By Mark Hertica, professor of music at San Diego Miramar College
and Center for World Music board member

There are many terms in use today for the wide variety of musical styles played, heard, and recorded throughout our world: folk, pop, jazz, world, rock, classical, and more, as well as all their various sub-genres. While these terms are useful for most of us as general descriptors and for purposes of marketing, defining them is problematic. The term classical provides us with an excellent example of the problems posed.

Use of classical as applied to music presents several problems. For example, when associated with the Western tradition, as exemplified by such composers as Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Copland, and many others, it often refers generally to pre-composed music of the concert hall. But one of the more confusing aspects of the term in this usage is that classical also refers to a specific period of time from the latter eighteenth through the early nineteenth centuries when certain aesthetic principles were generally predominant in the music of European concert halls, churches, and the courts—a period in which the styles of Haydn and Mozart are most illustrative. Moreover, beyond the problem of European application, the problem is compounded as it is often used when referring to some traditions found worldwide in places such as Japan, China, India, Iran (Persia), Arabia, etc. Thus the determination of what is classical music is dependent upon the context in which and by whom it is used.

However, there are certain characteristics, some musical, some extra-musical, that upon closer inspection can be observed in all of the traditions referred to as classical music. First and foremost among these characteristics is that the musical traditions referred to as classical in various cultures have historically been associated with material wealth, education, and nobility. While today this music may be performed, observed, and enjoyed by people of all social backgrounds, historically this was music created and performed by members of the socially and politically elite classes. What are some of the other characteristics of classical music, and why would it find its creation and historical home among these elite classes?

Court Gamelan Solo

Court Gamelan, Royal Palace, Surakarta, Java

By their very nature the great courts of the world were, and, although perhaps less so, still are elitist, socially and politically. The high art found in these courts represents the most sophisticated and refined expression of the aesthetics of the cultures from which the courts arise. The art associated with these courts and their religious traditions therefore reflects and glorifies the people of the court and their divinities, and their music is an integral part of those traditions. The music, just as the court itself, must be elevated above the mundane, the everyday, as it expresses the aristocratic nature of its surroundings and speaks to and for its patrons. Indeed, to fully appreciate the artfulness of the music and the musician, it is as incumbent upon the listener as it is upon the musician to be familiar with the musical language. As Ananda Coomaraswarmy points out, “the listener must respond with an art of his own.”

The language of these various court musics, like the visual art, literature, dance, etc., is highly nuanced and packed with meaning for those who know how to listen to those nuances and for the meaning. To the untrained ear subtle details of rhythm and melody might be lost, but those educated in the details of the musical aesthetics of a given culture learn to hear and maintain in memory those details, hearing them as constructing the hidden meanings that may be lost on the unschooled ear.

To convey these messages classical music found around the world requires highly skilled and knowledgeable performers to play in an aesthetically pleasing manner for these audiences. To obtain the proficiency necessary for proper performance, the players must devote years of their lives to acquiring the physical dexterity necessary for flawless performance. But physical dexterity is not enough. Performers must have an intimate knowledge of the various nuances of the musical aesthetics that govern what is acceptable in a given style or genre; this is the basis for musical education. Whether for ritual or entertainment purposes, the musician must be well acquainted with proper performance procedures and practices.

With all of this in mind, if both the listener and the musician are to fulfill their roles effectively, then both must have sufficient time to practice their art. This requires resources for both day-to-day living and musical studies. And around the world it was the court and the religious institutions that possessed those resources. So as these musics developed, it was by and for these social elites that this music was created.

As resources necessary for musical education and training have become much more widely available, classical music is no longer the realm solely of the social and political elite. However, for a fuller appreciation of the art, the listener still must become acquainted with the particular musical language being performed. An uninitiated listener may well appreciate the inherent beauty of an Arabic maqam, a Tyagaraja kriti, a gendhing for Javanese gamelan, or a Beethoven symphony, but without some understanding of the nuances, the subtle art of the composers and performers, the messages put forth within the music will more than likely not be heard. As Wynton Marsalis tells us, “When an art form is created, the question is how do you come to it, not how does it come to you. Beethoven’s music is not going to come to you . . . you have to go to it. And when you go to it, you get the benefits of it.”