European classical music

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This article is about the genre of classical music in the Western musical tradition. For articles on classical music of non-Western cultures, see: List of classical music traditions, For the period of music in the late 18th century see Classical music era,
History of European art music
Medieval (476 CE – 1400)
Renaissance (1400 – 1600)
Baroque (1600 – 1760)
Classical (1730 – 1820)
Romantic (1815 – 1910)
20th & 21st century (1900 – present)

Classical music is a broad, somewhat imprecise term, referring to music produced in, or rooted in the traditions of, European art, ecclesiastical and concert music, encompassing a broad period from roughly 1000 to the present day. The central norms of this tradition, according to one school of thought, developed between 1550 and 1825, focusing on what is known as the common practice period.



According to one school of thought, musical works are best understood in the context of their place in musical history; for adherents to this approach, this is essential to full enjoyment of these works. There is a widely accepted system of dividing the history of classical music composition into stylistic periods. According to this system, the major time divisions are:

  • Medieval, generally before 1450. Chant, also called plainsong or Gregorian Chant, was the dominant form until about 1100.
  • Renaissance, about 1450–1600, characterized by greater use of instrumentation and multiple melodic lines
  • Baroque, about 1600–1750, characterized by the use of counterpoint and growing popularity of keyboard music and orchestral music
  • Classical, about 1730–1820, an important era which established many of the norms of composition, presentation and style.
  • Romantic, 1815–1910 a period which codified practice, expanded the role of music in cultural life and created institutions for the teaching, performance and preservation of works of music.
  • Modern, 1905–1975 a period which represented a crisis in the values of classical music and its role within intellectual life, and the extension of theory and technique. Some theorists, such as Arnold Schoenberg in his essay "Brahms the Progressive," insist that Modernism represents a logical progression from 19th century trends in composition; others hold the opposing point of view, that Modernism represents the rejection or negation of the method of Classical composition.
  • 20th century, usually used to describe the wide variety of post-Romantic styles composed through 2000, which includes late Romantic, Modern and Post-Modern styles of composition.
  • The term contemporary music is sometimes used to describe music composed in the late 20th century through present day
  • The prefix neo is usually used to describe a 20th Century or Contemporary composition written in the style of an earlier period, such as classical, romantic, or modern. So for example, Prokofiev's Classical Symphony is considered a Neo-Classical composition.

The dates are generalizations, since the periods overlapped. Some authorities subdivide the periods further by date or style. However, it should be noted that these categories are to an extent arbitrary; the use of counterpoint and fugue, which is considered characteristic of the Baroque era, was continued by Mozart, who is generally classified as typical of the Classical period, by Beethoven who is often described as straddling the Classical and Romantic periods, and Brahms, who is often classified as Romantic.

This chart shows a selection of the most famous classical composers. For a more complete overview see Graphical timeline for classical composers

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 occasionally used: it designates music from a period in musical history covering approximately Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach to Beethoven – roughly, 1730–1820. When used in this sense, the initial C of Classical music is sometimes capitalized to avoid confusion.

The nature of classical music

Classical music is primarily a written musical tradition, preserved in music notation, as opposed to being transmitted orally, by rote, or in recordings. While differences between particular performances of a classical work are recognized, a work of classical music is generally held to transcend any particular performance of it. Works that are centuries old often are performed far more often than works recently composed. The use of notation is an effective vehicle for transmitting classical music because all active participants in the classical music tradition are able to read music and are schooled in both historical and contemporary performance practices. 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.

Classical music is meant to be experienced for its own sake. It is unlike other forms of music that serve merely as an adjunct to other forms of entertainment. Performances of classical music often take place in a relatively solemn atmosphere, with the audience expected to maintain silence and remain immobile 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. Amateur private readings of chamber music are more informal home occasions.

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 during the 19th century became stated ever more explicitly (down to the level of small, note-by-note details) in the 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.

Classical composition often aspires to a very complex relationship between the affective (emotional) content of the music, and the idea content. There is, in the most esteemed works of Classical music, an intensive use of Musical development, the process by which a musical germ idea or motif is repeated in different contexts, or in altered form, so that the mind of the listener consciously or unconsciously compares the different versions. The classical genres of sonata form and fugue employ particularly rigorous forms of musical development. (See also History of sonata form)

Another consequence of the primacy 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, concert music, and orchestral music are terms sometimes used as synonyms of classical music.


Classical works are generally considered to display great musical complexity through heavy use of development, modulation (changing of keys), little outright repetition, and a wide use of musical phrases that are not default length--that is, four or eight bars long.

Also, in classical music very long works (30 minutes to three hours) may be built up hierarchically from smaller units (phrases, periods, sections, and movements). Structural levels are distinguished by Schenkerian analysis.

Emotional content

As with many fine art forms, classical music often aspires to communicate a quality of emotion which has a transcendant quality, expressing universals of the human condition. They argue that this deeper reserve of expression allows classical music to reach what has been called the "sublime" in art. Examples often cited in this argument are religious works such as the Masses of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Dvořák, or in works such as Beethoven's setting of Friedrich Schiller's poem, Ode to Joy, in the 9th symphony, which has often been used as a celebratory work at moments of national liberation or celebration, as in the Japanese practice of performing it to observe the New Year.


Classical and popular music are distinguished to some extent by their choice of instruments. For the most part, the instruments used in common practice classical music are non-electrical and were invented prior to the mid-19th century (often, much earlier), and codified in the 18th and 19th centuries. They consist of the instruments found in an orchestra, together with a few other solo instruments (such as the piano, harpsichord, organ). The electric guitar plays an extremely prominent role in popular music, but naturally plays no role in classical music, and only appears occasionally in the 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 or electronic tape), and instruments from other cultures (such as the gamelan).


One criterion that might be said to distinguish classical music is staying power. For instance, some of the works of J. S. Bach are now almost 300 years old, yet they continue to be widely performed. In contrast, big band music, for instance, a popular music genre of several decades ago, seems to be proving ephemeral in comparison.

Bach had many contemporaries whose music was mediocre at best, and today their music is forgotten, surviving perhaps in libraries. The repertoire of classical music is skewed toward works recognized as excellent by listeners over long periods of time.

Influences between classical and popular music

Classical music has always been influenced or taken material from popular music. Examples include Erik Satie, Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, and postminimalism, as well as much postmodern classical music.

Classical music and folk music

Composers of classical music have often made use of folk music, that is, music created by untutored musicians, spread by word of mouth. Often, they have done so with an explicit nationalist ideology; in other cases they have simply mined folk music for thematic material. See:

European Classical Composers Noted for Use of Folk Music

Classical music in education

Throughout history, parents have often made sure that their children receive classical music training from a young age. Early experience with music provides the basis for more serious study later. Some instruments, such as the violin, are almost impossible to learn to play at a professional level if not learned in childhood. Some parents pursue music lessons for their children for social reasons or in an effort to instill a useful sense of self-discipline; lessons have also been shown to increase academic performance. Some consider that a degree of knowledge of important works of classical music is part of a good general education.

The 1990s marked the emergence in the United States of research papers and popular books on the so-called Mozart effect: a temporary, small elevation of a Mozart listener's scores on certain tests. The popularized version of the controversial theory was expressed succinctly by a New York Times music columnist: "researchers have determined that listening to Mozart actually makes you smarter." Promoters marketed CDs claimed to induce the effect. Florida passed a law requiring toddlers in state-run schools to listen to classical music every day, and in 1998 the governor of Georgia budgeted $105,000 a year to provide every child born in Georgia with a tape or CD of classical music. One of the original researchers commented "I don't think it can hurt. I'm all for exposing children to wonderful cultural experiences. But I do think the money could be better spent on music education programs."

See also:

Related genres

Composers of classical music

Terms of classical music

For terms relating specifically to the performance of classical music, see the Musical terminology.


Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
  • Norman Lebrecht, When the Music Stops: Managers, Maestros and the Corporate Murder of Classical Music, Simon & Schuster 1996


  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0335152759.
  • Becker, Judith (1969). "The Anatomy of a Mode", Ethnomusicology 13(2):267–279.

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