What is classical music?

The moment non-musicians hear the words “classical music”, they immediately think of something that is formal, old, long and boring. Maybe their idea of “classical” is sitting through a 10 hour Wagner opera. Or a symphony that goes on forever. Or getting dressed up and having to listen to something that they either don’t like at all, or worse, that they hate.

But the problem is the words themselves. They trigger bad feelings in many.

People like what they like, which is probably about as obvious as saying the sky is blue. People also hate being pushed around by other people who claim to have more knowledge, better taste, more intelligence or who otherwise act superior. I know people who think of all these negative things the moment they hear the words “classical music”.

And yet most people like many pieces of so called “classical music”. They simply don’t know that what they like generally falls under that usage.

I’m fighting a quiet battle against the words “classical music”, and I’d like for people to replace this with something totally different.

Take a few moments to listen to these things on YouTube:


So what do all these things have in common? Answer, only one thing: they are at least 50 years old.

But what about other things that are not new, but not at least 50 years old?

The music to Star Wars is now 41 year old and the composer of the music, John Williams, writes music that often sounds more like music from the 1800s than “modern music”. So is his music “classical”?

None of the composers of the above selections thought of their music as traditional. All of them were writing music that in their times was considered modern, in all ways up to date and often revolutionary.

So the next time you hear “classical music”, remember that you are listening to music that was very popular when it was written, and remember also that you would not be hearing this music if it had not remained popular.

So what is “classical music” really?

Answer: Older popular music.

3 thoughts on “What is classical music?

  1. Hm. It bothers me, you know – “classical”. Old dead dudes with stuffy wigs and stuffy shirts. I hate that portrait of Bach, of him with a bit of the b-minor mass in his hand, all fat and rigid. That’s not JSB. JSB got chastised for chasing skirt in church. He had a swordfight with a bassonist. He and a few others students vanished for 3 months, no note, no nothing, to go to listen to and study with Dietrich Buxtehude. If people knew just how talented he was, how crazy, how dedicated… oh well. Sooner or later, the ones who like music find him. Then they have to un-learn what “popular” culture taught them about JSB.

    1. That’s what people who don’t know a lot about music don’t understand. All of these famous “masters” were total mavericks in their time. Most were attacked for challenging the rules of their times! They were revolutionaries, not part of the status quo.

  2. My take: There is music which is enjoyable and it may be intriguing or interesting to the musician. It might be called “well written”. In that sense, there is “classical” music which is not well written, and “non classical” which is. Meanwhile in society we have created a kind of value system, where a thing called “classical” is superior, scary to “get wrong”. Anything else is inferior, not worth looking at or listening to. That in itself is off-putting. (and wrong) It is a false division, as you point out. That division cheats us, if we buy into it.

    Your blog post is thought-provoking. I love the examples.

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