The two meaning of “Classical Music”


Classic Definitions

Mozart Jupiter Symphony 4th movement   


‘Classical’ has two different meanings when applied to music.

Firstly “Classical” is a particular period of musical style, epitomized by the music of Mozart and Haydn, and dating from say 1730-1820.

And yet the word also defines the entire genre of ‘classical music’, a distinction important to remember throughout this course! So we speak of the period of ‘Classical music’ during which Mozart composed, and then also of the entire genre of ‘Classical Music’.

So why these two meanings?

Classical Principals: the British Museum


During the 1820’s, as what would later become known as Romantic music grew in prominence, people began to apply the word ‘classical’ to the music of Bach through to Mozart, no doubt in reaction to the monumental musical transformation taking place at the time.

‘Classical’ of course referred to the Enlightenment values of the Eighteenth Century, which in turn lead back to what were seen as the virtues of Roman and Greek antiquity.

By the time the Oxford English Dictionary got round to defining the word, in 1836, it had become synonymous with the whole genre of classical music.


Which still begs the question: why did the music of Mozart’s period retain both meanings? By the 20th Century, the music of Bach and Vivaldi had acquired the label ‘Baroque’. Why didn’t the music of Mozart and Haydn get its own label?

I’d hazard a guess. The music of this period and in particular the music of Mozart so perfectly represents and affirms the entire genre, so comfortably represents it, that no further generic name is necessary.

Which is why this piece is a classic piece of classical music from the classical age!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *