What Is Classical Music?

2011 Symposium2

To many, maybe even most in the Western hemisphere, the term “classical music” refers to a select repertoire of music composed exclusively by European or European trained composers. Some restrict the term to refer to music composed only in the mid seventeenth to early nineteenth century, while others use it to mean a broader repertoire including all art music in genres such as symphonies, operas, sonatas, and so forth. Attempts have been made to favor certain composers and works with the status of “classics” or “greatest music” and have used such designations to justify teaching a body of works to a wide population, often including school children. While there is no denying that these privileged works are musical masterpieces within the context of Western cultures, they by no means are representative of all music that is classical throughout the world.

For example, one major Asian country has a rich musical heritage that includes opera, chamber music, orchestral music, and instrumental solo music. Yet none of this music sounds anything like Verdi, Beethoven, or Bach. It’s distinctive sound is every much as great and the works every bit as masterful as those of European composers. It simply is the product of a different culture with a very different musical tradition. The country I refer to is China. Examine Chinese classical music, and you will immediately realize our Western understanding of “classical music” is incomplete. Instead of, say, Yo Yo Ma soloing with a symphony orchestra, consider this soloist performing on the erhu with this orchestra.

Or, instead of listening to a symphony orchestra play the famous “Sabre Dance” composed by Aram Khatchaturian, consider this performance by an Indian Orchestra. I think it is every bit as exciting and thrilling.

These are only two examples of non-European classical music. There are thousands more. Yet I have never seen a list or collection of so-called classical music that included these or anything like them. Just knowing that there is great classical music in the world from other cultures ought to spur us on to discover some of these works. In an age where musical works like this are a google or YouTube search away, there really is no reason to limit our musical intake to the standard canon of Western art music. As just these examples show, classical music from other cultures affords us delights of different timbres, tonalities, and melodic sources that can infuse our musical enjoyment with freshness and variety not possible within a single culture’s repertoire. I come now to the point of answering the question I raised in the title of this post: what is classical music? It is formalized traditional music set into musical forms and structures according to cultural norms. It is not limited to any one body of traditional music, nor is it limited to any particular culture. I hope you will have fun exploring some of those unfamiliar traditions and cultures through world classical music.


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