What is Classical Music?


One thing that I’m struck by in nearly every conversation about the state of Classical Music, whether online or in real life, is how differently folks define what it is.  Usually that definition is implicit and easily understood in the statements made, and other times it seems like some clarification is needed. A recent conversation on my Facebook page really brought out some of these difficulties in navigating how debates devolve into wondering what the hell everyone is talking about when discussing the state of the field.

While most folks won’t give two bits about what Classical Music denotes, those of us concerned about the future (or event present and past) of the field have some vested interest in delineating the discourse. In some cases, it’s a monetary interest.

As I said in my last comment on that Facebook thread:

There are several definitions of what constitutes “Classical Music” and when most folks talk about its death they usually mean a fairly narrow range of organizations and musicians involved in the scene. For example, while many folks wouldn’t include symphonic film and video game scores as “Classical Music” there are others that do. Depending on whether we include those things, that gives us a very different picture of how much the genre is still very much a part of everyday lives. It’s an issue of perspective and we in the field have differing ideas about that and what might be considered a “Crisis” in the field.

Notice that I qualified film and video game music with “Symphonic.” There are, obviously, tons of scores for both (and here we could include TV show or scores incidental music for Theater) that aren’t Symphonic, or that don’t use what we’d typically refer to as Classical Music instrumentation (in chamber ensemble or solo forms) such as the score by the Boston Cello Quartet for the video game Of Orcs and Men. No one, for example, would claim that the score for Pulp Fiction is a Classical Music score, while on the other hand, the arrangement of the score by my group il Troubadore for a Chicago production of Bard Fiction, could (arguably) be considered Classical.

Even with things we’d typically consider Classical Music we have issues with perspectivization.  For example, in most debates about the “Death of Classical Music” talk invariably turns to the SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets)–and even there most of the focus is on Symphony Orchestras.  All connotations referencing HIP (Historically Informed Performance) ensembles and orchestras, New Music ensembles and orchestras, Chamber Music Groups, Vocal and Instrumental Recitalists, Choral Ensembles and the vast number of freelancers who primarily do special events rarely factor into the discussion. Neither do the thousands of school and University Orchestras, Concert Bands, Choirs and Community Orchestras factor into these discussions.

By focusing solely on the SOBs, claims about the direction or relevancy of Classical Music, as well as the solutions for reversing these trends, bear little relation to the field as a whole. Couple that with the fact that most talk about the Popular Music and Entertainment Industries, which relies on our knowledge of Pop Superstars rather than the vast majority of local band musicians that don’t play for stadium sized crowds nor get the same level of media exposure, we have a recipe for using solutions that work for a small subset of one industry to revitalize another. Of course, as most of the readers of this blog knows, most of those techniques and solutions are no longer working (or never worked in the way we thought) for the Pop Music or Entertainment Industries either, so it’s a moot point.

In other words, by selectively defining the field (e.g. Classical Music), it becomes easier to selectively define its problems (e.g. “in Crisis,” “Dying,” “in Decline”) and the solutions (e.g. Popular Entertainment Industry Models) to those problems.  And if those solutions are borrowed from another selectively defined field….

I believe we all understand what most folks mean when we say Classical Music or Pop Music, but in the end what we’re really talking about are issues of categorization and how we as humans tend to conceptualize things without explicitly defining them (hence why I said these things are implicitly in the definition).  In my blog post about what prototype theory has to say about polyphony and counterpoint, I discussed how a specific connotation or subset of meanings become substituted for a whole and that’s what’s happening here.

In essence, the discourse has been delineated in very specific ways by very specific parties for very specific purposes. In response to this, John Chittum posted a call to arms to show the breadth and diversity of the Classical Music field:

Ok, enough of the anger and vinegar. How about a more productive response.

One of the issues that’s happening is the label “classical music.” What does it mean? In some conversations, people make it mean “orchestras classical series concert.” At other times, it’s the entire area of instrumental music.

“People” outside our “clique” don’t seem to know what it is, or so claim certain pundits. So, let’s be progressive and productive!

If you participate in something you consider “classical music,” be it experimental, fusions with lots of different genres, romantic flavoured, anything at all, hop on twitter (or here), put a tag to something you’re a part of, as a performer, composers, improviser, engineer, whatever.

Put up a link and use the hashtag #IAmClassical

Let’s fight all these accusations and silliness by showing the breadth of what this idea encompasses! There are so many wonderful things happening, so many groups large and small doing GREAT! Let’s show the world!


The world of Classical Music is far more vast than what most of us think and if the health of the field is solely determined by the Cherry-Picked SOB stories (I couldn’t resist), then that says as much, if not more, about who is doing the Cherry-Picking.


  1. Interesting discussion. A similar problem with definitions can be found in the term “jazz”. Just what characteristics does a piece of music have to have in order to be called “jazz”. Victoria BC has a jazz festival every year and they send out a program. As I look through this program I see about one act in ten which could be called “jazz”. Maybe I am being too much of a purist but for me jazz has to have at least some improvisation to merit the name “jazz”.


    • Yeah, the term can be stretched to the point that it no longer defines anything most of us would consider to be prototypically “jazz” or “classical” or what not. I mean would a thoroughly transcribed performance of something that was originally improvised not be considered Jazz anymore?


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