Defining Classical Music

What do we mean by Classical music? Is it the music of the past, before the world of recording studios and radio transmission? Is it music with the enduring capacity to become ‘a classic’? Is it (as those who formally codify these things have it) the music of the ‘Classical Period’ of approximately 1750 to 1825? Is it the music of the highbrow, the elite, and the snobs?

Classical Music is hard to define, but most of us would probably say that we know it when we hear it. For the purpose of The Culture Project, the term Classical Music is broadly defined as one of two musical traditions, the other being Folk Music, which began to develop in the Late Medieval period and continued to dominate the Western musical tradition until the increasing prevalence of recording and transmission technology between the two World Wars led to the development of a widespread Popular Music tradition which remains the dominant musical tradition today.

This is not to say that Classical music does not continue to be composed and enjoyed today, but merely that it no longer retains its dominant position in the modern musical consciousness.

I have chosen the late medieval as my starting point because this was the period which saw several technological advances that would have a significant impact upon the development of the European musical tradition.

To begin with, in the early part of the 11th century a Benedictine monk named Guido of Arezzo developed ‘staved’ musical notation (the form we use today) in an effort to assist choir members in learning and following the intricate melodies, harmonies and descants of Gregorian chant, which formed a significant part of Christian worship.

Da Arezzo’s innovation quickly caught on, helped by the invention of the printing press in 1440. No longer laboriously copied by hand, multiple copies of a single musical manuscript could now be produced quickly and easily, and the music performed by anyone with the instruments and skills to do so.

Meantime, there had been a change in the preferred style of worship music. People no longer desired intricate many-part choral pieces which formed an indistinct wall of sound. Instead, they wanted to understand the words. This led to a decrease in the number of parts and the popularisation of solo performances and instrumental accompaniment.

Added to this was the development of many of the instruments we recognise today: stringed instruments played with a bow rather than by plucking such as the violin and cello, and the harpsichord and piano (early 1700s), followed by modern-style woodwinds and keyed brass such as the flute, oboe and trumpet (late 1700s). By the 1800s these and other instruments were being played together in large groups, and the modern orchestra was born.

So Classical Music spans a period of around 1,000 years. What does it sound like?

Like this: Sonata For Flute And Harpsichord in G Minor (J. S. Bach 1685-1750. ‘BWV 1020 – allegro’. Possibly the work of a student of Bach)

And this: Dance Of The Little Swans (Tchaikovsky, from the ballet ‘Swan Lake’ 1875-76)

And this: Fanfare For The Common Man (Aaron Copland, 1942)

It sounds, in other words, every bit as diverse as anything one might conceivably class as ‘not-Classical music’.

What do you think? What makes Classical music ‘classical’?


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