What is Classical Music?

“Music is the social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is.”

Malcolm Arnold, English composer

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Ah.  Musical taxonomy. This is complicated, although it really shouldn’t be.  First off, we have to make clear that there is “Classical” music, and ‘classical’ music.  “Classical” with the capital ‘C’, like Kleenex, Xerox and Band-Aid, is a specific period of music (mid- 18th Century to beginning of the 19th C —the period of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig van Beethoven.) that has confusingly leant its name to the whole notion of art music.  Other periods, beside “Classical” that are ‘classical’ are Baroque (a period or style music composed from approximately 1600 to 1750 – Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, Henry Purcell), Romantic (1780 – 1910, Johann Strauss II, Johannes Brahms, Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky), and Impressionistic (1890 – 1925, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel)

Classical music comes in lots of forms—from solo works to small ensembles, to giant orchestral scores.  Music played in the pit as accompaniment to ballets or operas are also often ‘Classical.’  It is, at its core, a broad term we use to denote music written with an artistic intent, music with an awareness of art music tradition (though not necessarily following it), and meant to be used to communicate large-scale values about the human condition.  The result is that most ‘classical’ music is long-form unlike much popular music through the ages. That is what makes classical music so enduring, and the music we turn to at life events—from weddings to graduations to funerals.

One of the highest achievements of Western civilization is its serious, beautiful music, which requires developed skill on the part of each performer on stage.  Classical musicians and composers have often undergone years of extensive education and training.

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“Music has always been transnational; people pick up whatever interests them, and certainly a lot of classical music has absorbed influences from all over the world.”

Yo-Yo Ma, Chinese American cellist