What is “classical music”?

My answer:

It’s a label that non-musicians use to torture those of us who really know something about music. Because the phrase is absolute nonsense, unless you are talking about Classical music, which is music from a specific period from roughly 1750 to 180 and describes the music of Haydn and Mozart, plus other less famous composers who lived at that time. As the layman uses the term it could be something from the Middle Ages, or something written in the 20th century, with such an enormous difference in the music that there is nothing at all in common: NOTHING!

Why is the phrase “classical music” so useless?

Because it has no meaning. Some people look at such music as music for old people, or quiet, tame music that is not exciting. Others take a snobbish approach and use this term for music that they think has a higher level of quality and that is inherently superior. Furthermore, any music that is a few decades old and that is not obviously pop or jazz gets lumped together under the same umbrella.

The words themselves – “classical music” – trigger bad feelings in many, of being forced to listen against their will, being made to feel guilty for not liking what other people tell them they should like better.

And yet most people like, and often love, many pieces of so called “classical music”.

They simply don’t know that what they like generally falls under that usage. So here are a few pieces of music that are amazingly popular and have been for a long time:

What do all these things labelled “classical music” have in common? Answer, only one thing: they are have been around while, at the least close to 50 years. That’s really the only commonality.

So the next time you hear what other people call “classical music”, remember that you are listening to music that was very popular when it was written, and remember also that you would not be hearing this music if it had not remained popular – or in some cases become even more popular.

None of the composers of the following selections thought of their music as traditional.

All of them were writing music that in their times was considered modern, in all ways up to date and often revolutionary. So when the average people talk about “classical music”, they are really talking about older popular music.

So let’s start talking about some of the things we all know. This music is now traditional in the sense that it’s been around, and we all know it. There are hundreds of such examples that the average person knows and loves without knowing the composer, the date of composition or the back-story.

Star Wars, popular for more than 40 years

The composer of the Star Wars and countless other film scores, John Williams, writes music that often sounds like it could be from any time, in almost any style. He uses the ideas of Richard Strauss, Holst, Wagner and a good dozen other famous composers that most laymen freely call “classical composers”.

  • The first Star Wars film was released on May 25, 1977. The rest is history.
  • Williams’ scores for the eight saga films count among the most widely known and popular contributions to modern film music.
  • They utilize a symphony orchestra and use about fifty recurring musical themes to represent characters and other plot elements.
  • These themes are “Leitmotifs”, used also by Wagner, with the same purpose. They identify characters. Princess Leia’s Theme, one of the finest short orchestral pieces ever written, is a perfect example.

Also Sprach Zarathustra, popular for 50 years- (Around for over a century)

  • Also Sprach Zarathustra – Thus Spake Zarathustra – is a tone poem by Richard Strauss, composed in 1896 and inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name.
  • The composer conducted its first performance on 27 November 1896 in Frankfurt. A typical performance lasts half an hour.
  • Alex North was hired to score the music to Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Kubrick, instead, decided to go with traditional music by various famous composers, which included the now very famous theme we all know. Most people do not know Alex North”, but they know “Unchained Melody”.
  • Also Sprach Zarathustra was not one of those unusual premieres that immediately caught fire, so was relatively obscure for many years, then became famous overnight, directly as a result of the popularity of 2001, A Space Odyssey .

Rhapsody in Blue, popular for 94 years

  • Here is something that was considered jazz when it was written, but today it has entered the mainstream so that people will debate what kind of music it is.
  • George Gershwin lived from September 26, 1898 to July 11, 1937. He is one of many famous composers who did not live to the age of 40, dying before his 38th birthday, and his relatively early death no doubt prevented us from hearing even more amazing music written by him. If he had lived as long as John Williams, he would have seen the first Star Wars movie, and he might have been humming the themes.
  • Rhapsody in Blue premiered in the concert “An Experiment in Modern Music”, which was held on February 12, 1924, in Aeolian Hall, New York. The style and form were so new, no one had figured out how to label it.
  • It was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé several times, including the original 1924 scoring, the 1926 “theater orchestra” setting, and the 1942 symphony orchestra scoring, though completed earlier. Gershwin did not write the orchestral parts, but later he wrote all of his own music. He was a fast learner, true in general of great musical geniuses. Ferde Grofé also wrote The Grand Canyon Suite, a very popular set of pieces for orchestra. On the Trail is the most famous and popular. If you think you are hearing a theme for a 1950s or 1960s TV show about cowboys, but Grofé wrote this in 1931 – as usual way earlier than you would expect. Rhapsody in Blue’s gained popularity immediately, and it has remained one of the most popular of all American concert works ever written.

Flight of the Bumblebee, popular for 118 years

  • “Flight of the Bumblebee” is an orchestral interlude written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, composed in 1899–1900.
  • How soon did it become popular, by itself? I’m going to make a guess that it was always popular. Once you hear it, you know it. You can’t hum it – it’s too fast – but you never forget it.
  • Many people have performed it as soloists.
  • Big band trumpeter Harry James did a version of the piece in 1941.
  • The radio program The Green Hornet used “Flight of the Bumblebee” as its theme music, blended with a hornet buzz created on a theremin. The music became so strongly identified with the show and the character that it was retained as the theme for the later TV series, with trumpet solo by Al Hirt, in a jazz style nicknamed “Green Bee” .
  • Extreme’s instrumental piece “Flight of the Wounded Bumblebee,” featuring guitarist Nuno Bettencourt’s advanced virtuoso skills, is heavily inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s original and bears a similar name, but is in fact a distinct work and not merely a re-arrangement. It was released on August 7, 1990.
  • The 1993 animated series Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog samples the tune as part of the show’s opening theme, combining it with “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and the theme from the original Sonic the Hedgehog video game.

The William Tell Overture, Popular for 189 years- (Also known as the Lone Ranger Theme).

  • Final Theme
  • The whole overture
  • Gioachino Rossini (29 February 1792 – 13 November 1868) He wrote 39 operas and was known as “the Italian Mozart.”
  • His last opera was the epic William Tell (Guillaume Tell), featuring its iconic overture which helped to usher in grand opera in France. The overture premiered in Paris on August 3, 1829.
  • Rossini was one of the most popular opera composers in history, and opera was not high brow music for the elite. It was the most popular music of its time
  • Rossini He also earned the nickname “Signor Crescendo” for his use of an exciting buildup of orchestral sound over a repeated phrase, which is now commonly known as a “Rossini crescendo”.
  • It is the last part of the William Tell Overture that is used as the Theme Song for The Lone Ranger, and the whole world knows that theme.

Eine kleine Nachtmusik, popular for 191 years

  • Eine kleine Nachtmusik (Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major), K. 525, is a 1787 composition for a chamber ensemble by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The German title means “a little serenade”, thought it is translated inaccurately as “A Little Night Music”.
  • It was completed in Vienna on August 10, 1787. We do no know when the first performance took place.
  • The traditionally used name of the work comes from the entry Mozart made for it in his personal catalog, which begins, “Eine kleine Nacht-Musik” – a little serenade. Mozart was only entering in his records that he had completed a small composition.
  • It work was not published until about 1827. It had been sold to a publisher in 1799 by Mozart’s widow Constanze as part of a large bundle of her husband’s compositions. Mozart did not manage money well.
  • Today, the serenade is widely performed and recorded and is without doubt not only one of the most popular pieces ever written but possible the most famous thing Mozart wrote.

16 thoughts on “What is “classical music”?

  1. Wow, I can’t believe songs that felt like they just came out are considered Classical music. I didn’t know that Classical music had to be about 50 years old. I always assumed that it was Mozart or Beethoven old. Thank you to opening my eyes to the selection of Classical music!

  2. The videos you chose are great examples of older popular music. Harry James and Al Hirt brought back memories of my childhood. My dad played the trumpet and frequently listened to them. I found the information for each video to be very informative. Also of interest were the number of years the pieces have been popular.

    1. Caleb, that’s the whole point. The word “classical” was invented by people who really don’t know anything about music. Check out “more old popular music”. People love some things that are hundreds of years old. They just don’t know anything about the music or the composers. At every moment – which also means right now – someone is composing something that will be popular in 50 or 100 years. We just don’t know what it will be, because we can’t predict the future.

  3. I didn’t know classical music was old popular music. Classical music to me was with an orchestra and was real old. Although, classic is in the word classical and it means roughly the same thing as what classical music was, recognizable, popular, and well, classic!

    1. That’s the point, Michael. Everyone has a different idea of what “classical” means. When we use the word “Classical”, with a capital letter, it is different . It refers to a specific period in history, around the time of Haydn and Mozart.

  4. Hm. It bothers me, you know – “classical”. Old dead dudes with stuffy wigs and stuffy shirts. I hate that portrait of Bach, of him with a bit of the b-minor mass in his hand, all fat and rigid. That’s not JSB. JSB got chastised for chasing skirt in church. He had a swordfight with a bassonist. He and a few others students vanished for 3 months, no note, no nothing, to go to listen to and study with Dietrich Buxtehude. If people knew just how talented he was, how crazy, how dedicated… oh well. Sooner or later, the ones who like music find him. Then they have to un-learn what “popular” culture taught them about JSB.

    1. That’s what people who don’t know a lot about music don’t understand. All of these famous “masters” were total mavericks in their time. Most were attacked for challenging the rules of their times! They were revolutionaries, not part of the status quo.

      1. You know who’s making incredible music (of all sorts?) with mainly orchestra? Michael Giacchino. He did Up, incredibles 1 and 2, Zootopia (shinkies, Zootopia’s music is nonpareil!) There’s hope yet. Giacchino is roughly my age, and his inspiration is John Williams. Giacchino also, as a pinch-hit, did Rouge One. In four weeks. The other guy couldn’t do it, so they got Giacchino. I wonder if Disney knows what a gigantic bullet they dodged. The original (Alexander Desplatt) only knows duh-duh-duh—-duh-DUH-DUH-DUH—-DUH! over and over and make it louder every time.

        1. I don’t know Giacchino, but if he is doing work that is anything like John Williams, I want to check him out. You’re bringing up the subject of film composers, and the best of those guys are not only amazing craftsmen but also amazing musical minds!

  5. My take: There is music which is enjoyable and it may be intriguing or interesting to the musician. It might be called “well written”. In that sense, there is “classical” music which is not well written, and “non classical” which is. Meanwhile in society we have created a kind of value system, where a thing called “classical” is superior, scary to “get wrong”. Anything else is inferior, not worth looking at or listening to. That in itself is off-putting. (and wrong) It is a false division, as you point out. That division cheats us, if we buy into it.

    Your blog post is thought-provoking. I love the examples.

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