• Jonathan Lakeland

What is Classical Music?



"Classical Music" is just a label. It’s a name – a title like “Rock” or “Rap”. And like those titles, the title of “Classical Music" is very general: it is a broad description of a global musical movement which is infinitely diverse, exciting, and powerful. It is also one of the oldest genres of music still regularly performed today. Unfortunately, however, most people have developed a fundamental misunderstanding about classical music.

In genres like “Rock”, "Metal", "Indie", or “Rap”, the title assigned to the genre describes, at least to some extent, an overarching identifiable musical feature which connects all music of that particular genre together.

But classical music is different: The music that we identify as "classical music" does not share a universal musical characteristic among every piece. Instead, the term classical music describes the approach of classical composers and performers towards the performance of the music.

So if someone says to you, "I don't like classical music!" you can say "That's impossible! Classical Music is so varied, you couldn't possibly know that you dislike all classical music! And come on - we are talking about music which has existed for no less than 1,000 years. You can't find one thing in 1,000 years of music that you like?"

So what is the "mindset" of the classical music composer & performer that results in music with infinite variety being grouped into the same category?


The idea of this "mindset" was famously pointed out by Leonard Bernstein, the famous conductor, pianist, and performer. He said that classical music should be called “exact music”, because in performing a piece of “classical” music, the performer(s) are attempting to bring to life their interpretation of the exact notes, rhythms, and intentions as written by the composer. By comparison, he said that jazz and pop music is an example of “inexact music”, as it is not meant to be performed exactly as the original writer(s) wrote it. Inexact music is more organic and free-form, allowing the performers to rewrite and rearrange the music however they wish.

In this way, classical music (or “exact” music) is like a stage play. Each performance of a play has the same words, the same plot, and the same story. Regardless of the same material being used in each performance, you could see three performances of a play, and each one could be wildly different than the other.

In every performance, the actors are taking the playwright’s words, and bringing them to life however their imagination guides them- varying speed, emphasis, volume, and every conceivable verbal characteristic that their voices give them in order to communicate meaning to the audience.


This is the same journey and approach that great classical musicians go through, and as such, audiences should know that it is both the music written by the composer, and the choices made by the performer, that makes something "exact" or "classical music".

The performer takes the musical information and instructions as written by the composer, and asks themselves a series of questions:

1. What did the composer intend?

2. What does the music demand?

3. What is possible?

4. What is not possible?

It's important to remember that the musical notation system we use is fairly good at describing very objective ideas (pitch, rhythm, basic expressionistic ideas), but not so good at describing more complex or subjective things. Composers have wrestled with this for centuries. Some performers take hyper-literal approaches to performing classical music - attempting to only perform what is written on the page.

I feel this is fundamentally flawed, because it ignores the limitations of musical notation. This problem was particularly challenging before the invention of modern, digital printing in the 20th century. Prior to modern printing, publishers wanted scores that were easy and efficient to print. Technology, and the attitude of publishers, often greatly limited the information that composers could publish in their scores. Also publishers all too frequently changed the way information was written to make it easier to print.

Because of the limitations of musical notation, and because the composer's instructions were too-frequently adapted by publishers, many feel (myself included) that the role of the classical performer has more to do than simply, and obediently, perform what is on the page. The first and most important step is, of course, to develop an understanding of everything the composer has written on the page: every detail, every instruction, every pitch, every rhythm. Then the performer allows his/her interpretation & performance of the piece to be shaped by the answers to these four questions:

1. What did the composer intend?

2. What does the music demand?

3. What is possible?

4. What is not possible?

In addition to the limitations of notation, some composers elected to not include important musical information in their scores because performers of the time instinctively knew to perform the music in a certain way.

In 18th to early 20th century opera music, composers writing in certain styles (particularly the Italian "bel canto" style) left the page more bare because the musical characteristics of this "style" were so organic in the performers of the time that composers did not need to transcribe them. One particularly noticeable trend of this style is the adding of ornamentation to opera arias of the time period. An aria is a solo vocal piece that is part of a larger opera - think of it as one song within in a musical. In this time period, it was customary for singers to add notes to the music (called ornamentation or cadenzas depending upon the situation). The purpose of this was to embellish the meaning of the text, while also showing the (hopefully) impressive nature of the singer's instrument. Composers rarely wrote this information down, as the tradition was well known by singers, and the general guidelines for adding these notes were easily understood. Yet, this music is still very much "classical" or "exact" music. Why? Because what is being added is flourishing the content prescribed by the composer, not fundamentally changing it.

You can see how complex all this starts to get once we unpack it...so let's simplify it:

Yes - classical music could be described using this term "exact music", but that term is also flawed, as there is also much subjectivity in the performance of classical music. Performers have to consider the composer's intentions, as well as the demands of the music. Such consideration is the backbone of every great performance, as the music being created is lush, creative, varied, and sounds/feels like a singular work of art, not a series of different noises joined together.

How about a musical example? Let's take George Gershwin, the famous American composer of both great classical music (exact music), and great jazz standards (inexact music). His piece “Rhapsody in Blue” (which I guarantee you already know), is an example of “classical” or “exact” music. It sounds like jazz, in fact it is an embodiment of the jazz musical style, but it still falls into the category of “classical”/”exact” music.

Like the actor’s toolbox available to help interpret and perform the words of a great playwright, “Classical” performers have a diverse palette of musical traits and characteristics that they can play with in order to give life to the composer's music like speed, volume, phrasing, mood, balance- the list goes on endlessly. Each performer brings a new perspective and new ideas on how to use these characteristics in order to provide a musical answer to those questions I posed earlier:

1. What did the composer intend?

2. What does the music demand?

3. What is possible?

4. What is not possible?

Below are two wildly different interpretations of this piece of classical music. Listen to at least the first couple minutes of these two versions of "Rhapsody in Blue", and notice the huge musical differences between the two. Bernstein coaxes intense and methodical melody and groove out of the piano. Lang Lang's supple technique means that the piece sparkles in his hands, oozing a huge range of musical colors across every one of the 88 keys on the piano. Both are outstanding versions, but Bernstein's feels to me like a singular work of art, whereas Lang Lang's technical fireworks and massive range of colors feel a little unwarranted and disjointed from the piece as Gershwin wrote it -it makes the piece feel more like an exercise than a total work of art. That said, many will disagree with me, and that's the beauty of classical music! We can all have our own equally valid opinions on the music.

Which do you prefer? Let me know in the comments below! Listen for all of the musical differences between the two: speed, volume, phrasing, color, balance, the individual quality of each pitch. These two performances are worlds apart, but they are the same piece - Rhapsody in Blue.


#1 - Leonard Bernstein & the NY Philharmonic


#2 - Lang Lang, Christian Thielemann, & Staatskapelle Dresden

By contrast, let’s look at the performance of one of Gershwin’s famous songs (and examples of inexact music)- “Someone to Watch Over Me”. Listen to each version of this piece – you’ll notice that the original melody and words are present in each version (sometimes heavily edited or with heavy embellishment). Every other aspect of the music changes wildly between the different performances. The styles, the harmonies, the rhythm, the tempo - it's all existing in different universes. This is jazz music - where musicians can be inspired to rewrite or rearrange a piece of music, borrowing from it it pieces of melody or lyric.



Frank Sinatra

Ella Fitzgerald


Nina Simone at the Monterey Jazz Festival

Classical Music (or "exact" music.. whatever you'd prefer) is fundamentally different from all other types of music. That puts it at a disadvantage, because you have to listen to classical music differently than other forms of music. You don't need a college degree, or to have read Proust, or even to have been trained in classical music in order to like it. You just have to listen to it differently.

It's hard to articulate what the difference is. The best I can come up with, however, is that when I listen to pop, jazz, or other forms of inexact music, I let the music come to me. I let it wash over me and infect me with its mood.

When I listen to classical music, however, I listen into the music. The musical characteristics are so specific that the real excitement, beauty, and allure of it is found in listening deeply into the music, turning your visual and auditory attention to the everything going on in front of you.

It's like when we look at a great painting. We can look at a great painting and say "Wow that's beautiful!" Then we move-on to the next. But the real greatness of an amazing work of art is found upon closer inspection - when we look deeply at the meaning that the artist was trying to portray- the Mona Lisa smile, or Caravaggio's use of darkness and light. We can find the same specificity, the same range of colors and emotions in classical music. All we have to do is listen into the music. I don't know how else to describe it. Try it.

So let’s listen into a piece everyone will know - Beethoven's 5th Symphony, Movement 1. The conductor is Carlos Kleiber, and the orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic (or Wiener Philharmoniker).

Kleiber's approach to music making is passionate and complex, and he shapes every conceivable characteristic of the music including speed, volume, intensity, mood, character, line, and so much more.

Every note, every rhythm, every aspect of this performance is injected with bubbling musical creativity. So what do you hear? What do you notice most about this performance? How does it make you feel? Don't forget to let me (and the rest of the PitchSHIFT community know) in the comments below!


Carlos Kleiber conducts Beethoven's 5th symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Classical Music isn't difficult to listen to, it just requires a different mindset, like the different mindset required of the composers and performers. Once you know to listen into the music, the whole classical music universe is easily open to you for your exploration. So what are you waiting for? Probably more PitchSHIFT content. Don't worry.. it's coming soon!

#carloskleiber #beethoven #classicalmusic #whatis