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Classical music
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Classical music

This article is part of the
History of Art Music
20th Century

This article is about the broad genre of classical music in the Western musical tradition. For the period of music in the 18th century see Classical music era, for articles on classical music of non-Western cultures, see: List of classical music traditions

Classical music is a broad, somewhat imprecise term, but there are a number of ways that classical music is identified.

Table of contents
1 The nature of classical music
2 Timeline
3 Classical music as "music of the classical era"
4 Classical music and popular music
5 Role of classical music in education
6 Related genres
7 Composers of classical music
8 Terms of classical music

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 thereof. Works that are centuries old can be, and often are, performed far more often than works recently composed. The use of notation is an effective method for classical music because all active participants in the classical music tradition are able to read music and are schooled in the current 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 as a vehicle for poetry or other lyrical content, or 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.

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 are often stated quite explicitly (down to the level of small, note-by-note details) in the musical 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.

Another consequence of the veneration 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 and concert music are terms sometimes used as synonyms of classical music.


Musical works are best understood and enjoyed in the context of their place in musical history. The major time divisions are:

The dates are generalizations, since the periods overlapped. Some authorities subdivide the periods further by date or style.

This chart shows a selection of the most famous classical composers. For a more complete overview see Graphical Timelines for Classical Composers Preset = TimeHorizontal_AutoPlaceBars_UnitYear ImageSize = width:760 Colors = id:canvas value:gray(0.7) id:grid1 value:gray(0.4) id:grid2 value:gray(0.2) id:Ren value:rgb(0.6,1,1) legend:Renaissance id:Bar value:rgb(0.6,1,0.6) legend:Baroque id:Cla value:rgb(1,1,0.6) legend:Classicism id:Rom value:rgb(1,0.75,0.75) legend:Romanticism BackgroundColors = canvas:canvas Period = from:1425 till:1925 ScaleMajor = unit:year increment:25 start:1425 gridcolor:grid1 Legend = orientation:vertical left:49 top:100 LineData = at:1500 color:grid2 layer:back at:1600 color:grid2 layer:back at:1700 color:grid2 layer:back at:1800 color:grid2 layer:back at:1900 color:grid2 layer:back BarData= barset:Composers PlotData= # set defaults width:15 fontsize:M textcolor:black align:left anchor:from shift:(4,-6) barset:Composers from:1430 till:1495 color:Ren text:J Ockeghem from:1440 till:1521 color:Ren text:J Des Prez from:1525 till:1594 color:Ren text:GP da Palestrina from:1543 till:1623 color:Ren text:W Byrd from:1562 till:1621 color:Bar text:JP Sweelinck from:1567 till:1643 color:Bar text:C Monteverdi from:1637 till:1707 color:Bar text:D Buxtehude from:1659 till:1695 color:Bar text:H Purcell from:1660 till:1725 color:Bar text:A Scarlatti from:1674 till:1754 color:Bar text:T Albinoni from:1678 till:1741 color:Bar text:A Vivaldi from:1681 till:1767 color:Bar text:GP Telemann from:1685 till:1750 color:Bar text:JS Bach from:1685 till:1757 color:Bar text:D Scarlatti from:1685 till:1759 color:Bar text:GF Hšndel from:1710 till:1736 color:Bar text:GB Pergolesi from:1714 till:1798 color:Cla text:CW Gluck from:1732 till:1809 color:Cla text:J Haydn from:1750 till:1825 color:Cla text:A Salieri from:1756 till:1791 color:Cla text:WA Mozart from:1770 till:1827 color:Cla text:L v Beethoven from:1782 till:1840 color:Cla text:N Paganini from:1786 till:1826 color:Rom text:CM von Weber from:1791 till:1857 color:Rom text:C Czerny from:1792 till:1868 color:Rom text:G Rossini barset:break from:1796 till:1869 color:Rom text:C Loewe from:1797 till:1828 color:Rom text:F Schubert from:1797 till:1848 color:Rom text:G Donizetti from:1803 till:1869 color:Rom text:H Berlioz from:1809 till:1847 color:Rom text:F Mendelssohn from:1810 till:1849 color:Rom text:F Chopin from:1810 till:1856 color:Rom text:R Schumann from:1811 till:1886 color:Rom text:F Liszt from:1813 till:1883 color:Rom text:R Wagner from:1813 till:1901 color:Rom text:G Verdi from:1819 till:1880 color:Rom text:J Offenbach from:1824 till:1884 color:Rom text:B Smetana from:1824 till:1896 color:Rom text:A Bruckner from:1835 till:1921 color:Rom text:C Saint-SaŽns from:1838 till:1875 color:Rom text:G Bizet from:1838 till:1920 color:Rom text:M Bruch from:1839 till:1881 color:Rom text:M Mussorgsky from:1840 till:1893 color:Rom text:PI Tchaikovsky from:1841 till:1904 color:Rom text:A DvorŠk from:1843 till:1907 color:Rom text:E Grieg from:1844 till:1908 color:Rom text:N Rimsky-Korsakov from:1858 till:1924 color:Rom text:G Puccini from:1866 till:1925 color:Rom text:E Satie from:1872 till:1915 color:Rom text:A Scriabin

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.

Classical music and popular music

The relationship (particularly, the relative value) of classical music and popular music is a controversial question. Some partisans of classical music may claim that classical music constitutes art and popular music only light entertainment. However, many popular works show a high level of artistry and musical innovation and many classical works are unabashedly crowd-pleasing. Thus there is the category of serious music, excluding those crowd pleasers, only including real monumental and creative works of art that contribute to humanity, very much like literature.

It might be argued that, at least on the average, classical works have greater musical complexity. In particular, classical music usually involves more modulation (changing of keys), less outright repetition, and a wider use of musical phrases that are not default length--that is, four or eight bars long (however, much minimalist music goes against these tendencies). Also, it is normally only in classical music that long works (30 minutes to three hours) are built up hierarchically from smaller units (usually called movements).

This not to say that popular music is always simpler than classical. Both jazz and rap make use of rhythms more complex than would appear in the average classical work created after the Renaissance and before the twentieth century, and popular music sometimes uses certain complex chordss that would be quite unusual in a common practice period classical work. Also, popular music uses many "associational" or "intensional" features, such as rhythmic and pitch inflection, not analyzable by traditional methods.

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 nonelectrical and were invented prior to the mid-1800's (often, much earlier), and codified in the 1700 and 1800's. They consist of the instruments found in an orchestra, together with a few other solo instruments (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).

An interesting speculation is whether works of popular music are likely to achieve the kind of permanence that works of classical music have achieved. Prior to the advent of audio recordings, this was not a possibility, since popular works are generally identified with the performance of the artist who created them. However, since high-quality audio recordings have now existed for over fifty years, the possibility of popular works achieving some kind of permanent, enshrined, status now presents itself, and is probably happening now in the case of the most outstanding artists.

Classical and popular music interact in the phenomenon of crossover.

Many popular songs have used themes and melodies from well-known classical pieces as their basis- for a list of examples see List of popular songs based on classical music.

Role of 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.

Related genres

Composers of classical music

Terms of classical music