Classical Music: A Rose by Any Name

Every now and then, certain nitpicking characters will take umbrage with the common use of the term “classical music.”

They are, of course, technically correct in their criticism. The Classical era of Western music (typically indicated in writing with a capital “C”) refers to a period of roughly eighty years between 1750, as marked by the death of Johann Sebastian Bach and with him the Baroque era, and 1830, which approximately denotes the beginning of the Romantic era. Composers like Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven are the names most associated with this period, but they are seldom the exclusive points of reference when most of us use the term “classical music.”

Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, and George Frideric Handel are all technically Baroque composers. Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky are all of the Romantic era. Names like John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, and Luciano Berio are usually categorized as “modern” or “20th-century” composers, if not given more specific labels pertaining to their musical styles. Nevertheless, all are packaged in everyday discourse under the catch-all term “classical music.”

You can probably see why some take issue with the phrase.

The persistent and unresolved problem of this complaint, however, is the natural follow-up question: What else do we call it? Many alternatives have been suggested, but few seem up to the task.

One proposed name for the genre is “Western concert music,” but what a mouthful that is. It’s also every bit as imprecise as the term we would intend it to replace. Do not bands like Aerosmith, Coldplay, and The Who perform concerts? Is their music not written using the basic tools of functional harmony and equal temperament of Western music? Despite this, we would never classify them in the same genre as Beethoven’s piano sonatas, except to say they are both music.

The term “orchestral music” has also been floated as an alternative from time to time, despite its obvious shortcomings. What about all of the music that isn’t orchestral? Choirs, wind ensembles, soloists, string quartets, and all manner of chamber ensembles fall by the wayside of this restrictive term. It also opens the door to many lesser orchestral works—for instance, certain film scores and pop arrangements—that most aficionados would never consider part of the serious canon, but match the qualifier.

“Art music” might be the worst of the lot. What pretense. Like the variants “serious music” and “cultivated music,” its usage immediately implies that other styles of music cannot in turn be either serious, cultivated, or artful. This is the exact kind of stuffy pomposity that turns many casual listeners away from ever exploring the genre in the first place. That will never do.

And so the discussion, as always, comes back to where it began: What else do we call it?

Personally, I cannot understand why the term “classical music” continues to be the cause of so much debate. It is imprecise, to be sure, but there are few people on Earth who don’t instantly know what I mean when I say, “I listen to classical music.” Only a pedant would require this usage be limited to discussion of the Classical era, and only an asshole would feel the need to correct me for it.

In the end, that simple, if unfortunately ambiguous colloquialism seems to remain our best option. This will not dissuade our linguistically intrepid friends from searching for a more-fitting alternative, but after several decades of this mostly pointless semantic debate, I won’t hold my breath for any radical change to the general lexicon. Classical music is what we’ve got.

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