Defining "Classical" Music

The term “classical” is used in so many different ways when applied to music that defining it is difficult, maybe impossible. Such a wide variety of music has been labeled "classical" that I’m tempted to ignore the issue of trying to give it a definition and simply state, “You know it when you hear it.” However, having a working definition of the term is important, especially for people who are new to the genre.

The term "classical," in the strictest sense, refers to the cultural traditions of the ancient world. Therefore, when we call music "classical," we might be describing only the music from ancient Greece or Rome.

"Classical (adj.): Designating, of, or pertaining to the standard ancient Greek and Latin authors or their works, or the culture, art, architecture, etc., of Greek and Roman antiquity generally; specializing in or based on the study of the Greek and Latin classics, or Greek and Roman antiquity generally." – Oxford English Dictionary

With regard to music of the last sixteen centuries — anything created after the fall of Rome — the term "classical" is most accurately used to describe European-based music of the late eighteenth century. During this “Age of Enlightenment," European culture was characterized by a renewed interest in the ancient traditions of Greece and Rome that is often described as “neoclassical.”

In short, when describing musical eras on this blog, I will identify the Baroque era (1600-1750), the
Classical era (1730-1820), the Romantic era (1815-1910), The Modernist era (1900-1945), and the Postmodernist era (1945-present). The term "classical" would therefore describe only the music of the Classical era, primarily the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Now, let’s make it even more complicated.

In most cases, it seems, people use the term "classical" to describe European-based “art” music, both sacred and secular, of the last 800 years. Admittedly, that covers a lot of ground. Often, when people describe music as “European-based” they are including music from Russia and North America, and the term “art” is used in reference to almost any type of music that’s not “folk” music (whatever that is).

"All music is folk music, I ain't never heard no horse sing a song." – Louis Armstrong

Confusing, eh? We have few clear guidelines for labeling music as "classical" and must also cope with the problem that the term has been applied to all types of music from medieval plainchant to modern movie music.

We do, however, have a way out of this mess. In a book titled
Music in the United States, musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock offers guidelines for distinguishing classical music from other types of music. Dr. Hitchcock recommends dividing music into two simple categories: vernacular and cultivated.

According to Dr. Hitchcock,
vernacular music is the everyday music of ordinary people, music that develops “democratically” within a culture. Vernacular music can be used for entertainment. It can also be music that is created and performed for practical use: work, weddings, funerals, festivals, etc. Vernacular music is often labeled as “folk” music or “popular” music.

Cultivated music, on the other hand, requires a community' conscious effort for its creation and maintenance. Quite simply, if the music is not “cultivated,” it dies. It’s a type of music that would not exist without a foundation of knowledgeable teachers, well-trained musicians, educated audiences, and substantial financial support. Cultivated music is a type of music that is usually longer and contains more musical information than so-called “folk” music or “popular” music.

And there it is. Unless we want to restrict our use of the term "classical" to refer only to music of the ancient world or music of the Classical era, we can use the term as a generic description of any music that is “cultivated." The historical era makes no difference.

Classical or "cultivated" music is not necessarily “better” than vernacular music. It is simply different.

And I say, enjoy it all!

Vernacular Music: "Turkey in the Straw"

Cultivated Music: Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, Second Movement

This blog was written under the influence of Leonard Bernstein’s
Symphonic Suite from “On the Waterfront.”