Classical Music: Defined

With age comes wisdom, or so the proverbs say – those little cliches we offer ourselves to make the years seem kinder. But age brings far more than good sense (and a willingness to follow it). It instead offers assumptions. Classical music too often is lamented, with individuals mistaking it for any sound that predates the rise of grunge. Melodies are forced together, with no distinction beyond their lack of current lyrics. They’re all named ancient, even when not yet decades old. The notion of being ‘classic’ becomes synonymous with ‘less than new’. And this is wrong.

Classical music is a separate genre, shaped by specific time periods and expressions. It is not meant to describe the songs that frequent radio stations and their flashback hours. It is instead to offer explanation for the most innovative compositions and their influences. Its origins should be understood and respected.

While lacking specificities (this style is formed of experimentations and daring movements. Creating a singular definition would be impossible), classical music is recognized instead by eras: pieces formed between the years of 1550 and 1900 are considered to be part of the genre. And, while this may seem broad, the notations and structure of these pieces are all similar in sound and technique. This is compared to the religious tones that preceded them–which were offered only to support the church–and the new expressions that followed; the 20th century melodies and their electronic sways.

Classical music is best explained through the Common Practice period, which included Baroque, Classical and Romantic. No other years are to encompass the genre; and the contemporary lyrics that followed strove instead to distinguish themselves completely from it. It was considered a great tragedy to be placed within the same breath.

Now, however, appreciation is returning for classical music. It must simply be understood for what it is, not for what it has been assumed to be.

Classical Music: Common Practice Period

The history of the world is found in its music – sounds offer proof of the changing styles and public perceptions, the rise and fall of philosophies. There have been countless reawakenings of notes and their meanings; with civilizations forming lyrics with every century. Songs are reshaped, made to conform to new needs, and every era provides a wealth of melodies. But those melodies were never better defined than in the Common Practice Period, when music became more than a sermon or a theatrical servant. It instead was recognized as a separate importance, with individuals devoting their time and efforts to mastering it. It was the beginning of the classics.

The Common Practice Period, as it is typically defined, is the age of modern classical music. From the end of the 16th century until the beginning of the 20th, this age offered some of the most renowned composers (and compositions) the world has ever known. Its sounds are unrivaled; its influences are still felt; and its accomplishments were offered within its three eras: Baroque, Classical and Romantic.

Baroque: Witnessing the transition from religious chants to more secular sounds, the Baroque period began as the 16th century was coming to a close. This was a time of civil change, with the power of the Church beginning to shift. And, from this, classical music was formed. While still shaped to the familiar hymns, the instruments and structuring made for a far more accessible delivery.

Classical: after the Baroque period ended, the Classical era began. Lasting from 1730 to 1820, these years were noted for their contributions of the concerto and sonata, the dismissal of religious conventions and the reinvention of orchestras. It’s the age most clearly associated with classical music (hence the sharing of names).

Romantic: wishing to reinvigorate sound, the Romantic period began in 1820 and led music to the 20th century. Its frantic compositions, less formal structures and unique styling bridged once rigid melodies with today’s modern sensibilities. It’s recognized for its unconventional methods and technical prowess.

The Common Practice Period brought us classical music. It’s therefore to be respected.

Classical Music: The Romantics

Romance has been claimed by the easy attempts: the familiar shades of red, valentine sentiments and flowered declarations. It has become little more than a shadow of its former meaning – with all preferring the fast rewards of the expected over the structure of sound. But the notion of romanticism was first offered to classical music and it is through this that it can best be understood. This is not the common gestures of candied cliches or tedious serenades. This is instead a perfected form.

The Romantic age is best defined as occurring between 1815 and 1900; directly after the Baroque period and its religious flavorings and before the contemporary sounds of the 20th century. During these years a surge of passionate melodies were created, with an emphasis on drama, fluidity and expressiveness. Classical music structures were expanded. Composers began to utilize chords that were often ignored, creating rhythms that lacked the tight patterns of previous attempts. These instead were grand, chaotic and fell across the musical scale in unprecedented ways.

And it was through this that the Romantic period earned its name. While many of the themes found within symphonies and concertos did feature love and sacrifice, the true distinction of this time was in its experimentation. It was not restricted to the notations of the former genres, kept to the rigid structures. It instead tried to reinvent classical music, wishing to push at the boundaries that had become stale – and it succeeded. Its preferences of diverse designs, exaggerated pitch and even creating far larger orchestras (a process that is still used today) proved a worthy successor to the past.

There is an assumption that the Romantic age is little more than a dedication to passion. It is instead, however, a time that reinvigorated classical music and produced some of the most recognized compositions throughout the world. Appreciating it is essential to understanding the sounds that followed and the ones that will eventually come.

Classical Music: Staff Notation

It is a confusion of lines, a series of baffling symbols – not able to be understood or deciphered. You think it is perhaps a riddle, meant to be solved only by those with far greater brilliance than yourself. It means nothing. It represents nothing. And you gladly look away, happy to offer focus to more important things. You’ll leave this puzzle for others to solve… and they do. The pieces you could not shape into an image are suddenly offered as music. They lead instruments to songs, carving out melodies both classic and surreal. They are perfect. They are mastered. They are staff notations.

To those unfamiliar with classical music, these symbols seem to be little more than ink splatters, the mistakes of artists. They are instead, however, representations of how notes are to be performed. It is through them that symphonies are created, with every instrument following the flow.

Composed of five lines (with four spaces set between), staff notations offer the rules of an individual piece. They explain how each sound is to be played – defining pitch for every note. They also tell each musician when those notes are to be given, providing the timing for every song. To the untrained eye they seem nonsensical, a jumble of letters and sways. But to those who have been taught to read classical music they are instead the formation of a melody.

And those melodies have been recognized since the 12th century. Though music had long since existed before then, charting how each piece was to be performed was not a common practice until the 12th century. As the use of sound to enhance the religious experience became common, instrumentals had to be written down to ensure they were kept uniform. This led to the invention of the staff notation and the future accessibility of songs.

Those without the invaluable classical music understanding may think these notes to be without purpose. They do, however, turn ink into a tangible song. And this is a vital thing.

Discovering the Difference: Classical Music

It is a common mistake, an easily made assumption: words are exchanged, confused for each other – with their meanings blurred and their differences ignored, the movements all tangled together. The concerto is named a symphony; the symphony is deemed a concerto; and the truth is forgotten in the wake of simple misunderstanding. Those with only passing interests (and knowledge) of classical music believe these to be the same and offer no time to learn the distinctions.

But such distinctions do exist and should be noted – if only to offer these forms the respect they have earned throughout the centuries. They are not philosophic copies, twin notions divided by a simple title. They are instead separate ideals and should be mastered. The concerto and the symphony are among classical music’s oldest techniques and, while they are harmonious, they are not identical.

The Concerto: established on the cusp of the 17th century, this Baroque style is unique amongst the medium. Its reliance on solos instead of the typical orchestra sounds branded it an instant sensation–as well as an originality. With an emphasis on string selections, it offered three movements and a minimal backing of other instruments. Its power is in its singularity.

The Symphony: argued as the first of all classical music movements, the symphony can be found described within parchment from the Middle Ages. This genre featured a reliance on orchestras, with large collections of instruments brought together to create a specific sound. And, while a symphony could include selections from a concerto (as well as other forms), it ultimately was meant to prove the value of many individuals over the work of one.

And it is this that best defines the differences between the symphony and the concerto. While they can exist within each other, they are not intrinsically linked. Their origins and their purposes are unique; and this must be remembered – if only to spare you the too common blunder of thinking them the same.