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.

This entry was posted in Arts, music and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • 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.