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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  • http://krishashok.wordpress.com Krish Ashok

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

  • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

    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.

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  • sharmi chakraborty

    an arti­cle worth reading..simple yet insightful

    • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

      Thank you, Sharmi!

  • http://justkalpana.com Kalpana Behara

    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.

    • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

      One of the high­est forms of intel­lec­tual dis­play of humans” — very well said! :) Thank you.