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Classical Music
Montage of classical music composers. Top row:Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven; second row: Rossini, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Wagner, Verdi; third row: J. Strauss II, Brahms, Bizet, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak; bottom row: Grieg, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Khachaturian
Hobbes: It’s “The 1812 Overture.”
Calvin: I kinda like it. Interesting percussion section.
Hobbes: Those are cannons.
Calvin: And they perform this in crowded concert halls?? Gee, I thought classical music was boring!

Classical music is the term generally used these days to refer to a particular tradition of music from Western European civilizations, and is often contrasted with the equally vague term Pop music. In the current era, much of this body of music has been studied carefully in scholarly manner, and is performed and appreciated as standalone art, even if it wasn't originally conceived as such.

The dates which characterise 'classical music' are arguable; while some maintain that it began when norms about concepts such as rhythm and tonality began to be established — around 1600 —, others extend it much farther back to include medieval art music. Some modern composers also believe that there is no longer any value in considering contemporary art music 'classical'.


Identifying Features

In contrast to current popular styles, classical music typically shares some traits and has some differences, such as:

  • 'Common practice' tonality, i.e. all the major and minor keys that we know and love. These were developed during this historical period. In modern works, through different methods, atonality is used, which is a lack of a tonal centre within a piece.
  • Classical pieces tend to be longer and more structured. Also, far more of them are instrumental, so they are far less likely to be called 'songs'. Many of them are named after their form, rather than a unique title, so you'll get lots of things like "Sonata No 4 in E-flat major".
  • Classical pieces are less likely than pop/techno/rock/metal songs to use percussion to establish rhythm. There's rhythm alright, but this is established through the use of pitched instruments, most usually the lowest-pitched ones (cellos, double basses, bassoons etc). Modern works use far more percussion than Romantic and earlier works, though still use far less than other styles.
  • Classical music is an international art form, so you can expect to pick up some Gratuitous Foreign Language as you go. Notably, sheet music is typically marked in Italian (Allegro, Moderato, Crescendo, Fortissimo...) while many analytical terms and concepts tend to be in German (Lieder, Leitmotif, Klangfarbenmelodie...). You'll also run into French and Latin and many others. And of course it's traditional for Operas and Art Songs to be performed in their original language, rather than English.

Instruments and Ensembles

Classical pieces are often more complex musically, especially in terms of pitch and form, than other musical styles. In modern works rhythm can be extremely complex and many strange timbres are used.

  • Classical music usually includes such instruments such as:
    • (Bowed) strings — violin, viola, cello, double bass.
    • Woodwinds — flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and others.
    • Brass — trumpets, trombones, horns, tubas and others.
    • Percussion — triangles, xylophones, timpani, bass drums, gongs, and others.
    • Keyboards — harpsichords, pianos, celestas and others.

They play in such ensembles as:

  • The trio (three players).
    • Piano trio — a violin, a cello and a piano.
    • String trio — a violin, a viola and a cello.

  • The quartet (four players).
    • Brass quartet — two trumpets, a trombone and a tuba.
    • String quartet — two violins, a viola and a cello.
    • Wind quartet — a horn, a flute, an oboe and a bassoon.
    • Woodwind quartet — a flute, an oboe, a clarinet and a bassoon.

  • The quintet (five players).
    • Brass quintet — a brass quartet with a horn.
    • Piano quintet — a string quartet with a piano.
    • String quintet — a string quartet with an extra viola, cello or double bass.
    • Woodwind quintet — a woodwind quartet with an extra horn.

  • The symphony orchestra — large groups of strings, woodwinds , brass, and percussion.

One misconception is that all orchestral music is classical. Classical music most frequently uses this ensemble, but not all music written for the orchestra is classical music (for example: musicals, film scores, orchestral transcriptions of rock or pop tunes, and easy listening music). The same is true for music that uses violins and cellos.

Identifying the Period

The size and composition of the orchestra is also a good means of identifying which period a piece comes from, although this is not always foolproof.

  • Medieval — Voices only, or speculative instrumentation added by modern performers that is based on either written accounts or nebulous evidence like illustrations and song texts. Known instruments include pan flutes, recorders, shawms, bagpipes, gemshorns, vielles, lutes, lyres, organ, trumpets, and a variety of simple percussion like drums and tamborines.
  • Renaissance — While many medieval instruments like the lute, shawm, and recorder were still used, the Renaissance added many new ones, including viols, crumhorns, dulcians, cornetts, serpents, sackbutsnote , and harpsichord. While composers during this time would generally write down at least a basic outline for their instrumental parts if they wanted any (leaving the rest to the musicians' discretion), they usually never wrote down any specific orchestrations, even for nonvocal pieces.
  • Baroque — Flutes, recorders, oboes, bassoons, the first versions of our modern string instruments, valveless trumpets and horns, sackbuts, harpsichord, organ, and timpani. This in fact becomes the first era where we have instrumental ensemble scores with the precision we'd expect from them today; no need for us to guess whether a part was intended to be played with trumpet or recorder.
  • Classical — The above, without recorders but with clarinets added and the harpsichords replaced with pianos.
  • Romantic — The fullest orchestra, with trombones (replacing sackbuts), valved trumpets and horns, tubas and lots of extra percussion.
  • Modernist — Harder to categorise but anything that uses electronic instruments has to fit here. More percussion is used, and extended technique (using an instrument in unusual ways) is common. Less traditional ensembles are likely.

Stylistic Periods

Classical music is not a single style, but is in fact a bunch of different styles, generally classified into several periods:

  • The Middle Ages — c. 900 AD up until the end of the 14th century. Most of what has survived is monophonic vocal music, and much of that religious, the most notable style being Gregorian chant . But the most important compositions are the polyphonic vocal music (where multiple melodic lines are sung at once), which start showing up in writing from about 1000 AD onward; Pérotin, W. de Wycombe, Philippe de Vitry, and Guillaume de Machaut are a few of the big names in this style. We also have several surviving examples of secular songs from the latter part of the period, a good amount of it also polyphonic. By modern standards, it can be pretty weird: the common-practice tonality shows up long after the Medieval period.

  • The Renaissance (1400s—1600s) — Characterized by densely polyphonic vocal music (and we do mean dense, like this 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis) in styles that we might find hard to relate to today, although most find it more approachable than the medieval stuff. Though a lot of the music was composed for churches, secular forms such as the madrigal and the chanson (much of it composed for wealthy patrons) were also widespread, to the point where the differences between secular and religious music became blurred, much to the consternation of clergymen. Major figures include Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des Prez, Nicolas Gombert, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Giaches De Wert, and Carlo Gesualdo, among many, many others. This period is also the first to have an appreciable amount of surviving instrumental music, much of it quite complex, for both solo and ensemble.

  • The Baroque Era (c. 1600 to c. 1760) — Still a lot of church music, but the patron model became more dominant as wealthy nobles and royalty found even more time and opportunity to indulge in fancy music for the heck of it. For a stereotypical Baroque sound, look for anything by Johann Sebastian Bach. Famous works include the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by the aforementioned Bach, the Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel (which uses a much copied chord progression) and the Messiah oratorio by George Frederic Handel (which includes the famous "Hallelujah Chorus"). The concerto (a piece where a solo instrument or small group of instruments alternates passages with a larger orchestra) became a major compositional form during this period, as composers like Girolamo Frescobaldi began to focus much more of their attention to instrumental writing. This was also the period in which the common-practice tonality came into, well, common practice. Other common features in this era include terraced dynamics (the music is either loud or soft, with few crescendos or diminuendos or so forth), and a reduction in polyphonic density (so that the words and the melodic lines come through much clearer), often to the point of actual homophony (simply having a melody on top of a harmonic accompaniment). Additionally, the early Baroque was when Claudio Monteverdi, arguably the most important composer (along with Heinrich Schütz) in the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque, wrote what is widely considered the first great opera, L'Orfeo. A few of the many other notable Baroque composers include Johann Jakob Froberger, François Couperin, Jan Dismas Zelenka, Antonio Vivaldi, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Domenico Scarlatti. Though the harpsichord predates the Baroque, it is stereotypically associated with this era; if you hear a piece of classical music and there's a harpsichord in it, there's a good chance it's a Baroque piece, though the instrument was still in use during the early Classical period, and some modern era composers, like Elliot Carter, have also used it.

  • The Classical Era (or Classical Period, not to be confused with Classical Mythology) (c. 1730 to c. 1820) — Think of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. While counterpoint was still respected, this era saw the growth of homophony, or having a melody on top of a chord-based accompaniment. Joseph Haydn was very influential in the development of the sonata form, which became a dominant musical form in this period. The piano replaced the harpsichord as the dominant keyboard instrument, and music became increasingly independent of religious activity. Concertos began giving way to symphonies. Music also began to be written for ensembles such as the traditional string quartet.

  • The Romantic Era (or Romantic Period)note  (c. 1810 to c. 1910) — Composers started pushing the limits of their styles and instruments. Sounds became lusher, textures denser, harmonies became more chromatic, orchestras bigger, and music more dramatic than ever before. The sustaining pedal on the piano (the one that holds notes down without having to keep your fingers on the keys) became popular. Famous composers included Fryderyk Chopin (Fantaisie-Impromptu, Revolutionary Étude), Franz Liszt (Dante Sonata), Johannes Brahms ("Brahms's Lullaby", Ein Deutsches Requiem), Richard Wagner ("Ride of the Valkyries" is from one of his operas. His style set the standards for epic film music through today), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker ballet) amongst others. (Beethoven is often considered to be a Romantic composer; for instance, the Fifth Symphony.) Programme music (telling a story or depicting scenes, as opposed to abstract music) and music reminiscent of particular folk styles became popular. Some people consider Beethoven to be the first Romantic Era composer as he started or inspired many of the trends to come in this period. It's also important to note that the Romantic style never really goes away. Sergei Rachmaninoff and Edward Elgar were essentially romantics, yet wrote most of their music in the 20th century. Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Williams are romantic to their very bones, although they aren't always considered true 'classical Composers' due to their focus on Musicals, and Film Music, as well as simpler styles. This is not pretension, like some would say, just a fact of cataloguing.

  • The Early Twentieth Century (Exactly What It Says on the Tin) — Composers pushed the limits of musical understanding and style even more, resulting in things like atonality (music with no key at all) and neoclassicism (imitating, though with obvious differences in rhythm and tonality, earlier styles). Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, the most famous impressionist composers, began to discard the common practice tonality of earlier periods. Serialism (a method of composition based on the continuous transformations of a series of musical elements) began to be used heavily, starting with the twelve tone system of Arnold Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School. Trends were all over the place; some composers became very interested in Folk Music and Ethnic Music (such as Bela Bartok), others channelled the social and political turmoil into their works (Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Igor Stravinsky), while some combined Classical with popular styles (George Gershwin, whose origins were with jazz, had heavily classical elements in his work). That last category would eventually give rise to the show tunes of Broadway. Picking a representative example our of all this variety is impossible; the defining characteristic of early 20th century classical music is the absence of defining characteristics. But try out the ballets of Stravinsky (The Firebird, The Rite of Spring, Petrushka) for just one of several styles.

  • The Later Twentieth Century to the Present — during which all the tendencies of the earlier part of the twentieth century were pushed even further. During the 1960s, the mainstream classical music world was heavily influenced by the Darmstadt School, whose members, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, pushed the serialism of Arnold Schoenberg and his pupil Anton Webern to its extreme. Edgard Varese, a major influence on Frank Zappa, began to experiment with electronic music while other composers began to use scales different from the traditional twelve tone equal temperament scale. Iannis Xenakis pioneered the use of mathematical modelling in music. Meanwhile, minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass experimented with music that used very few basic elements, often repeated with variations. In the 1970s and 1980s, composers such as Alfred Schnittke and Luciano Berio began to write polystylistic pieces that drew on many prior musical traditions in a postmodern way. The boundaries between popular and classical music began to blur; for example, John Cale, violist of the Velvet Underground,note  was associated with the minimalist La Monte Young, and The Beatles were influenced by Stockhausen. It should be noted that classically trained musicians playing in other styles does not automatically make what they're playing 'classical'. Around this time the genre known as Post-Rock started emerge in the early 1990s which uses rock instruments in a very classical way. Lately, the classical music world has seen a resurgence in the popularity of music combining a romantic feel with modern techniques, written by such composers as John Corigliano, and Einojuhani Rautavaara. Other notable composers include John Cage, Morton Feldman, Giacinto Scelsi and Two Steps from Hell. As in the early twentieth century, there isn't any truly representative music, but the Sinfonia of Luciano Berio might be a good place to start.

Unless you're making a conscious effort, ninety percent of the classical music that you actually hear will come from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and early 20th Century Periods. The Early Music (Medieval/Renaissance) and late 20th century scenes are pretty disconnected from mainstream classical music and have their own specialised performing ensembles and record labels.

Common Misconception

One thing to remember is that Classical Music isn't 'dead'. It's alive and kicking with many great living composers and plenty of orchestras ready to perform the old standards. Recording media and the internet have made access to classical music more prevalent than ever before. If anything, classical music is more alive than it's ever been.

In truth, Classical has never been a popular style, contrary to the myth that classical was pop of its day; it's always been the domain of the well-to-do, or highly educated. That isn't the case any more. Classical Music is easily accessible for anyone who wants to hear it now. So go out and listen to it. If anyone says it's dying, or that it's too 'pretentious', just nod your head — they're the dying ones, the last of the real pretentiousness who claim pop culture killed classical, or that classical musicians are too stuffy, and hate pop culture. It didn't, it never will, and no, they don't.

They can co-exist and in amazing ways (George Gershwin, anyone? Steve Reich?). So go on, go listen to some Beethoven, it's awesome. And follow it up with The Beatles, and John Coltrane, and John Adams, too. All the classical musicians are. Don't get bogged down in fake pretentiousness that's just a myth. Just listen to the music as music, and you might be surprised you actually like it.

Examples of classical music pieces with their own TV Tropes page:


Chutney MusicMusic TropesTheme And Variations

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