European classical music

This article is about the genre of classical music in the Western musical tradition. For articles on classical music of non-Western cultures, see: List of classical music traditions, For the period of music in the late 18th century see Classical music era,
History of European art music
Medieval (476 CE – 1450)
Renaissance (1450 – 1600)
Baroque (1600 – 1750)
Classical (1740 – 1830)
Romantic (1815 – 1910)
20th century (1900 – 2000)
21st century (2001 – present)

Classical music is a broad, somewhat imprecise term, referring to music produced in, or rooted in the traditions of, European art, ecclesiastical and concert music, particularly between 1000 and 1900. The central norms of this tradition developed between 1550 and 1825 centering on what is known as the common practice period.



Musical works are best understood in the context of their place in musical history, for many this is essential to fully enjoying these works. The major time divisions are:

  • Medieval, generally before 1450. Chant, also called plainsong or Gregorian Chant, was the dominant form until about 1100.
  • Renaissance, about 1450-1600, characterized by greater use of instrumentation and multiple melodic lines
  • Baroque, about 1600-1750, characterized by the use of counterpoint and growing popularity of keyboard music and orchestral music
  • Classical, about 1730-1820, an important era which established many of the norms of composition, presentation and style.
  • Romantic, 1815-1910 a period which codified practice, expanded the role of music in cultural life and created institutions for the teaching, performance and preservation of works of music.
  • Modern, 1905-1975 a period which represented a crisis in the values of classical music and its role within intellectual life, and the extension of theory and technique.
  • 20th century, usually used to describe the wide variety of post-Romantic styles composed through 2000, which includes late Romantic, Modern and Post-Modern styles of composition.
  • The term contemporary music is sometimes used to describe music composed in the late 20th century through present day
  • The prefix neo is usually used to describe a 20th Century or Contemporary composition written in the style of an earlier period, such as classical, romantic, or modern. So for example, Prokofiev's Classical Symphony is considered a Neo-Classical composition.

The dates are generalizations, since the periods overlapped. Some authorities subdivide the periods further by date or style. However, it should be noted that these categories are to an extent arbitrary; the use of counterpoint and fugue, which is considered characteristic of the Baroque era, was continued by Mozart, who is generally classified as typical of the Classical period, and by Brahms, who is generally classified as Romantic.

This chart shows a selection of the most famous classical composers. For a more complete overview see Graphical timeline for classical composers <timeline> Preset = TimeHorizontal_AutoPlaceBars_UnitYear ImageSize = width:760

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 width:15 fontsize:M textcolor:black align:left anchor:from shift:(4,-6)
 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:1583 till:1643 color:Bar text:G Frescobaldi
 from:1585 till:1672 color:Bar text:H Schtz
 from:1632 till:1687 color:Bar text:JB Lully
 from:1637 till:1707 color:Bar text:D Buxtehude
 from:1653 till:1713 color:Bar text:A Corelli
 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:1683 till:1764 color:Bar text:JP Rameau
 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 Hndel
 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
 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:1833 till:1897 color:Rom text:J Brahms
 from:1835 till:1921 color:Rom text:C Saint-Sans
 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 Dvork
 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:1872 till:1915 color:Rom text:A Scriabin
 from:1873 till:1943 color:Rom text:S Rachmaninoff


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.

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 of it. Works that are centuries old often are performed far more often than works recently composed. The use of notation is an effective vehicle for transmitting classical music because all active participants in the classical music tradition are able to read music and are schooled in both historical and contemporary 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 merely as a vehicle for poetry or other lyrical content -- in the classical song or Lied, the music is an equal partner to the text -- 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. Amateur private readings of chamber music are more informal home occasions.

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 during the 19th century became stated ever more explicitly (down to the level of small, note-by-note details) in the 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.

Classical composition often aspires to a very complex relationship between the affective (emotional) content of the music, and the idea content. There is, in the most esteemed works of Classical music, an intensive use of Musical development, the process by which a musical germ idea or motif is repeated in different contexts, or in altered form, so that the mind of the listener consciously or unconsciously compares the different versions. The classical genres of sonata form and fugue employ particularly rigorous forms of musical development. (See also History of sonata form)

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, 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, concert music, and orchestral music are terms sometimes used as synonyms of classical music.

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.

The very distinction between classical and popular music is blurred in the border regions, for instance minimalist music and light classics, and are disregarded as art music. In this respect music is like fiction, which likewise draws a distinction between classics and popular fiction that is not always easy to maintain.

"Neat divisions between 'folk' and 'popular', and 'popular' and 'art', are impossible to find...arbitrary criteria [is used] to define the complement of 'popular'. 'Art' music, for example, is generally regarded as by nature complex, difficult, demanding; 'popular' music then has to be defined as 'simple', 'accesible', 'facile'. But many pieces commonly thought of as 'art' (Handel's 'Hellelujah Chors', many Schubert songs, many Verdi arias) have qualities of simplicity; conversely, it is by no means obvious that the Sex Pistols' records were 'accessible', (trashy?) Frank Zappa's work 'simple', (Frank Zappa is considered by many a serious composer) or Billie Holiday's 'facile'." (light?) (Middleton, 1990)


It might be argued that, at least on the average, classical works have greater musical complexity than popular music. For instance, classical music is distinguished by its heavy use of development, and 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, thus are considered by many non-serious music).

This is not to say that popular music is definitively or always simpler than classical. The "default length" of phrases which classical music supposedly deviates from were set as the default by music of the common practice period. Both jazz and rap make use of rhythms more complex than would appear in the average common practice work, and popular music sometimes uses certain complex chords that would be quite unusual in a common practice piece. Popular music also uses certain features of rhythm and pitch inflection not analyzable by the traditional methods applied to common practice music.

One may argue that it is normally only in classical music that very long works (30 minutes to three hours) are built up hierarchically from smaller units (phrases, periods, sections, and movements). Structural levels are distinguished by Schenkerian analysis. Fred Lerdahl (1992), for example, claims that popular music lacks the structural complexity for multiple structural layers, and thus much depth. However, Lerdahl's theories explicitly exclude "associational" details which are used to help articulate form in popular music, while Allen Forte's book The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era 1924-1950 analyses popular music with traditional Schenkerian techniques. (Middleton 1999, p.144)

Moreover, there are "the segments combined into patterns, combined into verses, combined into songs [that] make Burmese music a multileveled hierarchical system...The Burmese musician manipulates the various levels of the hierarchy to create the song..." (Becker 1969, p.272)

Emotional content

As with many fine art forms, many fans of classical music believe that it often aspires to communicate a quality of emotion which has a transcendant quality, expressing universals of the human condition. They argue that this deeper reserve of expression allows classical music to reach what has been called the "sublime" in art. Examples often cited in this argument are religious works such as the Masses of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Dvořk, or in works such as Beethoven's setting of Friedrich Schiller's poem, Ode to Joy, in the 9th symphony, which has often been used as a celebratory work at moments of national liberation or celebration, as in the Japanese practice of performing it to observe the New Year.


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).


One criterion that might be said to distinguish classical music is staying power. For instance, some of the works of J. S. Bach are now almost 300 years old, yet they continue to be widely performed. In contrast, Big band music, a popular music genre of several decades ago, seems to be proving ephemeral in comparison.

Bach had many contempories whose music was mediocre at best, and today their music is forgotten, surviving perhaps in libraries. The repertoire of classical music is skewed toward works recognized as excellent by listeners over long periods of time.

It follows that genres of popular music that have existed for a long time might also produce works that show staying power. For instance, the work of Scott Joplin, a popular musician of about a century ago, continues to be played--often, curiously enough, by classical musicians. The advent of high fidelity audio recordings in the 1950s meant that the actual performances of popular musicians could be preserved forever, and this has raised the possibility that certain works popular music will achieve permanent status in their original recorded form. This may be happening now in the case of the most outstanding artists.

Influences between classical and popular music

Works of classical music sometimes achieve a sudden, hard to explain popularity, and thus take on the temporary status of popular music; for details, see crossover. Moreover, many popular songs over the years have made use of themes and melodies from well-known classical pieces; for a list of examples see List of popular songs based on classical music. Songwriters such as Paul Simon have used classical techniques such as, during his early solo career in the 1970s, the twelve tone technique, though Simon actually only employs the full chromatic rather than strict tone rows (Everett 1997).

Classical music has always been influenced or taken material from popular music. Examples include Erik Satie, Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, and postminimalism, as well as much postmodern classical music.

Classical music and folk music

Composers of classical music have often made use of folk music, that is, music created by untutored musicians, spread by word of mouth. Often, they have done so with an explicit nationalist ideology; in other cases they have simply mined folk music for thematic material. See:

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.

The 1990s marked the emergence in the United States of research papers and popular books on the so-called Mozart effect: a temporary, small elevation of a Mozart listener's scores on certain tests. The popularized version of the controversial theory was expressed succinctly by a New York Times music columnist: "researchers have determined that listening to Mozart actually makes you smarter." 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 a year to provide every child born in Georgia with a tape or CD of classical music. One of the original researchers 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."

See also:

Related genres

Composers of classical music

Terms of classical music

For terms relating specifically to the performance of classical music, see the Glossary of music performance directions.



  • Everett, Walter (1997). "Swallowed by a Song: Paul Simon's Crisis of Chromaticism", Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195100042.
  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0335152759.
  • Becker, Judith (1969). "The Anatomy of a Mode", Ethnomusicology 13, no.2:267-79.
  • Norman Lebrecht, When the Music Stops: Managers, Maestros and the Corporate Murder of Classical Music, Simon & Schuster 1996

External links

de:Klassische Musik es:Msica clsica eo:Klasika muziko fr:Musique classique ko:서양 고전음악 he:מוסיקה קלאסית hi:शास्त्रीय संगीत it:Musica classica nl:Klassieke muziek ja:古典派音楽 pl:Muzyka poważna pt:Msica clssica ru:Классическая музыка zh-cn:古典音乐


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