What Is Western Classical Music?

[This post is #1 in the Western Classical Music Series]

For some, Western Classical Music (WCM) is what plays in the background in elevators, reception rooms, and lounges. For others, it is what snobbish ‘intellectual’ artsy folks indulge in pretentiously. In a series of blogs posts, we will try to go beyond these myopic perspectives and try to get a glimpse of what is great, enlightening, and thoroughly enjoyable about WCM.

The term “Classical Music” originates from the Latin classicus, meaning first class, or for the Romans, artistry of the highest order. It encompasses a vast range of music styles over a period of 800 years. Sometimes, the term “Art Music” is used. Western Classical is just one among many different traditions of classical music, so when we’re discussing WCM, we’re specifically discussing European Classical Music. To make matters more confusing, there is a specific period in history referred to as the “Classical Period”, which differentiates the style of music in that era from other eras preceding and succeeding it. We shall delve into these different ‘Periods’ in subsequent posts. The point is to be contextually aware of what is meant by “Classical” when you’re reading or conversing with others.

Throughout the history of WCM, there have been two strands of evolution, usually distinguishable from each other, which evolved in parallel – Church Music and Secular Music. For example, Church Music includes Gregorian Chants, Carols, Mass, and Requiems, while Secular Music includes sonatas, concertos, symphonies, and opera. Both Church and Secular Music influenced each other, while evolving and adapting to man’s ideological progress in history. In this series, I shall be focused on Secular Music for the most part, except where discussing notable works or influences of Church Music.

What primarily differentiates Classical Music from Popular Music? Wikipedia lists a set of characteristics that can be said to be unique to Classical Music, they’re quite informative. The key aspect I would like to highlight is unlike Popular Music, Classical Music is best appreciated if there is an effort from the listener.

Because this series of posts is about WCM Appreciation, let me emphasize this element. There are two ways of appreciating any music – cerebral and emotional, or from the mind and the heart. Cerebral listening requires a mental effort on the part of the listener, while our emotional response is usually automatic and lies in our subconscious. Neither are the two ways mutually exclusive, nor is one right and the other wrong. Both are very valid, very real. We shift from one to the other even during the process of listening. And, you can appreciate Popular Music in a cerebral fashion too.

You can simply listen to WCM and like it without thinking much about it. If you do, go ahead and enjoy yourselves! Nothing whatsoever wrong about it. I however, passionately believe that a superlative appreciation of WCM comes from a synthesis of both cerebral and emotional approaches. Without an understanding of the form and structure of WCM, or lack of knowledge of a specific work’s place in history, you might still enjoy listening to it without understanding it, but you will not fully appreciate it as it is meant to be. This is a debatable topic and I don’t wish to engage in such a debate here. You are free to disagree. This series of posts is my attempt to provide the insight that when coupled with emotion, leads to a fulfilling appreciation.

A final disclaimer: I am an amateur, not a professional musician. My attempts to provide insight may likely be clumsy at times or frequently, so if you have a better, deeper understanding, please do share your insight as we go along. This series is not meant to be a one-way discourse, but rather to set a platform for meaningful engagement and discussion on the topic of Western Classical Music.

There are challenges in appreciating WCM. But the rewards are equally great. We’ll look at both in the next post.

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  • Lovely. It will be nice if you pepper your pieces with youtube links to great performances

  • Thank you. Oh yes, without ‘ears-on’ examples to go by, the posts will be insipid and won’t stimulate, so will try my best to enliven them.

  • Pingback: Classical Music Appreciation: Challenges & Rewards | An Unquiet Mind()

  • sharmi chakraborty

    an article worth reading..simple yet insightful

  • Finally got to start reading the series. I love the fact that you go beyond the experience of listening the music. For me personally, music is one of the highest forms of intellectual display of humans. It deserves the cerebral approach while enjoying the emotional reactions it triggers. Very well written. The best thing about your posts is the clarity with which you write.

    • “One of the highest forms of intellectual display of humans” – very well said! 🙂 Thank you.