Classical music is the art music produced in, or rooted in, the traditions of Western liturgical and secular music, encompassing a broad period from roughly the 11th century to present times. The central norms of this tradition became codified between 1550 and 1900, which is known as the common practice period. It should not be confused with the Classical Era.
European music is largely distinguished from many other non-European and popular musical forms by its system of staff notation, in use since about the 16th century. Western staff notation is used by composers to prescribe to the performer the pitch, speed, meter, individual rhythms and exact execution of a piece of music. This leaves less room for practices such as improvisation and ad libitum ornamentation, that are frequently heard in non-European art music and popular music.
The term “classical music” did not appear until the early 19th century, in an attempt to “canonize” the period from Johann Sebastian Bach to Beethoven as a golden age. The earliest reference to “classical music” recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is from about 1836.
Given the extremely broad variety of forms, styles, genres, and historical periods generally perceived as being described by the term “classical music,” it is difficult to list characteristics that can be attributed to all works of that type. Vague descriptions are plentiful, such as describing classical music as anything that “lasts a long time,” a statement made rather moot when one considers contemporary composers who are described as classical; or music that has certain instruments like violins, which are also found in other genres. However, there are characteristics that classical music contains that few or no other genres of music contain.
The most outstanding and particular characteristic of classical music is that the repertoire tends to be written down. Composers and performers alike are typically highly literate in understanding notation. The written quality of the music has, in addition to preserving the works, led to a high level of complexity within them.
The instruments used in most classical music were largely invented before the mid-19th century (often much earlier), and codified in the 18th and 19th centuries. They consist of the instruments found in an orchestra, together with a few other solo instruments (such as the piano, harpsichord, and organ). The symphony orchestra is the most widely known medium for classical music. The orchestra includes members of the string, woodwind, brass, and percussion families.
Electric instruments such as the electric guitar appear occasionally in the classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Both classical and popular musicians have experimented in recent decades with electronic instruments such as the synthesizer, electric and digital techniques such as the use of sampled or computer-generated sounds, and the sounds of instruments from other cultures such as the gamelan.
None of the bass instruments existed until the Renaissance. In Medieval music, instruments are divided in two categories: loud instruments for use outdoors or in church, and quieter instruments for indoor use. The Baroque orchestra consisted of flutes, oboes, horns and violins, occasionally with trumpets and timpani. Many instruments which are associated today with popular music used to have important roles in early classical music, such as bagpipes, vihuelas, hurdy-gurdies and some woodwind instruments. On the other hand, instruments such as the acoustic guitar, which used to be associated mainly with popular music, have gained prominence in classical music through the 19th and 20th centuries.
While equal temperament became gradually accepted as the dominant musical temperament during the 18th century, different historical temperaments are often used for music from earlier periods. For instance, music of the English Renaissance is often performed in meantone temperament. Keyboards almost all share a common layout (often called the piano keyboard).
Whereas the majority of popular styles lend themselves to the song form, classical music can also take on the form of the concerto, symphony, sonata, opera, dance music, suite, étude, symphonic poem, and others.
Classical composers often aspire to imbue their music with a very complex relationship between its affective (emotional) content and the intellectual means by which it is achieved. Many of the most esteemed works of classical music make use of musical development, the process by which a musical idea or motif is repeated in different contexts or in altered form. The sonata form and fugue employ rigorous forms of musical development.
Along with a desire for composers to attain high technical achievement in writing their music, performers of classical music are faced with similar goals of technical mastery, as demonstrated by the proportionately high amount of schooling and private study most successful classical musicians have had when compared to “popular” genre musicians, and the large number of secondary schools, including conservatories, dedicated to the study of classical music. The only other genre in the Western world with comparable secondary education opportunities is jazz.
Performance of classical music repertoire demands a significant level of technical mastery on the part of the musician; proficiency in sight-reading and ensemble playing, thorough understanding of tonal and harmonic principles, knowledge of performance practice, and a familiarity with the style/musical idiom inherent to a given period, composer or musical work are among the most essential of skills for the classically trained musician.
Works of classical repertoire often exhibit artistic complexity through the use of thematic development, phrasing, harmonization, modulation (change of key), texture, and, of course, musical form itself. Larger-scale compositional forms (such as that of the symphony, concerto, opera or oratorio, for example) usually represent a hierarchy of smaller units consisting of phrases, periods, sections, and movements. Musical analysis of a composition aims at achieving greater understanding of it, leading to more meaningful hearing and a greater appreciation of the composer’s style.
Classical music regularly features as background music for movies, television programmes, advertisements and events. Nessun dorma from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot for example was the theme tune for the 1990 FIFA World Cup.