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Classical Music

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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 Popular 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.

This music has been in existence since the Medieval Era (as far back as Gregorian Chant and similar Medieval Music), the Renaissance Era (complex choral music with interweaving melody lines), the Baroque Era (Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi), the Classical Era (Mozart and Haydn), the Romantic Era (Wagner, Lizst, Chopin, Brahms), and modern era, to the present day. Music history books on the subject are all in agreement on this time frame for the genre.

Identifying Features

Comparing Classical and Popular Music (or Folk Music, for that matter) tends to be confusing when considering the whole spectrum of Western music history. However, to easily understand the divide, "Classical" music is generally used to refer to the tradition of music being written and played from a score, up until the invention of recording technology; "Popular music" refers to the more recent tradition of music which primarily uses recorded technology to achieve the goal of reaching wider audiences.

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

  • More extensive use of rhythmic and melodic forms. The Classical Music tradition is more wide-ranging and lasted for a longer time, which allowed for more numerous and complex forms of rhythm (such as unusual time signatures, like 11/8, 13/16, etc.) and melodies (such as atonality and polytonality) to develop. Popular music, being a comparatively younger tradition, generally uses more basic rhythmic and melodic devices.note 
  • Longer duration of pieces. Some forms, such as the symphony and concerto, last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour; Operas and masses are longer yet. Popular music is produced primarily to reach a wide audience, thus necessitating the principle of brevity to sustain the listener's attention.note 
  • A more extensive use of instrumental music. Whereas popular music is based primarily on song structures, instrumentals share roughly an equal role with vocal compositions in Classical Music. 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". note 
  • Western Classical music — being both a European and American art tradition — makes copious use of various Western European languages. Notably, sheet music performance instructions are 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. This is in contrast to Popular music, where English is the main language, as it is mainly an American tradition (with heavy British influence/contribution).

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. (While categorized as "bowed strings", they can also be plucked)
    • Woodwinds — flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and others.
    • Brass — trumpets, trombones, horns, tubas and others.
    • Percussion — glockenspiels, triangles, xylophones, timpani, bass drums, gongs, and others.
    • Keyboards — harpsichord, piano, celesta, pipe organ and others.

They play in such ensembles as:

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

A contributing factor to the confusion is no doubt that many orchestras perform popular music, film scores, even game scores; moreover, genre distinctions are often not particularly clear-cut. (For example, is George Gershwin classical? Jazz? Folk? Pop? Broadway? Opera? A film composer? All of the above? A lot of people just say "yes" and leave it at that.)

Identifying the Period

The size and composition of the performing ensemble 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 tambourines. (In other words, there was in fact a lot of instrumental music being created; it's just that very little of it survives in written form.)
  • 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. AD 900 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 AD 1000 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,note  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 sonata form, which became a dominant type of musical structure in this period and later.note  The piano replaced the harpsichord as the dominant keyboard instrument, and music became increasingly independent of religious activity. Concertos began sharing the stage with symphonies. Music also began to be written for ensembles such as the traditional string quartet. Again, Haydn was very influential here: he wrote so many good symphonies and quartets that later composers felt that they had to prove themselves by tackling the same forms.

  • 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's later work is often considered to be a Romantic; 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 so-called 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 Béla Bartók), others channelled the social and political turmoil of the time 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 out 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 pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg to its extreme. Edgard Varčse, 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, John Zorn, 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'. 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 (though as music by Dmitri Shostakovich and Samuel Barber demonstrates, this approach never disappeared). Other notable composers include John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Giacinto Scelsi. 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 Late 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. Just for example, the person who's won the most Grammy awards is orchestral conductor Sir Georg Solti, with thirty-one wins, twenty-four of which were with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which has won sixty two.

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. The closest it ever got to true "popularity" was in the mid-19th century, when the swelling European middle classes got into it to make themselves look more cultured and the music itself started incorporating popular themes, with especially virtuoso performers gaining fairly broad audiences (the stories about Franz Liszt being treated like a rock star aren't completely made up). Otherwise, it was only accessible to — and paid any mind by — the upper crust. 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.

In addition, classical music has influenced greatly one particular genre: Heavy Metal. Although started blues-based, several metal genres incorporated over the years scales based on classical music, from harmonies to actually incorporating an entire classical orchestra within the band (Symphonic Metal).

Tropes associated with classical music:

  • At the Opera Tonight: When nobs and snobs attend a classical performance because it makes them look "cultured."
  • Avant-Garde Music: Music composed in the 20th century and later tends to skew this way, though it's worth noting that many earlier composers were also considered dissonant and edgy in their own time.
  • Boléro Effect
  • Cartoon Conductor
  • Classical Music Is Boring: HA HA HA—No, mentioning this trope is a great way to annoy classical music lovers. Granted, classical concerts are usually less rowdy affairs than a typical rock or pop show, but that's generally because everyone is listening very intently.
  • Classical Music Is Cool: Any classical music aficionado will be quick to say this.
  • Common Time: Codified in the Baroque era; Classical and Romantic composers used almost nothing else.
  • Dramatic Timpani
  • Elegant Classical Musician
  • Ethereal Choir
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language
  • Harmony: Classical composers are more or less the Trope Codifiers for the harmony we know and love today.
  • Insistent Terminology: There's a difference between "Classical music" as a broad genre term, and music that was composed in the Classical period (roughly 1730-1820). So if for instance you say Johann Sebastian Bach wrote Classical music, be prepared for some overzealous fan to point out that actually he wrote Baroque Music. That said, in the "Classical" section of your local record store you will indeed find everything from early medieval to modern avant-garde all lumped together.
  • Harpo Does Something Funny: The cadenza, at the high point of most concertos, is often indicated with a simple pause in the score with the expectation that the performer would make up a suitably impressive solo.
  • Improv: How cadenzas were originally meant to be played.
  • Impractical Musical Instrument Skills: Lots of compositions, especially concertos, call for some pretty mad performing chops.
  • Leitmotif
  • Lohengrin and Mendelssohn: Classical music snippets from Richard Wagner's Lohengrin and Felix Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream lends a classy and romantic feel to your wedding. If it's not one of those pieces, it's probably Pachelbel's Canon.
  • Loudness War: Notably averted; most classical music recordings require a very broad dynamic range, so overdoing the compression would completely ruin the sound even for untrained ears. If anything, classical CDs are mastered with an even quieter noise floor than other styles.
  • Lonely Piano Piece
  • Love Theme
  • Melismatic Vocals
  • Modulation
  • Mood Motif
  • Orchestral Bombing
  • Orchestral Version
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: Occurs in some classical compositions set to Latin, like the Requiem Masses by Giuseppe Verdi, Antonín Dvořák, and Camille Saint-Saëns.
  • Ominous Pipe Organ
  • Opera
  • Oratorio
  • "Pachelbel's Canon" Progression
  • Playing the Heart Strings
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: Since a lot of it is well over 100 years old, any copyright on those pieces expired long ago. note 
  • Rock is Authentic, Pop is Shallow: An older variant to the rivalry between rock and pop is the that between classical music and jazz, particularly their allegations of the genres being snobby and degrading respectively. There have been crossovers for these two genres such as the works of George Gershwin, and both settled their differences once rock came to the scene. Rock music, particularly metal, and pop music have drawn inspiration from classical music from time to time.
  • Rock Me, Amadeus!: When classical themes show up in music from other genres.
  • Standard Snippet: Whether or not you've noticed them, you have heard tunes from the classical repertoire in the soundtracks of cartoons and movies and TV shows.
  • Theme and Variations
  • True Art Is Ancient: Yes, you will frequently hear music that is a few centuries old, if not older. Bonus points if you find a "Historically Informed Performance" played on painstakingly restored instruments from the time period (extra bonus points if the performers are in Gorgeous Period Dress). More recently composed music tends to take a while to catch on; The Rite of Spring is still sometimes referred to as "contemporary music" although it's over 100 years old!
  • Uncommon Time: Came in vogue in the late romantic era to the present day, but also crops up in medieval and renaissance music, much of which was composed before regular time signatures were codified.
  • Work Info Title: A tremendous number of Classical works are titled with a simple statement of the genre, the number in which it was composed, and optionally the key, such as "Symphony No. 9" or "String Quartet No. 18 in A major" or "Canon in D" or "Prelude and Fugue in G minor." Occasionally a piece will get a nickname just to differentiate it from the others (such as the "Emperor Concerto" or the "London Symphonies"), but that's the exception to the rule. In the Romantic Era and Impressionism this began to shift as composers used more imaginative titles for programmatic works, but the habit persists to the present day with even the likes of Philip Glass writing numbered string quartets and symphonies.

Examples of classical composers and pieces with their own TV Tropes pages: