What exactly is 'Classical' Music?

Ok, first let’s get one thing straight. Classical Music is NOT Classical Music.

Say what?

Well, on the face of it this statement makes no sense, right? Isn’t it a bit like saying an egg is not an egg, or a house is not a house? Well, bear with me and I’ll explain why Classical Music is not Classical Music.

What the words Classical Music mean to you will largely depend on how much you’ve been exposed to it, and where your musical roots are.

The chances are that if you are someone who was brought up on a diet of pop, or rock, your idea of Classical Music is basically anything that uses certain types of instruments — loads of violins and cello, perhaps a big brass section, some woodwind and percussion. Oh, and maybe some singers too, but not using microphones. 

What we are actually describing here is not a genre or style, but simply the instrumentation that plays the music. Over time, music that uses this sort of instrumentation has been labelled — somewhat lazily — with the catch-all tag of 'Classical Music'.

But would it surprise you to know that, in actual fact, and if we are being strictly accurate, the term Classical Music refers to a period in musical history. Musicologists and music historians have come up with a handful of these time periods — known as 'eras' — to make the job of cataloguing and discussing over ten centuries of music just a little bit easier.

Here are the six main eras:

Medieval [1150 - 1400]

The medieval period is by far the longest period in music history, stretching from the 6th to the 15th centuries. Because of this is breaks down into three sub-periods: Early medieval [500-1150], which overlaps with High medieval [1000-1300] and, finally, Late medieval [1300-1400]. 

Think early instruments like the recorder, the lute, and early forms of instruments like the violin and the organ. We are really talking about the period the historians call the 'middle ages', and the music of this time was both liturgical, or religious, and secular (non-religious). The religious music would have been associated with the church services such as the Mass, while the secular music would have been such things as the songs sung by travelling troubadours.

Music was relatively simple in this period, with melodies created over drones, or simple harmonic structures. This was the period in which music notation began to be developed, but writing music down was done by monks writing with quill pens on parchment or paper. Secular music — love songs, dramatic works, political satires and so on — were improvisatory in nature and learned by rote and handed down 'by ear' from one musician to another.

Key Composers

Hildegard Von Bingen
Guillaume de Machaut

Renaissance [1400 - 1600]

During this period music started to become more complex, with sophisticated harmonies and counterpoint, which just means musical parts moving against each other to create interest and excitement. Music was essential to all forms of life in the Renaissance, and it permeated the religious, civic and courtly aspects of society. It was a period of growth in the spread of ideas — political, economic and, of course, religious — and this naturally led to rapid developments in music. It was a period of patronage: as a composer you could only make a living if you were paid either by the church or by a wealthy individual such as the local nobility. It was a period of growing complexity in music, with the advent of ‘polyphony’ — a conjunction of two Latin words: ‘poly’, meaning ‘many’, and ‘phonos’, meaning ‘sounds’. Put simply, polyphony means music made up of several simultaneous strands — or melodies — to create a complex interwoven tableau of sound.

The complexity of polyphony — compared to what had gone before — required composers to agree upon a set of guiding principles by which this music would be created. This coincided with the development of printing, which further helped the spread of these music forms and ideas. Prior to 1501, music had to be copied by monks with quill pans or learned by ear; music books were owned only by the church or extremely wealthy noblemen. But, in 1501 Ottaviano Petrucci — a printer in Venice — published a collection of polyphonic music, the Harmonice Musices Odhecaton A. It was a great success and led to the spread of printing throughout France, Germany, England, and beyond. After Petrucci, while these books were not inexpensive, it became possible for far greater numbers of people to own them and to learn to read music.

A great deal of choral music was written during this period, with the church being so prevalent in society and requiring music for its many rites and services.

Key Composers

William Byrd
Josquin Des Prez
Giovanni Pierluigi daPalestrina
Giovanni Gabrieli
Claudio Monteverdi
Thomas Tallis

Baroque [1600 - 1750]

Fun fact: the term 'baroque’ comes from the word 'barroco’, meaning 'oddly shaped pearl’. Many of the well known composers from the early Baroque period came from Italy, including Monteverdi, Corelli and Vivaldi. However, by the end of the baroque period it was German composers such as Bach and Handel whose stars were in the ascendent.

Many forms of music came to prominence in the baroque era and have remained with us ever since: Opera — a staged drama with costumes, scenery and action; Oratorio — a musical drama based on a religious text, performed 'dry' (without scenery, costumes or action); Cantata — a religious choral work in several sections, including soloists and choir; Sonata — a work for instruments in several movements; Concerto — a work for a soloist (or group of soloists) and a larger ensemble.

This period saw the birth of a system known as equal temperament — a way of standardising all keys in a way that had not been possible before. Bach celebrated this new system by creating a suite of keyboard works known as 'The Well-Tempered Klavier’ and we have included the first of these pieces on our playlist.

Musical virtuosity really took off in this era, with pieces like Bach’s 'Brandenburg Concertos' featuring a group of soloists with a larger ensemble accompaniment. And did you know that Vivaldi’s 'The Four Seasons' is actually a series of violin concertos that feature prodigious instrumental pyrotechnics?

Key Composers

Arcangelo Corelli
Antonio Vivaldi
Alessandro Scarlatti
Francois Couperin
Jean-Baptiste Lully
Georg Philipp Telemann
Johann Sebastian Bach
George Frideric Handel
Antonio Vivaldi
Henry Purcell

Classical [1750 - 1820]

This relatively short period, or era, spawned some of the finest music ever written, with composers such as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. The music of this period is characterised by its elegance and sophistication. Important forms of this period include the string quartet, opera, sonata, symphony, string quartet, and solo concertos for a variety of instruments. The harpsichord — which played a central role as the main keyboard instrument of the baroque period — was replaced by the more powerful piano, which gave composers an instrument that payed a wide range of volumes.

Vocal works — particularly the songs ('lieder') of Schubert and Schumann — became a popular form of parlour music, and it was during this period the Symphony rose to prominence, and concertos for piano and violin pushed the boundaries of what was playable.

Key Composers

Josef Haydn

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Franz Schubert

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Gioachino Rossini

Romantic [1820-1900]

Composers wanted greater emotional expression, so they upped their game with increasingly dense harmonies, moving towards chromaticism, which simply put, means greater use of notes that are not strictly in the key of the piece at any given time. The word comes from the Latin “chroma”, which simply means colour. Composers were adding more and more emotional colour by the increased use of non-key (chromatic) notes alongside those notes which belonged to the major or minor scale, which are known as 'diatonic' notes.

As well as a richer musical vocabulary, composers in the Romantic era also turbo-charged their arsenal of weapons. The orchestra doubled in size during this era, with composers like Tchaikovsky and Wagner using more trumpets, trombones, percussion and woodwind as well as much larger string sections to beef up their sound. By the end of the Romantic period those orchestral giants Mahler and Bruckner were taking things to a different level, with massive resources needed to pull off their masterpieces.

Key Composers

Johannes Brahms

Guiseppe Verdi

Robert Schumann

Frédérik Chopin

Franz Liszt

Hector Berlioz

Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky

Anton Bruckner

Richard Wagner

Gustav Mahler

20th Century [1900 - 2000]

Something had to give: music was getting bigger and bigger and more and more complex. At the beginning of the 20th century music sort of exploded into lots of sub-genres, all fighting for the oxygen of publicity. We had Impressionism, Expressionism, Modernism and Postmodernism.

Composers like Schoenberg experimented with breaking down traditional harmonic structures, creating first atonality (music without a clear key, or tonal centre) and then serialism, a system of composition in which all notes were seen as equal and the concept of any key centre was completely abandoned in favour of mathematical ordering of pitches to create musical sentences and paragraphs. On the other hand, composers like Stravinsky experimented with the breaking down of a clear rhythmic hierarchy in works like The Rite of Spring. 

Meanwhile Bartok was drawing inspiration from the folk music his homeland of Hungary, which he translated — through a very sophisticated compositional process — into a number of masterpieces as he established himself as one of the century’s leading composers. Elsewhere British composer was re-defining opera as he transitioned from the traditional-style 'Peter Grimes’ — with large orchestra and chorus — to the more intimate, scaled down chamber-operatic style of 'The Turn of the Screw'.

Key Composers

Arnold Schoenberg

Igor Stravinsky

Dmitri Shostakovich

Béla Bartók

Benjamin Britten

And another sub-genre: Contemporary [2000…]

I’ve created my own sub-genre, or era, which I call 'Contemporary'. This includes mainly living (or recently deceased) composers such as John Adams, Harrison Birtwhistle, George Benjamin and Thomas Ades. Whilst some composers continue to push at the boundaries of modern music, others — like Eric Whitacre —have chosen to take a 'retro' approach and embrace tonality, melodies and simple forms.

Key Composers

Steve Reich

Philip Glass

Harrison Birtwhistle

Thomas Adès

If you want to commission your own music in these styles, or would like more information or help, please contact us.