What is classical music?

This question deeply engages the students in my graduate course on the future of classical music, which I teach at Juilliard each spring.

The link takes you to the week by week class schedule, with links to all assignments. For an overview of the course, go here.

And this is an important question. We need a new audience. But how are we going to get one if we can’t tell people why classical music is valuable? And how can we do that if we don’t know what classical music is?

Without, that is, falling back on boilerplate — resounding phrases about our art form, repeated so many times that they’ve lost their meaning — like the idea that classical music goes deeper, emotionally, than other music. Is our new audience ready to believe that? We have to stop looking at the world through a classical music prism. Because we won’t see the world the way it really is. Better to see classical music through the prism of the rest of the world, because then we’ll know where our prospective new audience is coming from.

Dictionaries don’t help

But I digress. If you look up classical music in the dictionary, you’ll get an idea of why the term is so hard for people to define. Because the dictionaries don’t define it!

First look at the definition of jazz, from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, whose name shouldn’t mislead you. This isn’t a concise book for students and journalists. It’s one of the standard reference works on the English language (British style), a massive two-volume abridgment of the multivolume Oxford English Dictionary, which to the extent possible includes every word ever used in the long history of the language. (Or did, in the days of print.)

Here’s how the Shorter Oxford defines jazz:

A type of music of US black origin, characterized by its use of improvisation, syncopated phrasing, and a regular or forceful rhythm; loosely syncopated dance music.

You can argue with any part of that, if you like, but overall it’s a cogent attempt to concisely say what goes on in this kind of music.

Compare their definition of classical music:

[S]o-called conventional or serious music, as opp. to folk, jazz, pop, rock, etc.

That’s not a definition. It doesn’t tell us what the nature of classical music is. It’s an evaluation — classical music is serious, and folk, jazz, pop, and rock aren’t. (I don’t grasp what they mean by “conventional.” Unless they’re saying that classical music is the central kind of music, the kind the word “music” normally refers to, while other kinds are peripheral.)

From some other major dictionaries:

Of or relating to music in the educated European tradition, such as symphony or opera, as opposed to popular or folk music. (American Heritage Dictionary)

Orchestral and chamber music, etc, as opposed to jazz, folk music, etc. (The Chambers Dictionary, a British dictionary I normally like quite a lot.)

Music of the European tradition marked by sophistication of structural elements and embracing opera, art song, symphonic and chamber music, and works for solo instrument. (Random House Dictionary)

Again, these aren’t definitions. Imagine a definition of a triangle that said, “An elegant shape, with interesting mathematical properties, distinct from a square or a pentagon.” Without saying it has three sides!

These definitions don’t tell us what the essence of classical music might be, what the purely musical factors are that make classical music different from folk, jazz, or pop. (Or, for that matter, from any number of world music traditions.)

Instead they praise classical music. It’s “marked by sophistication of structural elements.” It comes not from just any European tradition, but from an “educated” one.

And, to tell us what classical music is, they point to it. It’s symphonic music, opera, chamber music. It’s not folk, jazz, or pop.

None of which helps smart people in our prospective new audience, who might say, “Look, I know classical music isn’t rock, and I know it’s those symphonies you play in your concert halls. But what is it really? Why should I care?”

More coming on how — in my class — we went a lot further. And came up with a definition strong and interesting enough to make people care about hearing the music we make.

Original Source: What is classical music?


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