Art has always been intersectional. Where one type of art begins and flows into another comes from the variety of ways that artists and the general public produce and consume it. While it can seem arbitrary, art both sonic and physical is both objective in ways and subjective in others.
One form of art usually needs another to elevate it. Films have long used well fleshed out musical scores to impress the heaviness or lightness of a scene or sequence. Orchestras often accompany ballet, and contemporary dance performances while visuals may play in the background.
If physical art is the projection of who we are as a culture and a consummation of our identities as individuals, then music is its lifeblood or baseline. It is the spiritual beating heart that some believe began before humanity and has grown with us ever since.
Music has played a central role in almost every culture. Within this role, it has worn many hats, as a philosophical tool influencing and reflecting on religion, morality, and our emotions; as a celebratory addition to our best and worse parties, and for some as a call to war or battle.
Surprisingly, many don’t understand the roots of the music they listen to. The most momentous evolution of music resulting in the classical style. Even to this day, the building blocks of classical music permeate every area from pop to rock and beyond. The rules, the history, the contributions all stand every present even when we are not aware of them.
In this guide, we will dig into the details of the powerhouse that is classical music, its relationship to pop music, and more. By the end, you'll be able to edify your friends and family with your appreciation of "art music."
Music is unique in that it both affects and is affected by the culture in a kind of feedback loop. Music is wildly subjective, with what some may consider music others may think of
What we know about music is but a small sliver of what was. All we have is glimpses or contextual snapshots to interpret what music was like in ancient times. India, China, Mesopotamia and more had musicians, but we can only speculate on a rudimentary level what exactly the type of music and qualities that was around.
Whereas the Greeks and Romans thought of as music being invented by the Gods, many believe that the first real uses of music were as a means of storytelling or communication. The performance of the flute, lyres, and voice were some of the earliest ways music was conveyed. Still, at this time it was severely limited and rudimentary.
Music had begun to take form with the invention of a more concrete type of notation that took into account rhythm and repeatability for carrying a melody. Most of "popular music" of the time was for the church.
Around this time, polyphonic musical composition was used. This means in comparison to before when it was just one level or homophonic, at this time multiple voices could sing and offer a more layered sound. It sounds like more energetic/varied music when compared with its predecessor. There was always a deep voice that acted as a rudimentary bassline to carry the song. Music at this point is primarily written in Latin and almost exclusively for the church.
Music becomes more accessible via troubadours as musicians begin using medieval instruments to play and experiment in drinking places and around town.
With the onset of traveling in search of wealth and adventure, Europe experienced a transformation during this period that came from the increased global reach. Music began to become more diversified and impacted by other cultures. During this Renaissance, musicians start to take a more individual approach in line with the themes of the time.
They began to reflect on beauty, the self, and order and it showed in their music. By this time, polyphonic compositions had elevated to the point of being almost free form. This is also around the time the beginnings of the guitar and piano as we know them are taking shape.
Florentine musicians began a multi-layered polyphonic style that unfolded into the Baroque period fluidly. It is characterized by music known as "basso continuo." It resembles fast paced quickly played chords on the harpsichord or other stringed instruments alongside the development of grander orchestrations for Opera. The violin itself was fast rising thanks to Vivaldi as a front-runner for musical composition.
King Louis IV played a significant role in setting up smaller organized music events that allowed smaller orchestras to play larger than life pieces. As a side note, Bach and Handel composed a massive catalog of pieces that propelled classical music forward.
So, until around 500-1000 AD aka Medieval times, music had never been written down in one unified form, through music notation supposedly goes as far back as 1400 BC.
Writing things down at this point was primarily a duty of the church, as before this point in history a majority of the people that could read were in or part of the church. Most people were illiterate as things had to be taken down by hand, and learning to read was a pursuit mostly for the well off.
In any case, the church realized that they needed to be able to have a record of the hymns and other musical offerings to god that was used in their religious rituals and it needed to be easy to share/be understood by a variety of musicians/vocalists. To this point, there was little ability to develop music beyond basic compositions.
Cue, what’s known as Plainchant.
Plainchant is basically a monophonic type of music, meaning that it's conducted with no set rhythm but with one level of musical expression. From here, music had its foundations which could be expanded upon, but all music around the world evolved from a form of plainchant initially.
This form of singing is not commonly used today, though it is still present in religious rituals and other cultural activities. When it comes to listening to music for entertainment and the appreciation of the art, plainchant has been largely left behind by the progress of the art form due to the added intricacies.
As the music grew more complex, other artistic aspects were added to the songs, taking them further and further away from plainchant. However, more complicated songs are also more of a challenge to teach to someone else without a form of notation, and this is what necessitated the creation of sheet music.
With the introduction of measures and accidentals, music was able to have more breathing room. Pauses and calculated build ups were able to increase the overall fullness of a composition, leading to a more complex sound. From this point, AKA around the Renaissance period, sheet music begins to take the form of how it appears today.
As you could imagine, the creation of the printing press had a massive influence on the development of sheet music and how we express music in writing. Before the press, songs had to be individually copied by hand, a process which took a massive amount of time, and of course, money.
Musical notation was perhaps the most critical thing that's ever happened to music. Before notation, music was limited to being rarely repeatable and difficult to evolve. Notation played a crucial role in music being able to travel beyond families and tribes to being prevalent everywhere.
Of course, musical notation was created before the printing press made it even easier to replicate. But imagine the sheer challenge of having to relay a song to someone else by singing it to them and not being able to express it in any other terms. This seems like an incredibly arduous process.
Thankfully, musical notation was created, and artists have been able to learn to read and express music through writing. Keep in mind that musical notation was typically a luxury that was reserved for the rich when it first came about due to the extreme cost of books, not only ones containing music but also basic writing.
Few people in the pre-Renaissance world had the means to access books, and even when Gutenberg eventually created his press, it would still take some time. Thankfully, however, music eventually grew widespread enough for it to be accessible to a wide range of people, improving the potential talent pool.
Now, you may have a rough idea of what classical music is by what you’ve heard of the genre. Names like Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and more tend to ring a bell when classical music is brought up, but many people can’t define the genre beyond those few recognizable names.
Classical music is more than a genre of music; it is as close to a form of classical art as you will get when it comes to the musical genre. Of course, this doesn't mean that other kinds of music don't have their own merits, but you'll find that the complexities and layers of classical music are in a world of their own.
First of all, let's examine why the genre is commonly known by the moniker of "art music," as all music is a type of art.
When classical music is called "art music" it isn't intended as a way of slandering other kinds of music. Of course, those various genres are still a form of art in their own right, as the term doesn't exclude them from the privilege of being known as such.
Likening classical music to art music describes how the songs can be so immaculately layered and composed that you can tell a lifetime of work has gone into them. Classical music is a discipline in which you never stop learning, and it shows in some of the greatest works.
Classical music is the closest to the great works of art because of the unique aspects that it shares with few other kinds of music.
Other musical genres don’t necessitate the learning of musical notation so that a performer can be a great artist. For example, some of the most popular artists of the last 60 years haven’t been able to read music in the first place, including legends like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and even The Beatles.
In classical music, on the other hand, you won’t find a single composer who is unable to read music as it is a necessary talent in the genre. For your music to be legitimately considered classical music, it needs to be notated and accessible to other composers, as this is why we can still play songs from hundreds of years ago.
Putting your music into notation immortalizes it for generations of the future to enjoy, the same way we can still hear a song the way Mozart intended us to.
A common mistake that’s made by newer listeners of classical music is the assumption that the songs have to be created by artists who lived in the classical era. While the genre shares the name of an era, that’s the only thing they share, as anyone can make classical music, even in the present day.
Every recording of classical music that you’ve ever listened to has to have been made within the past 100 years or so since that’s as long as we’ve been able to register sounds.
There is a massive amount of classical music that we’ve never heard, and we’ll never be able to enjoy seeing Mozart at the head of an orchestra, except for in spirit.
Of course, that’s the tragedy with art that is so old, as we’ll always be able to appreciate it, but we can never hope to witness its creation, the way we can today.
When it comes to defining classical music, you have to look at it through the lens of the kind of songs that most people are accustomed to. Of course, most people have varying musical tastes, though there are a few different genres that are a little more popular than many of the other ones.
In this section, we’re going to take a look at classical music in comparison to some of the most prevalent forms of music around the world. By the end of this examination, you’ll come to realize that classical music has a host of unique aspects that can’t be found in many other forms of music.
Let’s start off by comparing classical music to the present-day incarnation of itself (at least through the broadest definition of evolution): pop music.
To understand the difference between classical music and pop music, you have to comprehend their similarities first. When you think about it, pop music is what classical music has become in that it’s the predominant form of music at the time. Pop music hasn’t always been in its present form.
For example, pop music in the 1980s was vastly different from the most popular forms of music that we'll see today. While you can trace a clear line of evolution of pop music from then to now, how does it compare to classical music? First off, classical music is a lot harder to replicate than pop music because of the similar tempos and cadences that are used in music today.
Most pieces of classical music will have differences that are fundamental, as opposed to the superficial ones in present-day pop.
Some may assume that folk music has a few more similarities with classical music due to the instruments that are used in it. A lot of the stringed instruments that are famous parts of some of the best classical compositions are still used in folk music, including the violin, but that is one of the few ways they overlap.
Folk music, as you can imagine from the title, has evolved from more traditional genres that are shared by people in certain geographic areas. As such, there are so many different kinds of folk music from all around the world, ranging from the rural US, all the way to countries like Poland.
Classical music usually features complexities that you won’t find in folk beats, which tend to be much more simplistic and can be performed with relatively few instruments.
There are too many musical genres to go over the differences one by one, so let’s look at some of the more prevalent ones. Hip-hop, which is rapidly gaining mainstream popularity year after year, differs immensely from classical music in that its main components is a vocal instead of instrumental one.
Classical music is furthest from music genres that prioritize vocals because there are relatively few forms of classical music where the vocals are emphasized. Most of the time, classical music is defined by how you perform it according to the maneuvers that are outlined in the sheet music.
Any form of music that is meant to be played offhandedly is quite far from classical music, which requires the proper setting, so country music is also quite different from the genre.
Instrumentation is a vital part of classical music, and without it, the genre just wouldn't be the same. The basic idea of instrumentation is that you assign a certain group of instruments to play a particular area of the song, instead of having everyone go at all at the same time, causing a cacophony.
The instruments used in classical music are quite recognizable, with many of us having been acquainted with them for some time. In this section, we’re going to cover the instruments that are used in the present day, but we’re also going to look at how they have changed over the years.
First off, let’s make sure that everyone is following along by covering the standard instruments you’ll see today.
In western classical music, we have the conventional instruments, which are the ones that you will see used by the vast majority of orchestras and performers. The first category of instruments in the woodwinds and these include the flute, oboe, bassoon, bass clarinet, clarinet, English horn, and the double bassoon.
Up next, you have the brass section, which is made up of horns, trumpets, trombones, and the tuba, known for their throaty, resounding sounds. After the brass, comes the strings, including the following instruments: harps, violas, double basses, violins, and the violoncellos.
The final category is that of percussion, which doesn’t feature quite as many different instruments as the others, including the tympani and many forms of drums.
Classical music instrumentation has changed massively over time, and many people don’t realize that classical music has varied widely as a result of this. In fact, instrumentation only extends as far back as the Baroque period of classical music, with everyone playing together up until that point.
Of course, even the instruments that are used in the orchestra have varied over time periods, with their availability playing a crucial role in whether or not they were used. For example, stringed instruments weren't as prevalent during the early days because they were harder to come by.
The composition of orchestras hasn’t changed much since what many people would specify as the golden age of classical music, though we have some unique challenges today.
If you want to play classical music in the present day, you have a few challenges that will get in the way. One of the problems of classical music's loss of popularity is that there are noticeably fewer musicians in the field, which makes the matter of instruction a little more complicated.
Having fewer teachers will put the few remaining in higher demand, making intensive classical music training rather expensive. Beyond training, you have the issue of the instruments themselves. While modern techniques have helped lower the price somewhat, the weak demand still shows in high price tags.
If you want to get yourself a classical musical instrument, then you’ll have to pay for it, because build tolerances and quality are essential.
So you may be wondering how classical music is faring in the present day, specifically when it comes to the people that play it. You'll find that places with a history of classical music tend to have some of the most prevalent orchestras, such as in central and western European countries.
Of course, we still have orchestras in America and Canada as well, with most cities having their own symphony orchestra. While classical music isn’t as prevalent as it was during the peak of its popularity, it is still a genre of music that attracts listeners from all around the world.
Playing classical music takes years of dedication, and the lessons that are needed in this genre are ones that can only be learned through extensive experience.
Classical music is unique when compared to other art forms in that it hasn’t been necessarily surpassed by the disciplines that have succeeded it. In visual art, for example, artists who continue using an out-of-date movement will typically fall out of favor, but this hasn’t happened for classical music.
There are so many reasons why people can still enjoy classical music to this very day, and a lot of it has to do with the emotions that it evokes in the listener. A lot of artwork will only speak to someone who understands the social climate of the era during which it was made, but that isn’t needed for classical music.
Anyone can listen to a recording of classical music and feel something because music elicits something in our minds that you won't get from other kinds of art.
One of the best reasons to listen to classical music is similar to the reason why you would watch the Olympics or the World Cup. You are listening to musicians who are the best of the best, as they have spent their whole lives refining their craft to the point that they are at the top of their field.
Orchestras are immensely competitive, and you need to will to constantly improve yourself if you want to make it far in the world of classical music. As such, you’ll find that the sheer quality of the music that you hear is immense, as nothing less than the best will do in this genre.
A single bad performer can throw off the whole performance, which is why chemistry and talent are held in equal regard when it comes to classical music.
You’ll also find that classical music is one of the best options if you’re looking for background noise while you study. Some people may prefer to study in silence, but others will often get distracted unless they have something auditory that they can zone out to, like classical music.
The problem with other music genres and studying is that the vast majority will feature lyrics which can grab your attention. With classical music, most forms will not have lyrics, so you can let your mind focus on what you need to study without being jarred out of it by the words you hear.
Classical music is also an excellent genre to work to for this very reason, so the trick isn’t only reserved for students.
The very same qualities that make classical music one of the best choices of study music also make it the right option for those looking to unwind. If you’ve had a tough day at work or school, throwing on some classical music the minute you get home or into your car is an excellent way to relax.
Keep in mind that not all classical music is ideal for relaxation, as you have to search for the softer songs. Intense compositions that feature heavy strings will typically cause anxiety, so you'll want to avoid them when you're relaxing and look for pieces that highlight the piano a little more heavily.
Once you find the right classical music to relax to, you won’t find many other genres that can compare to it.
Thanks to its unobtrusive nature, you'll find that classical music is ideally suited for use as background noise to nearly anything that you do. One of the best options is to couple classical music with other forms of entertainment, since the lack of lyrics will prevent it from clashing with the other media.
For example, if you’re playing a video game and you turn down the music setting, you’ll find many classical music compositions that go extremely well with the gameplay. Keep in mind that more intense games go better with intense symphonies that elicit suspense.
On the other hand, you can also watch movies and TV with classical music in the background, provided you turn down the volume of the music, so it isn't playing over it.
Since most pieces of classical music have existed long since the death of their creator, you’ll find that most of them don’t fall under copyright. As such, you can use them in any piece of art of your own without having to pay our royalties, giving you a wide range of options for your own artistic advancement.
You’ll find that artists who aren’t even musicians can benefit from the lack of copyright on classical music. While as a classical musician, you’ll be able to perform the songs yourself, other artists such as filmmakers can also use the songs in their own work, provided they know the performer.
Of course, you also have classical music being taught in music classes all around the world, which will introduce people to it at a very young age. Since this genre is the best choice to learn more about the art of music itself, you’ll find that all aspiring musicians will come across it at one point or another.
Being exposed to classical music is all that is needed to create an admirer of the art form thanks to its immense beauty and complexity. As long as people are coming into contact with classical music, there will always be fans of the genre who want to take it further as an art form.
While we've gone over many of the social phenomena that are responsible for classical music's large following, we haven't looked at the technical details. As a genre, classical music features many aspects that you won't find present in other kinds of music that make it so memorable.
Understanding these elements is key to knowing why classical music has such a diehard, long-lasting fanbase, and why we still have musicians bettering their craft today. Let’s start off by going over the immense quality of the music (and, by extension, the performance).
When it comes to the music itself, classical is a genre that is made up of some of the best songs that man has ever come up with. We don’t remember Beethoven and Mozart because they were the best classical musicians, we still remember them because there were some of the best musicians period.
With such immense skill, it makes sense that the music these people wrote can reach into the future and touch our hearts in the present day. Few songs are around today that will be able to speak to the people of the future in the same way due to their reliance on the comprehension of the world as it is today.
Beyond the quality of the music, the matter of its complexity makes it even more impressive. Since so much work went into making these intricate compositions perfect, you get an appreciation for the effort that the artist put into creating these works of art. This also makes classical music infinitely replayable.
When there are so many little details to notice in the music, you’ll find that classical songs can change every time you hear them, slightly altering your interpretation. While songs from other genres can end up getting stale, classical music has managed to stay fresh for hundreds of years.
The complexity and replay value of the music naturally leads to our next point of classical music still managing to reach out and touch people to this very day. Unlike other genres which quickly end up burnt out within a decade or so, classical music has existed for quite some time, and that's due to how it can still speak to you.
When you hear a classical song, you don't need to understand it to feel the raw emotion beneath the notes. For this very reason, classical music can be heard by anyone, and it will still be able to evoke an emotional response, and this is why it will be popular for a long time to come.
When compared to other kinds of music, classical as a genre doesn’t have much in the way of a defined temperament, which makes it much more versatile. Other songs tend to have an emotion associated with them, whether it’s sadness for the blues, anger for hardcore punk, or fun for pop.
However, classical music doesn't have a pre-existing emotional temperament because you're the one who assigns one to it. Everyone hears something different when listening to a classical song, and someone may not feel the same emotions as you when they hear the same piece.
Unlike other kinds of music, classical music is relatively easy to come by, and even when you purchase it, it will typically be much more affordable. If you need reasonably accessible music to play in the background at any time, you won't find a more economical choice than classical.
In this part of our guide, we’re going to be covering some of the reasons why classical music is so readily available, especially when compared to other music genres. Whether directly or indirectly, you’ll find that the reason usually boils down to the age of the music.
When discussing why classical music is so affordable, you have to keep in mind that there is no copyright or licensing on most of the songs, except for what goes to the performer. Since classical music record labels don’t own the rights to the music itself, they can’t charge as much as for new music.
While the orchestra performing the song still has the rights to their performance, they don’t own the intellectual property of the song, so they won’t charge as much for the recording. Of course, there’s also the matter of demand, which is what we’ll be going over in the next part.
Classical music has existed for such a long time that the field is inundated with compositions, so distribution companies can't hope to charge much. Since there are hundreds of classical songs that would even be classified as the greatest songs in the genre, there is just too much to choose from.
Compounded with the fact that there are so many possible songs to buy, there are also countless orchestras and performers from all around the world. When the field is so competitive, but the demand isn't as high as in other genres, you'll find that the price needs to drop to keep selling albums.
Classical music is an immensely complicated topic, and we've only managed to scratch the surface of what you need to know. We hope that this guide has been able to provide the info that you were looking for. If you're interested in some of the best classical music collections around, we'd recommend looking over some of our buying guides.