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.”



Defining Music, Part One

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC

– Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

I love all types of music. I find great energy and fun in the Beatles’ early songs, as well as anything recorded by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I am thrilled by the seemingly stagnant music composed by Phillip Glass. I am deeply affected by both the power of Beethoven’s symphonies and the elegance of Chopin’s piano etudes.

I also find joy in the sounds of everyday life. Listening to the rain fall outside my bedroom window at night calms me down, as does the sound of a train in the distance. Some of the most enjoyable sounds I have heard came from when I was with my father on the banks of the Kiamichi River in Oklahoma. Late at night we would wait for the cowbell to ring on the trotline we had spread across the river, a sound telling us that we had hooked a catfish. The campfire was crackling. In the distance some dogs had treed a possum and were howling to save the world.

I call all of that, “music.”

For me, music is the moments defined by what I am listening to. It doesn't matter whether I am spending three minutes listening to Bruce Springsteen moaning about love's desire or ninety minutes listening to Gustav Mahler passing judgment on Judgment Day. It’s all music. When I spend an evening listening to children splashing in a swimming pool at the house next door, I refer to it as “music” to my ears.

Music does not only come from the sounds I hear. It also comes from the sounds I pay attention to, sounds I experience for the pure joy of listening.

Sometimes the joy of listening comes with no need for musical knowledge. Knowing about major and minor tonalities is unnecessary to understanding the beauty (and possibly the terror) in the sounds of a thunderstorm on a summer evening. A knowledge of musical meter contributes nothing to the euphoria of hearing fireworks exploding on the Fourth of July.

Sometimes, however, I need a little musical knowledge or I might not understand what is happening in a piece of music. Without knowing a few basic terms I might not fully appreciate the music I am hearing.

In most cases, the need for knowledge comes when I am listening to classical music. Classical music can be so full of musical content that the “story” told in a sonata, concerto, or symphony might escape me unless I understand the terminology.

I might not need lessons on how to listen to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Flatt and Scruggs. However, I need someone to explain Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, or I might never really understand the power of its message.

When I spend time listening to a symphony by Haydn, for example, simply knowing that it will be divided into four movements helps me enjoy it more. Knowing that the first movement is in sonata form and the third movement is in triple time makes the music even more meaningful. And I can't stop there. Haydn's symphonies are endlessly entertaining — if I am willing to learn about them.

None of this means that classical music is
better than other types of music. It only means that classical music is different. In most cases, classical music requires knowledgeable audiences. Many other types of music, on the other hand, require little more than listening and having a good time.

I'll say it again, I love it all. Music of all types enhances my life, feeds my soul, and elevates my spirit. It doesn’t matter whether I’m listening to Johann Sebastian Bach, Johnny Cash, or that cowbell ringing on the trotline in the middle of the night.

Flatt and Scruggs, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”


Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, “Eroica”


How to Play the Cowbell


This is Part One of my two-part attempt to define music. There's more to come in my next posting when I will provide four additional elements of music that I use to help my students on their journey through music history.