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Periods of European art music
Medieval   (500–1400)
Renaissance (1400–1600)
Baroque (1600–1760)
Common practice
Baroque (1600–1760)
Classical (1730–1820)
Romantic (1815–1910)
Modern and contemporary
20th-century (1900–2000)
Contemporary (1975–present)
21st-century (2000–present)

Classical music is the art music produced in, or rooted in, the traditions of Western liturgical and secular music, encompassing a broad period from roughly the 9th century to present times.[1] The central norms of this tradition became codified between 1550 and 1900, which is known as the common practice period.

European music is largely distinguished from many other non-European and popular musical forms by its system of staff notation, in use since about the 16th century.[2] Western staff notation is used by composers to prescribe to the performer the pitch, speed, meter, individual rhythms and exact execution of a piece of music. This leaves less room for practices, such as improvisation and ad libitum ornamentation, that are frequently heard in non-European art music (compare Indian classical music and Japanese traditional music) and popular music.[3][4][5]

The term "classical music" did not appear until the early 19th century, in an attempt to "canonize" the period from Johann Sebastian Bach to Beethoven as a golden age.[6] The earliest reference to "classical music" recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is from about 1836.[1][7]



Given the extremely broad variety of forms, styles, genres, and historical periods generally perceived as being described by the term "classical music," it is difficult to list characteristics that can be attributed to all works of that type. Vague descriptions are plentiful, such as describing classical music as anything that "lasts a long time," a statement made rather moot when one considers contemporary composers who are described as classical; or music that has certain instruments like violins, which are also found in other genres. However, there are characteristics that classical music contains that few or no other genres of music contain.


The instruments used in most classical music were largely invented before 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, and organ).

Electric instruments such as the electric guitar appear occasionally in the classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Both classical and popular musicians have experimented in recent decades with electronic instruments such as the synthesizer, electric and digital techniques such as the use of sampled or computer-generated sounds, and the sounds of instruments from other cultures such as the gamelan.

None of the bass instruments existed until the Renaissance. In Medieval music, instruments are divided in two categories: loud instruments for use outdoors or in church, and quieter instruments for indoor use. Many instruments which are associated today with popular music used to have important roles in early classical music, such as bagpipes, vihuelas, hurdy-gurdies and some woodwind instruments. On the other hand, instruments such as the acoustic guitar, which used to be associated mainly with popular music, have gained prominence in classical music through the 19th and 20th centuries.

While equal temperament became gradually accepted as the dominant musical temperament during the 19th century, different historical temperaments are often used for music from earlier periods. For instance, music of the English Renaissance is often performed in mean tone temperament. Keyboards almost all share a common layout (often called the piano keyboard).


Whereas the majority of popular styles lend themselves to the song form, classical music can also take on the form of the concerto, symphony, sonata, opera, dance music, suite, étude, symphonic poem, and others.

Classical composers often aspire to imbue their music with a very complex relationship between its affective (emotional) content and the intellectual means by which it is achieved. Many of the most esteemed works of classical music make use of musical development, the process by which a musical idea or motif is repeated in different contexts or in altered form. The sonata form and fugue employ rigorous forms of musical development.

Technical execution

Along with a desire for composers to attain high technical achievement in writing their music, performers of classical music are faced with similar goals of technical mastery, as demonstrated by the proportionately high amount of schooling and private study most successful classical musicians have had when compared to "popular" genre musicians, and the large number of secondary schools, including conservatories, dedicated to the study of classical music. The only other genre in the Western world with comparable secondary education opportunities is jazz.


Performance of classical music repertoire often demands a significant level of technical mastery on the part of the musician; proficiency in sight-reading and ensemble playing, thorough understanding of tonal and harmonic principles, knowledge of performance practice, and a familiarity with the style/musical idiom inherent to a given period, composer or musical work are among the most essential of skills for the classically trained musician.

Works of classical repertoire often exhibit artistic complexity through the use of thematic development, phrasing, harmonization, modulation (change of key), texture, and, of course, musical form itself. Larger-scale compositional forms (such as that of the symphony, concerto, opera or oratorio, for example) usually represent a hierarchy of smaller units consisting of phrases, periods, sections, and movements. Musical analysis of a composition aims at achieving greater understanding of it, leading to more meaningful hearing and a greater appreciation of the composer's style.


Often perceived as opulent or signifying some aspect of upper-level society, classical music has generally never been as popular with working-class society. However, the traditional perception that only upper-class society has access to and appreciation for classical music, or even that classical music represents the upper-class society, may not be true, given that many working classical musicians fall somewhere in the middle-class income range in the United States,[8] and that classical concertgoers and CD buyers are not necessarily upper class. Even in the Classical era, Mozart's opere buffe such as Così fan tutte were popular with ordinary people.

Classical music regularly features in pop culture, forming background music for movies, television programs and advertisements. As a result most people in the Western World regularly and often unknowingly listen to classical music; thus, it can be argued that the relatively low levels of recorded music sales may not be a good indicator of its actual popularity. In more recent times the association of certain classical pieces with major events has led to brief upsurges in interest in particular classical genres. A good example of this was the choice of Nessun dorma from Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot as the theme tune for the 1990 Soccer World Cup, which led to a noticeable increase in popular interest in opera and in particular in tenor arias, which led to the huge sellout concerts by The Three Tenors. Such events are often cited as helping to drive increases in the audiences at many classical concerts that have been observed in recent times.


The major time divisions of classical music are the early music period, which includes Medieval (476 – 1400) and Renaissance (1400–1600), the Common practice period, which includes the Baroque (1600–1750), Classical (1730–1820) and Romantic (1815–1910) periods, and the modern and contemporary period, which includes 20th century classical (1900–2000) and contemporary classical (1975 – current).

The dates are generalizations, since the periods overlapped and the categories are somewhat arbitrary. For example, the use of counterpoint and fugue, which is considered characteristic of the Baroque era, was continued by Haydn, who is classified as typical of the Classical period. Beethoven, who is often described as a founder of the Romantic period, and Brahms, who is classified as Romantic, also used counterpoint and fugue, but other characteristics of their music define their period.

The prefix neo is used to describe a 20th century or contemporary composition written in the style of an earlier period, such as Classical or Romantic. Stravinsky's Pulcinella, for example, is a neoclassical composition because it is stylistically similar to works of the Classical period.


The roots of Western classical music lie in early Christian liturgical music, and its influences date back to the Ancient Greeks. Development of individual tones and scales was done by ancient Greeks such as Aristoxenus and Pythagoras.[9] Pythagoras created a tuning system and helped to codify musical notation. Ancient Greek instruments such as the aulos (a reed instrument) and the lyre (a stringed instrument similar to a small harp) eventually led to the modern-day instruments of a classical orchestra.[10] The antecedent to the early period was the era of ancient music from before the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD). Very little music survives from this time, most of it from Ancient Greece.

Early Period

The Medieval period includes music from after the fall of Rome to about 1400. Monophonic chant, also called plainsong or Gregorian Chant, was the dominant form until about 1100.[11] Polyphonic (multi-voiced) music developed from monophonic chant throughout the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, including the more complex voicings of motets. The Renaissance period was from 1400 to 1600. It was characterized by greater use of instrumentation, multiple interweaving melodic lines, and the use of the first bass instruments. Social dancing became more widespread, so musical forms appropriate to accompanying dance began to standardize.

It is in this time that the notation of music on a staff and other elements of musical notation began to take shape.[12] This invention made possible the separation of the composition of a piece of music from its transmission; without written music, transmission was oral, and subject to change every time it was transmitted. With a musical score, a work of music could be performed without the composer's presence.[11] The invention of the movable-type printing press in the 15th century had far-reaching consequences on the preservation and transmission of music.[13]

Typical stringed instruments of the Early Period include the harp, lute, vielle, and psaltery, while wind instruments included the flute family (including recorder), shawm (an early member of the oboe family), trumpet, and the bagpipe. Simple pipe organs existed, but were largely confined to churches, although there were portable varieties.[14] Later in the period, early versions of keyboard instruments like the clavichord and harpsichord began to appear. Stringed instruments such as the viol had emerged by the 16th century, as had a wider variety of brass and reed instruments. Printing enabled the standardization of descriptions and specifications of instruments, as well as instruction in their use.[15]

Common Practice Period

The Common Practice Period is when many of the ideas that make up western classical music took shape, standardized, or were codified. It began with the Baroque era, running from roughly 1600 to the middle of the 18th century. The Classical era followed, ending roughly around 1820. The Romantic era ran through the 19th century, ending about 1910.

Baroque music

Baroque music is characterized by the use of complex tonal counterpoint and the use of a basso continuo, a continuous bass line. The beginnings of the sonata form took shape in the canzona, as did a more formalized notion of theme and variations. The tonalities of major and minor as means for managing dissonance and chromaticism in music took full shape.[16]

During the Baroque era, keyboard music played on the harpsichord and pipe organ became increasingly popular, and the violin family of stringed instruments took the form generally seen today. Opera as a staged musical drama began to differentiate itself from earlier musical and dramatic forms, and vocal forms like the cantata and oratorio became more common.[17] Instrumental ensembles began to distinguish and standardize by size, giving rise to the early orchestra for larger ensembles, with chamber music being written for smaller groups of instruments where parts are played by individual (instead of massed) instruments. The concerto as a vehicle for solo performance accompanied by an orchestra became widespread, although the relationship between soloist and orchestra was relatively simple. The theories surrounding equal temperament began to be put in wider practice, especially as it enabled a wider range of chromatic possibilities in hard-to-tune keyboard instruments. For example, equal temperament made possible Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.[18]

Classical period music

The Classical period, from about 1750 to 1820, established many of the norms of composition, presentation and style, and was when the piano became the predominant keyboard instrument. The basic forces required for an orchestra became somewhat standardized (although they would grow as the potential of a wider array of instruments was developed in the following centuries). Chamber music grew to include ensembles with as many as 8-10 performers for serenades. Opera continued to develop, with regional styles in Italy, France, and German-speaking lands. The opera buffa, a form of comic opera, rose in popularity. The symphony came into its own as a musical form, and the concerto was developed as a vehicle for displays of virtuoso playing skill. Orchestras no longer required a harpsichord (which had been part of the traditional continuo in the Baroque style), and were often led by the lead violinist (now called the concertmaster).[19]

Wind instruments became more refined in the Classical period. While double reeded instruments like the oboe and bassoon became somewhat standardized in the Baroque, the clarinet family of single reeds was not widely used until Mozart expanded its role in orchestral, chamber, and concerto settings.

Romantic era music

The music of the Romantic era, from roughly the second decade of the 19th century to the early 20th century, was characterized by increased attention to an extended melodic line, as well as expressive and emotional elements, paralleling romanticism in other art forms. Musical forms began to break from the Classical era forms (even as those were being codified), with free-form pieces like nocturnes, fantasias, and preludes being written where accepted ideas about the exposition and development of themes were ignored or minimized.[20] The music became more chromatic, dissonant, and tonally colorful, with tensions (with respect to accepted norms of the older forms) about key signatures increasing.[21] The art song (or Lied) came to maturity in this era, as did the epic scales of grand opera, ultimately transcended by Richard Wagner's Ring cycle.[22]

In the 19th century, musical institutions emerged from the control of wealthy patrons, as composers and musicians could construct lives independent of the nobility. Increasing interest in music by the growing middle classes throughout western Europe spurred the creation of organizations for the teaching, performance, and preservation of music. The piano, which achieved its modern construction in this era (in part due to industrial advances in metallurgy) became widely popular with the middle class, whose demands for the instrument spurred a large number of piano builders. Many symphony orchestras date their founding to this era.[21] Some musicians and composers were the stars of the day; some, like Franz Liszt and Niccolò Paganini, fulfilled both roles.[23]

The family of instruments used, especially in orchestras, grew. A wider array of percussion instruments began to appear. Brass instruments took on larger roles, as the introduction of rotary valves made it possible for them to play a wider range of notes. The size of the orchestra (typically around 40 in the Classical era) grew to be over 100.[21] Gustav Mahler's 1906 Symphony of a Thousand, for example, has been performed with over 150 instrumentalists and choirs of over 400.

European cultural ideas and institutions began to follow colonial expansion into other parts of the world. There was also a rise, especially toward the end of the era, of nationalism in music (echoing, in some cases, political sentiments of the time), as composers such as Edvard Grieg, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Antonín Dvořák echoed traditional music of their homelands in their compositions.[24]

20th century, modern, and contemporary music

The modern era began with Impressionist music from 1910 to 1920, which was dominated by French composers (against the traditional German ways of art and music). Impressionist music by Erik Satie, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel used pentatonic scales, long flowing phrases and free rhythms. Modernism (1905–1985) marked a period when many composers rejected certain values of the common practice period, such as traditional tonality, melody, instrumentation, and structure. Composers, academics, and musicians developed extensions of music theory and technique. 20th century classical music, encompassing a wide variety of post-Romantic styles composed through the year 1999, includes late Romantic, Modern and Postmodern styles of composition. The term "contemporary music" is sometimes used to describe music composed in the late 20th century through to the present day.

Significance of written notation

Classical music is considered primarily a written musical tradition, preserved in music notation, as opposed to being transmitted orally, by rote, or by recordings of particular performances. While there are differences between particular performances of a classical work, a piece of classical music is generally held to transcend any interpretation of it. The use of musical notation is an effective method for transmitting classical music, since the written music contains the technical instructions for performing the work. The written score, however, does not usually contain explicit instructions as to how to interpret the piece in terms of production or performance, apart from directions for dynamics, tempo and expression (to a certain extent); this is left to the discretion of the performers, who are guided by their personal experience and musical education, their knowledge of the work's idiom, and the accumulated body of historic performance practices.

However, improvisation once played an important role in classical music. A remnant of this improvisatory tradition in classical music can be heard in the cadenza, a passage found mostly in concertos and solo works, designed to allow skilled performers to exhibit their virtuoso skills on the instrument. Traditionally this was improvised by the performer; however, it is often written for (or occasionally by) the performer beforehand.

Its written transmission, along with the veneration bestowed on certain classical works, has led to the expectation that performers will play a work in a way that realizes in detail the original intentions of the composer. During the 19th century the details that composers put in their scores generally increased. 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 original intent than the composer was able to imagine. Thus, classical performers often achieve very high reputations for their musicianship, even if they do not compose themselves. Generally however, it is the composers who are remembered more than the performers.

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 than in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, 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 (and thereby encouraged others to do so), but they also provided written cadenzas for use by other soloists.

Popular music

Classical music has often incorporated elements or material from popular music of the composer's time. Examples include occasional music such as Brahms' use of student drinking songs in his Academic Festival Overture, genres exemplified by Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, and the influence of jazz on early- and mid-twentieth century composers including Maurice Ravel, exemplified by the movement entitled "Blues" in his sonata for violin and piano.[25] Certain postmodern, minimalist and postminimalist classical composers acknowledge a debt to popular music.[26]

There are numerous examples of influence in the opposite direction, including popular songs based on classical music, the use to which Pachelbel's Canon has been put since the 1970s,[27] and the musical crossover phenomenon, where classical musicians have achieved success in the popular music arena (notable examples are the Hooked on Classics series of recordings made by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the early 1980s and the classical crossover violinists Vanessa Mae and Catya Maré). Some rock bands such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer have recorded classical compositions.

Folk music

Composers of classical music have often made use of folk music (music created by musicians who are commonly not classically trained, often from a purely oral tradition). Some composers, like Dvořák and Smetana,[28] have used folk themes to impart a nationalist flavor to their work, while others (like Bartók) have used specific themes lifted whole from their folk-music origins.[29]


Certain staples of classical music are often used commercially (either in advertising or in movie soundtracks). In television commercials, several passages have become clichéd, particularly the opening of Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra (made famous in 2001: A Space Odyssey) and the opening section "O Fortuna" of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana; other examples include the Dies Irae from the Verdi Requiem, Edvard Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt, the opening bars of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre, Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee, and excerpts of Aaron Copland's Rodeo.

Similarly, movies and television often revert to standard, clichéd snatches of classical music to convey refinement or opulence: some of the most-often heard pieces in this category include Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain.


Throughout history, parents have often made sure that their children receive classical music training from a young age. Some parents pursue music lessons for their children for social reasons or in an effort to instill a sense of self-discipline.[citation needed] Some believe that knowledge of important works of classical music is part of a good general education.

During the 1990s, several research papers and popular books wrote on what came to be called the "Mozart effect": an observed temporary, small elevation of scores on certain tests as a result of listening to Mozart's works. The approach has been popularized in a book by Don Campbell, and is based on an experiment published in Nature suggesting that listening to Mozart temporarily boosted students' IQ by 8 to 9 points.[30] This popularized version of the theory was expressed succinctly by a New York Times music columnist: "researchers... have determined that listening to Mozart actually makes you smarter."[31] 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 per year to provide every child born in Georgia with a tape or CD of classical music. One of the co-authors of the original studies of the Mozart effect 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." [32]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Classical", The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music, ed. Michael Kennedy, (Oxford, 2007), Oxford Reference Online, accessed 23 July 2007
  2. ^ Chew, Geffrey & Rastall, Richard. "Notation, §III, 1(vi): Plainchant: Pitch-specific notations, 13th–16th centuries", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed July 23 2007), (subscription access).
  3. ^ Malm, W.P./Hughes, David W.. "Japan, §III, 1: Notation systems: Introduction", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed July 23 2007), (subscription access).
  4. ^ IAN D. BENT, DAVID W. HUGHES, ROBERT C. PROVINE, RICHARD RASTALL, ANNE KILMER. "Notation, §I: General", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed July 23 2007), (subscription access).
  5. ^ Middleton, Richard. "Popular music, §I, 4: Europe & North America: Genre, form, style", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed July 23 2007), (subscription access).
  6. ^ Rushton, Julian, Classical Music, (London, 1994), 10
  7. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary (2007). "classical, a.". The OED Online. Retrieved 2007-05-10. 
  8. ^ Chesky, Kris S; Stephen Corns (2007). "Income From Music Performance: Does Attending College Make Cents?". Reports of Research in Music Education (University of Texas at Austin: Texas Music Educators Association). 
  9. ^ Grout, p. 28
  10. ^ Grout (1988)
  11. ^ a b Grout, pp. 75-76
  12. ^ Grout, p. 61
  13. ^ Grout, pp. 175-176
  14. ^ Grout, pp. 72-74
  15. ^ Grout, pp. 222-225
  16. ^ Grout, pp. 300-332
  17. ^ Grout, pp. 341-355
  18. ^ Grout, p. 378
  19. ^ Grout, p. 463
  20. ^ Swafford, p. 200
  21. ^ a b c Swafford, p. 201
  22. ^ Grout, pp. 595-612
  23. ^ Grout, p. 543
  24. ^ Grout, pp. 634,641-2
  25. ^ Kelly, Barbara. L. "Ravel, Maurice, §3: 1918–37", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed July 23 2007), (subscription access).
  26. ^ See, for example, Siôn, Pwyll Ap. "Nyman, Michael", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed July 23 2007), (subscription access).
  27. ^ 'Pachelbel Rant', performed by Comedian Rob Paravonian,
  28. ^ Yeomans, David (2006). Piano Music of the Czech Romantics: A Performer's Guide. Indiana University Press. p. 2. ISBN 0253218454. 
  29. ^ Stevens, Haley; Gillies, Malcolm (1993). The Life and Music of Béla Bartók. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 129. ISBN 0198163495. 
  30. ^ Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature 400 (1999-08-26): 827.
  31. ^ Ross, Alex. "CLASSICAL VIEW; Listening To Prozac... Er, Mozart", New York Times, 1994-08-28. Retrieved on 2008-05-16.
  32. ^ Goode, Erica. "Mozart for Baby? Some Say, Maybe Not", New York Times, 1999-08-03. Retrieved on 2008-05-16.


  • Lebrecht, Norman (1996). When the Music Stops: Managers, Maestros and the Corporate Murder of Classical Music. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780671010256. 
  • Grout, Donald Jay (1973). A History of Western Music. Norton. ISBN 0393094162. 
  • Grout, Donald J.; Palisca, Claude V. (1988). A History of Western Music. Norton. ISBN 9780393956276. 
  • Swafford, Jan (1992). The Vintage Guide to Classical Music. Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-72805-8. 

Further reading

  • Kamien, Roger (2008) - Music: An Appreciation Sixth Brief Edition ISBN 978-0-07-340134-8
  • Lihoreau, Tim; Fry, Stephen (2004) - Stephen Fry's Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music. Boxtree. ISBN 978-0752225340
  • Taruskin, Richard (2005, rev. Paperback version 2009) - Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press (USA). ISBN 978-0195169799 (Hardback), ISBN 978-0195386301 (Paperback)
  • Hanning, Barbara Russano; Grout, Donald Jay (1998 rev. 2009) - Concise History of Western Music. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393928039 (hardcover).
  • Grout, Donald Jay; Palisca, Claude V. (1996) - A History of Western Music, Fifth Edition. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393969045 (hardcover).
  • Scholes, Percy Alfred; Arnold, Denis (photographer) (1988) - The New Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0193113163 (paperback).
  • Copland, Aaron;(1957) - What to listen for in music. McGraw Hill. ISBN-10: 7018981026 (paperback).

External links

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