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This article attempts to characterize Western classical music, particularly
in comparison with other forms of music popular in Western societies.
Further information on classical music can be found in the cross references
The nature of classical music
In a Western context, "classical music" is a somewhat imprecise term, but
there are a number of ways that classical music is identified.
First, classical music is a written musical tradition, preserved in music
notation, as opposed to being transmitted in recordings or as folklore.
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.
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.
Another important characteristic of classical music is that it is felt by
many to represent a form of "high" culture. Particular works of classical
music are often venerated, even to extremes--thus, for instance, the 18th
century writer E. T. A. Hoffmann loved Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's music so
much that he changed his middle name to Amadeus. Performances of classical
music take place in a relatively solemn atmosphere, with the audience
maintaining (ideally) silence 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.
The other side of concept of "high culture", of course, is snobbery, and
participation in classical music has for centuries been, for some, the
result of a desire for prestige. Because classical music represents high
culture, parents over the last several centuries have often made sure that
their children receive classical music training. They are often motivated by
a belief that such training will permit their children to lead richer,
fuller lives; or by a belief that such training instills a useful sense of
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" 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
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
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
chords 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). 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), and instruments from other cultures (such as the
One last difference between classical and popular music is worth observing.
New performers entering the field of popular music are expected, virtually
without exception, to be young and sexually attractive. Older performers are
sometimes successful, but typically their following consists largely of fans
who encountered them when they were young. In the case of classical music,
it is likewise a professional advantage for beginning performers to be
attractive, but there is no rigid requirement in this regard. Older
performers continue to attract new listeners, and indeed, artists such as
Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubinstein performed before enthusiastic
audiences in advanced old age. Further, a number of opera singers attract
enthusiastic followings despite being quite stout or even obese.
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.