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Intro to Classical Music

A Beginners Guide to Classical Music

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What is classical music?

When asked the question, “what is classical music?”, elevator music comes to the minds of many people. Although it is grossly inaccurate to say that classical music is elevator music, the two terms are similar in one way. They are both a generic term applied to a type of music. Classical music encompasses many styles of music spanning over 700 years.

Origin and Definition

The term classical music originates from the Latin term classicus, meaning taxpayer of the highest class. Slowly after making its way through the French, German, and English languages, one of the earliest definitions of the word meant “classical, formall, orderlie, in due or fit ranke; also, approved, authenticall, chiefe, principall.” Today, one of the ways Merriam-Webster defines classical is “of, relating to, or being music in the educated European tradition that includes such forms as art song, chamber music, opera, and symphony as distinguished from folk or popular music or jazz.”

Periods of Classical Music

Music historiographers classified the six periods of music by stylistic differences.

  • Before 1400 – Medieval – characterized by Gregorian chant, mostly religious
  • 1400-1600 – Renaissance – increase of secular music, madrigals, and art song
  • 1600-1750 – Baroque – known for its intricate ornamentation
  • 1750-1820 – Classical – balance and structure
  • 1820-1900 – Romantic – emotional, large, programmatic
  • Beyond 1900 – 20th Century – limitless

Styles within Classical Music

Many styles of music exist within classical music; the most recognizable being the symphony, opera, choral works, chamber music, Gregorian chant, the madrigal, and the Mass.

Where to Begin

  • For starters, begin with what you already know. You are probably more familiar with classical music than you think. You may hear it while dining in a restaurant, shopping, watching TV, or hear it in the movies. With what’s available on the internet, it can be very easy to find a song you've heard in almost any movie or TV show.

  • Listen to and research popular composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms and Bach.

  • Research the top ten classical music albums or drop by the Top Ten Symphonies You Should Own page. Don't hesitate to read the reviews and find out what others are saying.

  • Attend a classical music performance in your area.

  • Listen to what you know more than once and by several other artists. Mozart’s biographer says in his book that “The masterpieces of the Romans and Greeks please more and more through repeated reading, and as one’s taste is refined – the same is true for both expert and amateur with respect to the hearing of Mozart’s music [or classical music].” The bottom line: the more you know a piece the better it becomes.

Above all else, don't be hesitant.

The sheer breadth of classical music can be quite daunting, but as soon as you find something you like, stick with it. Let that piece of music be your starting point. Listen to other pieces by the same composer, then branch off into similar types of music by different composers, and so on and so forth. Pretty soon, you will see that classical music isn't so scary after all.

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