What is Classical Music

What is Classical Music

Did you know “classical” music technically only refers to music from approximately 1750 – 1800? That era is known as the Classical period in music history, hence why any songs or pieces from that time are dubbed as “classical” music. Semantics aside, in popular culture, “classical music” seems to be the preferred term for this genre as a whole. In that sense, orchestra-oriented music is called “classical” because it is perceived by many to be this music, while still performed today, from the distant past; it is timeless and “classic.” While this genre of music is indeed rooted in many ideas from the past, it should not be considered an archaic art form—people are still creating new “classical” music today! Take, for example, the pieces from present-day composers Jennifer Higdon and João Luiz that we are performing this season.

You may have also seen other terms used to describe the music we perform. Two other common descriptors are “art” and “concert” music. Art music is an older term used to designate this genre as one for artistic expression, as opposed to other categories of music that are geared toward entertainment. The problem here is that the designation “art music” comes off as elitist since it implies that other genres of music aren’t art (i.e., music that isn’t as “good”) (Von Glahn and Broyles 2012). Pop music, for instance, functions as both entertainment and art, depending on the context. This term is also contradictory in that what we call “art” or “classical” music can also entertain us, especially when used in films, video games, and other media (Gibbons 2018, 9). So, if “classical” and “art” music don’t quite suit this strange thing we do, could the term “concert” music work? Well, this label isn’t quite appropriate either—do musicians from other genres not also give concerts? The other issue is that this term also comes off as elitist since it designates this specific body of music as especially suited for the “professional” level, the concert hall.

Of these three labels, which is best? At the end of the day, it does not matter, barring any implication of value judgments. We’re here for the music, regardless of its name. Genres are more complicated than their designation; take, for instance, the discussion in the Piazzolla blog post. In other words, the lines between our categories of music are quite blurred. Look at classical/pop artists like Black Violin and Lindsey Stirling, for example. Additionally, when pop artists heavily sample classical music, what implications does that have for genre labeling and boundaries?

So, as you attend our concerts this season, think about when you hear genre bending. Additionally, going back to the most common label of this music as “classical,” think about which pieces or composers are part of the “older”/classical part of this tradition and which ones are contemporary. In which pieces or composers do you see the “classical” label enforced? What are the exceptions to it?

Written by Emily Ruth Allen, Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology (Florida State University)


Gibbons, William. 2018. Unlimited Replays: Video Games and Classical Music. New York: Oxford University Press.

Von Glahn, Denise, and Michael Broyles. 2012. “Art music.” Oxford Music Online.

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