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What Defines Classical Music?



We all know what is classical music because most of us have heard of Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. We also associate classical music with having originated from the West. In fact, Oxford Dictionary defines classical music as a Western music tradition, using an established form (such as a symphony), and considered to be serious and have a lasting value. But this is just a generalised definition. What really defines classical music?


Western Music Eras


But classical can be a broad term. There are other music eras such as the Renaissance, Baroque and Romantic periods. How do they fit into the term classical music? We use classical music (small ‘c’) to mean Western instrumental, orchestral, vocal, and choral music, created for both secular and sacred settings.


In the context of Classical era (big ‘c’), this period came after the Baroque period in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The classical era came around 1750-1830 and encompassed composers such as Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven - though many music historians said Beethovan started the Romantic era (from 1830-1900).


The Classical music era saw the formalisation of fixed structures, compositional techniques, and orchestral sizes and shapes in the symphony, comic operas, and the Classical piano sonata.


Simplicity in Structure


Compared to the Baroque era, Classical music is simpler in structure. Baroque music is grander and contains embellished melodies and complex textures. Classical music, on the other hand, uses basic melodies and big ensembles to sustain them. This made music easier to read and the sound is also softer and more pleasant.


Classical music composers added more emphasis on form and function. They included unique, catchy, single-line melodies and simple tonal harmony. To create more variations, composers turned to familiar melodies from folk music. They also modified tonality, speed, and dynamics. Efficiency was valued above grandeur in and replaced a sense of surprise and wonder associated with Baroque music. This development in classical music developed throughout the Romantic period.


Reaching the Masses


Composers during the Baroque period worked mostly in aristocratic courts and were presented as chamber music for wealthy patrons. But it was also when public concert halls were first constructed. During the Classical music era, public concert halls became more popular across Europe. Music became accessible to the public and a new audience emerged to listen to Classical’s simpler and catchy melodies.


The growth of public concerts provided composers with an important source of income. This made Classical music more popular and inclusive than Baroque music. This was the era where musicians no longer need to require on churches or rich patrons for their music. This gave birth to the practice of creating music specifically for public performances.


Homophonic Textures


Instrumental melodies in the Classical era tend to flow more gradually with fewer jumps than Baroque music. Homophonic textures became more popular when composers began to focus on the melody.


Baroque music was incredibly difficult to play but the tunes were passionate. Classical music was a lot more simplified and provided greater accuracy - after a public performance, Classical music audience was still humming or singing the melodies long after the curtain had come down.


The recurring theme of Classical music is that the universe was simple, set, beautiful, and fulfilling. Polyphony, a popular counterpoint in Baroque music refers to the simultaneous playing of multiple melodies, a reflection of the view of a more complicated universe compared to the Classical period.

Instruments Used in Classical Music


The orchestra evolved during the Classical era, which we can still witness today in Classical music concerts. Symphony became a structured form of music, and the piano came into popularity with the composition of sonatas.


The string quartet is another invention that came along during the Classical era. These are some of the instruments that are frequently heard in Classical music. This includes orchestras, chamber music groups, and various ensembles: violins, violoncellos, double basses, flutes, oboes, horns, trumpets, bassoons, timpani, clarinet, and the piano.


Famous Classical Music Composers


Classical music composers are commonly known as members of the Viennese School. The Viennese School is considered to be the heart of European Classical music. The First Viennese School is a name used to refer to three composers of the Classical era in the late 18th century to the early 19th century in Vienna: Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Franz Schubert is sometimes added to the list.


Of the three First Viennese School members, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is the most significant composer. He was not only well-known during his time but still iconic today for the hundreds of memorable and flawless Classical compositions he created during his brief life on earth.


Franz Joseph Haydn also composed several hundreds of famous pieces for symphonies, quartets, and other types of instrumental music. As for Ludwig van Beethoven, who can forget his enduring “Moonlight Sonata”?


In today’s world, we remember the influence Classical music has on popular music through the simple structures and chorus adopted by pop musicians.



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