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Sharon Bill Music Tutor & Author

Classical vs classical

The phrase "Classical Music" can mean two entirely different things. In my contribution, as a music tutor, to our village magazine I attempt to clarify the distinction.

The phrase ‘Classical music’ is confusing because it has two separate meanings. These are probably best described as Classical (with a capital C) and classical (with a lower case c). In its most particular sense ‘Classical’ music refers to a period of musical history dating from about 1750 - 1810. In a more general sense the term ‘classical music’ means any form of music which does not fit into the popular scene and usually means orchestral or traditional instruments.

Music has always fallen into two general categories. Even in Medieval times there was the ‘classical’ style, which was largely linked to the church and the mass (Gregorian chants) and then there were the journeying musicians and troubadours who performed popular tunes at markets, fairs and for wealthy patrons. This continued into the Renaissance era (about the time of Shakespeare) but the ‘classical’ music spread outside of the church and began to include other instruments and to reach a wider audience. By the time of Bach (the Baroque period) and then Mozart (the Classical period) the classical style of music had mostly overtaken the popular music of the day. That is until the likes of Strauss (in the Romantic era) merged the two branches of music with the advent of the waltz. Inside the ballroom the classical music became the popular tunes of the day - with the added bonus of dancing alongside a lovely lady. Even so, there still remained a definitely separate branch of ‘classical’ music with composers such as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and later the Impressionist composers such as Debussy (‘Clair de lune’) who continued to write in the general classical tradition. Overall this is known as the Western classical tradition.

Since the twentieth century the categories have grown even more blurred. Popular music is most obviously separated from the classical style, and yet many bands employ orchestras to expand their music. The group of classical composers have become more avant-garde and their music became a strange musical version of the abstract. However an entirely new form of classical music has been born in the genre of film music and this is a form of classical music which is accessible to all. Millions of film sound tracks are bought without any snobbish pretensions. The Lord of the Rings trilogy makes a clever mix of the classical orchestral style mixed with the popular style of Clannad and folk style ballads. I know that Classic FM now has a regular feature of film music and advanced music theory diplomas now include essay questions on the sound tracks of films such as ‘Psycho’ - which is a specially interesting musical score as throughout the whole film the violins are muted except for one short section, which makes a striking dramatic tension. Music has always been written to ‘tell a story’. In previous musical periods music conjured a picture in the listener’s imagination, For example a Pastoral Symphony was written to bring to mind idyllic rural images and to reflect the folk music and dance of the country. The only difference now is that we are already provided with the images and the music supports and reflects what is already being shown to us.

As with every aspect of history, the categories are never simple and the boundaries between periods overlap and influence each other. Classical composers in the eighteenth century did not know they were called ‘Classical’ - we have just grouped a similar style of music from one point in history and the edges blur as we move on to the next general style. The explanation isn’t made any easier when we use the same word twice to describe different parts of the musical journey!