually of critical importance. A good classical musician plays the composer’s score precisely while adding dramatic flair by varying their tempo (speed) and dynamics (volume) as they see fit. In some cases, particularly virtuosic performers may also create cadenzas, original compositions that are included within a larger piece. No two musicians will perform a given piece identically, so each player’s interpretation becomes a dialogue between performer and composer. This is why there can never be an “authoritative” recording of any composition: this music is brought to life each time it is performed, each interpretation slightly different from the last.

The concept of musical “layers” is certainly not unique to classical music, but it is a very critical component of it. Even most “solo” compositions require accompaniment (usually by a piano). Whether a composition calls for a duet or a hundred-player orchestra, it will likely involve multiple instruments playing at once, their melodies expected to fit together in complex and complementary ways. In classical music this is called counterpoint, a concept which we will discuss in more depth later on.

The issue of length is important as well. An average popular song is around three minutes long, and can be considered a unified composition, but Beethoven’s ninth symphony runs over an hour. Many compositions are broken down into “movements” which are distinct from each other, but they are still components of a larger work which ideally should be performed as a whole. Standalone works five minutes long or shorter certainly exist, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

But why are we still talking about this? We have an entire book to get through, and by the end of it you’ll have a better understanding of classical music than you could ever find in a dry analysis such as this one. So let’s dispense with this exercise and travel back to the start of the Common Practice Period, where our journey begins.