What is Classical Music?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Classical music, strictly defined, means music produced in the Western world between 1750 and 1820. This music included opera, chamber music, choral pieces, and music requiring a full orchestra. To most, however, the term refers to all of the above types of music within most time periods before the 20th century.

Orchestras often perform classical music.
Orchestras often perform classical music.

In its limited definition, classical music includes the works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. From Mozart alone, there are a huge range of pieces to enjoy, as he wrote symphonies, music for quartets and quintets, chamber orchestra pieces, choral pieces, piano concertos, and entire operas. In total, he wrote over 600 musical pieces. Mozart is perhaps best known for his opera, The Magic Flute, although most people also recognize Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, as well as a number of his symphonies and concertos.

A country's folk music also is a form of classical music.
A country's folk music also is a form of classical music.

Classical music would not be quite the same without Beethoven, who is particularly known for his symphonies. Beethoven’s sixth symphony is probably most recognized because of its pastorale, a section of music used in the Disney film Fantasia. The achingly beautiful Moonlight Sonata was also written by him. Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio, and his genius rests in his symphonies and piano concertos.

Piano concertos are one form of classical music.
Piano concertos are one form of classical music.

Haydn has often been referred to as the “father of classical music,” as his work during this era forms the basis of influence for many others. Ironically, though he is considered the progenitor of the classical era, he is less familiar to most audiences than the composers mentioned above. His Symphony no. 94, The Surprise Symphony, is among his best known works.

Beethoven is virtually always included in a list of classical music.
Beethoven is virtually always included in a list of classical music.

Classical music in the broader definition evokes such composers as Bach, who preceded the more rigidly defined era and is more rightly classed in the Baroque period. Vivaldi, perhaps best remembered for The Four Seasons is also of the Baroque period. Handel’s Messiah is well known to the many who participate in sing-alongs during the Christmas season.

The Romantic Period, which follows directly after the classical period, is known for its emotive qualities. Mahler and Sibelius stand out and tend to be familiar to most. Wagner is perhaps the most frequently recognized of the Romantic composers, his work stormy and grand, and his many operas still performed regularly today.

"Classical" music may also refer to the native and folk music of any country, although the styles vary greatly, depending upon available instruments. For example, the classical music of Indonesia, with its use of the gamelan, is vastly different from what most would consider classical in the western world. Folk traditions in other countries were often quite influential to western music, however, as musicians of the baroque and classical periods often adapted their works from folk music.

Opera is a classical music genre.
Opera is a classical music genre.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@musicshaman: You should include Clair de Lune by Debussy. That one is a lovely piece. Even though I'm 17 years old and I may not know much, I know that this piece is relaxing and lovely and it has so much emotion put into it. That's just my opinion.


I love classical music, and try to get classical music Mp3 recordings whenever I can.

I do agree with firstviolin though -- so many classical music reviews are written only for classical music lovers, with a lot of jargon and fancy terms, so it can be hard for "outsiders" to get into the genre.

But if you're even the least bit interested in classical music, I would really say to go get some recordings, or heck, it you're a musician and prefer playing to listening, then get some classical sheet music.

It is really a great genre of music, and well worth the effort to get into it.


I am trying to put together a basic classical music guide for the kids in my 3rd grade music class, and was wondering what some good classical piano music pieces I should include.

I don't want to put them to sleep with a bunch of serenades or sonatas, but I'd also like to give them a good overview of different recordings and artists.

If there are any music teachers reading this post, what would you include in a basic guide to classical music?


A very informative article, especially given your space constraints.

I think that classical music is so very underappreciated nowadays, and I think that this is in part because of elitism on the part of those who listen to it.

Have you ever considered how expensive classical music tickets are?

No wonder people avoid going to symphonies and the like -- they're just too pricy.

Classical music definitely doesn't deserve the flak it gets for being boring though. If people would actually get some classical music, and listen to it with an open mind, they might see that it's actually very passionate.

And I'm not talking about those old classical music songs that everybody has to sit through in their elementary school music class.

I'm saying, bring on the Bartok, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff -- the really interesting classical music recordings, and then maybe people would get over the idea of classical music being elitist and boring and actually enjoy a great cultural heritage.

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