A Framework for Understanding Classical Music

What is music?

Music is sounds organized in a framework of time. But that’s a topic for another day.

What is “classical” music?

A gross misnomer, that’s what. In the US, when we say “classical music” we speak about it as if it were a genre, such as rock and roll, R&B or country music. But think about it. Classical music encompasses almost all of Western music from about 1500 through today–more than 500 years, representing all styles of music from every country in Europe, including Russia, and North and South America as well. It encompasses songs written in dozens of different languages. It even incorporates music by Asian and African composers who have been influenced by the Western style.

So you think of your radio stations in your home town as “the classical station”, “the rock station” or “the country station”. Well, the rock station only plays music from England and the United States, sung in the English language, from about 1964 to the present, for instance. 45 years of one narrow genre of music. The country station plays practically nothing but music written and recorded in one city, Nashville, Tennessee, with much greater cultural restrictions even than rock, spanning a similar time period. But your “classical” station plays 500 years of music from the whole of Western culture, from all nations and all languages. All the other stations on your radio dial, put together, only play a tiny fraction of the songs and musical styles played on your one lone “classical” station.

Now, the most effective method of categorizing music comes from economic principles. The world over, there are three kinds of music:

1) Traditional music
2) Folk music
3) Commercial music

Of course these types of music cross-polinate and influence each other.

The first category has been with us since the dawn of civilization. The second category has been with us even longer than that. But the third category, as we shall see, is a recent innovation.

Traditional music is expensive to write and perform, and is paid for by patronage. Composers and musicians can earn a living performing this music, but the music itself (concerts or recordings) does not break even or generate a profit. This has been the dominant form throughout the world for centuries. Composers, performers and orchestras depend upon the largesse of kings, nobility, governments, and church organizations to fund the making of the music.

Western traditional musical forms include, but are not limited to: chamber music, choral music, art songs, opera, music for ballet or the theater, symphonies and other orchestral music. And those are all topics for other days.

Nowadays traditional music is funded by donations from large profitable corporations, in addition to governments and churches. We are not only talking about what you might consider classical music. This also covers Broadway musicals, for instance. Yes, traditional music is music which never even comes close to covering the cost of making the music based on ticket sales, album sales or the like. It requires heavy infusions of cash from wealthy sources that don’t expect any return on the investment other than having more music to enjoy, or perhaps the prestige of having been benevolent in funding the arts.

Folk music, which is inexpensive to write and perform, is made by people with little or no expectation of earning any money from it. It is created solely for reasons of esthetic and cultural satisfaction of the composers, performers and listeners. Of course there always has been and always will be folk music, in every culture around the world.

Commercial music is the newest category. It can be thought of as a specialized form of folk music. Commercial music only came into being with the advent of radio, mass-produced phonograph records, motion pictures and then television, and the increased ability to levy and collect royalty payments. It really only came into flower in the early  1920s, so it’s scarcely 90 years old. Commercial music is music that finances itself, is marketed, and earns a profit from listeners. The profits go to the musicians, sometimes, but mostly to the financiers. The 20th century economy and technology created ways for musicians and their financiers to earn a great deal of money by developing and marketing new forms of folk music. For the first time, music became an industry and an engine of economic development and wealth. Commercial music as we knew it in the golden age of the 20th century may be moribund in the current digital age; that remains to be seen. But if commercial music fails, those styles of music created during this brief, explosive period will revert to being folk music again.

Jazz, interestingly enough, seems already to have gone the other way; it started out as commercial music but is now traditional music, in that it no longer makes money–it usually loses money–and is often funded by non-profit organizations and cultural ministries within governments.

Western Music History

For proper nomenclature, we are talking in this essay about Western traditional music, what is commonly called “classical” music.

Western music is that which evolved from sources in Europe, and which invented and developed the concepts of harmony and chord progressions. I want you to think about that for a minute.

Indigenous African music is based on very sophisticated rhythm and some melody. It has no harmony or chords whatsoever. East Indian music is based on extremely sophisticated melody, with a good dose of rhythmic sophistication thrown in, but again, it has no harmony and no chords. Western music, on the other hand, has tremendously, stupefyingly simplistic rhythm compared to many other musics in the world, and its melodies are generally much shorter and less elaborate as well.

No, what we call “tonal harmony” or “functional harmony” is an invention of Western civilization that began in the 1400s and has developed steadily since that time. It is an intellectual achievement of the collective conscious of a culture over six hundred years. Before that time there were no harmonies or chords in the world–there were only melodies and some rhythm. Harmony and a system for using it had to be invented, although this invention was a naturally evolving process involving millions of musicians, dozens of cultures, and centuries of time.

Nowadays, of course, musicians outside the West, in other parts of the world, have been influenced to some degree or another by Western folk, traditional and commercial music, and therefore there are musicians in Africa and India, for instance, who are composing Western-style songs and compositions that use harmony and chords. But if you look at the roots of it all, Western music, with its harmony and chord progressions, is essentially a recent technological innovation.

Traditional African and East Indian music, for instance, are far older and have evolved less. The Indian ragas that are played today, which have always been court and church music paid for by patronage, are thought to be many centuries older than the oldest melodies extant in Western music.

So what is “classical” music, and why is “classical” a gross misnomer?

Western traditional music, as I have pointed out above, is a vast subject. “Classical” is a catch-all term that, when you look at it, really doesn’t tell you much. To help with this, we divide Western traditional music up into “style periods”. These eras are generally in keeping with terms we use to describe not only the music, but also the architecture, literature, visual arts, in fact all of culture in that time period.

We usually refer to:

Ancient and Medieval (before about 1400)
Renaissance (about 1400 to 1600)
Baroque (about 1600 to 1750)
Classical (about 1730 to 1815)
Romantic (about 1815 to 1910)
20th-Century, Modern, or Post-modern, take your pick, anything after about 1910.

These time periods, by the way, are named and delineated by historians well after the era has come and gone.

The dates are of course not set in stone, and they don’t always describe the music of a particular composer, location, or tradition. They are generalizations. Haydn’s lifespan and working career as a musician spanned the Baroque and Classical periods and touched on the Romantic, but Haydn didn’t wake up on January 1, 1751 and say, “Aha, the Baroque period has ended. I must no longer write in that style. I must write in the new Classical style, whatever that may turn out to be.” Beethoven certainly gave no thought as to whether he was a Classical composer or a Romantic composer, and historians feel that he was both.

You will note that the “Classical” era is the shortest of them all. In fact some historians restrict it even further, saying that the “Classical” period began and ended with Mozart, who was born in 1756 and died in 1791 at the age of 36. So if it’s the shortest period, why do we lump all these centuries of music together and call it “classical”? Beats me. Seriously. I have no idea.

Within each era, or “style period” as it is usually called, the next way we divvy things up is usually by country or language. Thus we talk about “British Renaissance” (though we make a distinction between “Edwardian” and “Elizabethan”) or “German Baroque” or “French Romantic” styles. Then we may look at types of musical composition, such as “Italian Classical opera” or “German Baroque chamber music” for instance.

Remember that all labels, genres and style periods are artificial constructions made by historians simply for the purpose of dividing and conquering the knowledge that is to be studied, and the music that is to be listened to. And now you understand the framework under which we use the term “classical music”.