How does music get classified? |

How does music get classified?

“Feeling of a wing, gliding across the strings of an instrument.”


Even if it’s a case of “I know it when I hear it,” most of us have an impression, if not a Webster’s certified definition, of what classical music is – and isn’t. It’s the music of movies and Tom and Jerry cartoons. It’s the serious, hoity-toity stuff written by guys long dead. And whatever it is, it’s not pop.

Actually, most of the time we refer to classical music, we’re using the term improperly. In the strictest sense, classical music refers to either music from ancient Greece and Rome, or, more commonly, to music composed during the years 1750 to 1825 or so – the Classical Era.

The Classical Era is sandwiched between the Baroque and the Romantic eras. Like music of all periods, the Classical Era reflects the social, political, and cultural situation of the times. Its music embodies the ideals of the Enlightenment, celebrating the natural rights of man; the rise of the middle class; the view of music as an innocent luxury; or the piano coming into its own.

We’ll talk more specifically about how the music of the various eras mirrors the times in other articles. For now, let’s go back to the more general, if sloppy, use of the term “classical music” and review our impressions and, in some cases, misconceptions.

In its looser, music-of-the movies sense, classical music is music composed for an orchestra or for certain instruments of the orchestra, plus the piano. And voice. And let’s throw in the guitar as well. See how loose it gets?

Robert Greenberg, composer and professor, suggests that “concert music” might be a more accurate way to describe the music we’re most likely to hear in concert halls and opera houses – places where many fear to tread.

But you don’t have to sparkle with diamonds to attend a classical music concert. Tickets for the Reno Philharmonic cost about the same – and in some cases less – than rock concerts. Also, local recitals are often free.

In fact, it was during the Classical Era that public concerts were introduced. People felt that music should be enjoyed by not only the aristocracy, but everyone. Over time, concerts became snooty affairs, but once again the regular folk are elbowing in. Zirconium rules.

Is classical music serious stuff? Fate knocking on the door of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is pretty sobering, to be sure. But his Second Symphony unmistakably depicts his wayward gastrointestinal tract. And Handel’s Concerto Grosso op. 6, No. 7 is nicknamed the Chicken Coop Fugue with good reason. It sounds like a veritable barnyard. Composers are people, too.

Nor do they reside exclusively in the underworld. Classical music is being composed as we speak by the likes of Philip Glass who, among other works, wrote the score for the movie The Hours; Dave Brubeck, who ventures outside of jazz; and yes, Billy Joel, who dangles his feet in classical style waters with his “Fantasies and Delusions” compositions.

What makes music classical is the test of time. While we think of pop and classical as distinctly different sounds, many a classical composition was considered easy listening in its day. Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” (A Little Night Music) was the smooth jazz of the 1780s. Now there’s something to ponder next time you buy groceries – what from this piped-in music will make it to the next century’s Carnegie Hall?

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