Classical music is a term which refers to the traditional Western music with formally trained musicians playing physical instruments, and formally recorded on sheet music. It is distinct from popular and folk music. This category encompasses a multitude of genres, the most common ones of which include canons, concertos, symphonies, operas, sonatas, and ballets.
The roots of th Western classical music tradition date back to the 9th Century AD. Prior to that, Greek and Roman philosophers had written about music theory, but the Christian Church in Europe wanted to break away from that tradition on purpose as it was associated with their pagan beliefs. The earliest form of Western Christian music was the Gregorian chant, a monophonic type of music, with a chorus of men singing the same melody. No instruments were used, as they too were considered pagan. The earliest instruments that started to be used in secular music in Europe were woodwinds, such as the flute and the recorder, as well as some string instruments, mainly the lute.
The renaissance era (around 1400 to 1600) brought about two major changes: the use of instruments by church musicians, and recorded musical notations. With sheet music invented, the preservation of music was no longer done orally, but in the much longer lasting and more precise written form. The common genres of the time were masses and motets, but also some secular music, such as chansons (in France), madrigals (in Italy), and villancicos (in Spain). This is when the classic European tonality emerged, the practice of arranging notes into major or minor chords, which dominates much of popular music around the world to this day. Famous renaissance composers include Claudio Moneverdi and Josquin des Prez.
Renaissance transitioned into the baroque era in the early 17th Century. It gave rise to genres such as the opera, a music genre with narratives, as well as cantata, concerto, and the sonata. The best known baroque composers were Johan Sebastian Bach and Johann Pachelbel from Germany, as well as Antonio Vivaldi with his famous violin concerto “4 Seasons” from Italy. Baroque was followed by the so-called “classical period”, specifically denoting music from the middle of the 18th to the early 19th Century in this sense of the word. We have artists like Ludwig van Beethoven from Germany and his 9 symphonies, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart from Austria (part of the Holy Roman Emprie at the time) with many operas, chamber pieces, and symphonies of his own, and Joseph Hayd, also from Austria.
The Romantic era of European music took place in the 19th Century. Richard Wagner from Germany, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky from Russia created their opuses in this period. So did the Hungarian Ferenc Liszt from the Habsburg Empire, who is considered by many to be the world’s first real music star, giving concerts to enthusiastic crowds. The overreaction by some at the virtuoso piano player’s performances was described as “Lisztomania”. He is known for his Hungarian Rhapsodies.
Transitioning to the 20th Century, we have the modernist, then post-modernist period. Today, in the 21st Century, the most listened-to version of contemporarily written classical music is film scores.
Evidently, with so many genres spanning over a millennium, it is impossible to make any generalizations that hold true to all of them that aren’t trivial. However, let’s list some.
Classical music uses physical instruments. Most commonly, these are violin, viola, upright bass, piano, organ, flute, trumpet, horns, drums, and cymbal. A classical piece can have vocals too, both solo or sung by a choir. We’ve mentioned the importance of European tonality in the history part of this article, which is the practice of arranging notes into major or minor chords.
Some of the most famous classical music artists of today tend to compose film scores. The German Hans Zimmer wrote the music for such movies as “Gladiator” (2000), “The Dark Knight” (2008), and “Interstellar” (2014). The American John Williams scored the music for all nine films in the Star Wars franchise, released between 1977 and 2019, as well as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), and “Jurassic Park” (1993).
The famed Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli isn’t known for his film music, rather, for singing opera pieces and releasing original pop music. His 1995 operatic pop classic “Con te partirò” became one of the best selling singles in music history, having sold 12 million copies worldwide.