Problems with the Word “Classical” in Music

Some words and phrases can get us into trouble.

For example, “Americans always ______.” However we fill in the blank, we’re bound to ruffle feathers.

The word “classical” can have this effect as well. We think we know what it means, but it may mean something different to other people.

In this article, we’ll explore the problems with the word “classical.” And in the process, perhaps clarify (in part) what it means.

Problem #1. People Don’t Know What it Means

The word “classical” is so broad and so vague that, without further clarification, it doesn’t describe anything.

Does it describe:

  • The instrument – classical guitar, with nylon strings
  • The musical period – The Classical period spanned roughly from 1750–1820.
  • The musical genre – Composed music, played by violins and pianos by intellectual types?

The word can pertain to so many elements of so many different areas that it ends up saying nothing specific. People get confused because they have vague ideas of what it alludes to.

All the broad musical genres face this problem. Jazz, hip-hop, rock, etc. Each style contains so much different music that it is near impossible to shoehorn it into a single idea.

While they may enjoy or agree with something “classical,” their ideas around classical may stop them cold.

For example, many people like movie soundtracks. Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Cinema Paradiso, these themes are widely recognized and loved.

We may not think of them as “classical,” but by many definitions, they are. They are symphonic, composed music. The main difference is the context in which they are played.

Problem #2. In Some Crowds, It Sounds Stodgy and Antiquated

In some social groups, classical is a bad word. It suggests old-world, hoity-toity arrogance.

It may not sound hip, fresh, or up-to-date.

The verdict comes not from a pure evaluation of the music but of the word only.

If a social group fancies themselves modern and forward-thinking, or “salt-of-the-earth” types, the notion of classical may go against the group values.

Classical may even threaten the group’s core identity. And this can lead to some people feeling alienated.

Problem #3. It Alienates People

The term “classical,” in certain contexts, can come off as elitist or exclusive.

For many, classical music (whatever we define that as) may appear intimidating and scary.

If it’s not clear how we are supposed to approach or listen, it can feel safer to simply stay away.

In a movie, to take the example of soundtracks, we know how to enjoy the music. We have a clear context. The music is there to support the story and set the scene.

Similar music in a concert or listened to at home may be harder to understand. We may not understand the goals of the composer. We may not know what to listen for or how to gauge quality.

In other words, folks may not know what to do with it.

This can lead people to feel left out. And as soon as this feeling arises, most people run the other way.

So What Does “Classical” Really Mean?

So with all the confusion around the word, what does “classical” really mean?

Anything here will be incomplete. However, we can agree on some of the elements that are usually included.

High-Quality Execution

Classical musicians usually study and play with great intention. They put thought and effort into their skills.

They train, usually with teachers. They follow methods and work to remove technical weaknesses.

While other genres may claim this as well, classical musicians tend to bring the physical execution of playing to a much higher level.

Classical study builds on what came before

Classical study is also grounded in the past. Even though the goal is to reach new possibilities, the training is rooted in what came before.

Most classical musicians use historic methods or study with teachers versed in these methods.

These methods may be technical (training the hands, body, touch, etc.) or related to practice. Some ways of learning and practicing have been iterated and honed over hundreds of years.

Classical musicians often play music from composers of the past. They may study the music theory that these composers explored.

And with this study in the past, they can more readily branch out into new ideas.

As a parallel, Pablo Picasso practiced painting portraits for a long time before he started playing with more abstract images. He was edgy and modern, but he was classically trained.

How can Classical Guitar Study Help Us Play Other Genres?

Classical study can be useful for any musician, regardless of the style they play. It offers many benefits that directly improve their playing and musicianship.

Here are a few ways that studying classical guitar can help guitarists in any genre.

Technical proficiency:

Classical training emphasizes technical proficiency. Chops.

It can help musicians develop a high level of skill and dexterity on their instrument. And this can be useful for musicians who play non-classical genres that require complex and challenging playing techniques.

For example, many virtuosic heavy metal guitarists have formally studied classical guitar.

Music theory and composition:

Classical training often includes a focus on music theory and composition. This can be useful for musicians who want to understand the structure and elements of music.

They can then use that knowledge to create their own compositions or arrangements.

Take for example notable musicians such as Quincy Jones, Duke Ellington, and Nina Simon. They all spent years in serious study of classical music.

Interpretation and expression:

Classical training places a strong emphasis on interpretation and expression.

This can help musicians develop a deeper understanding of how to convey emotion and meaning through their playing.

This can be especially valuable for musicians who play non-classical genres that rely heavily on expression and feeling, such as jazz, blues, or rock.

Performance skills:

Classical training often includes a strong emphasis on performance skills. This may include stage presence, communication with an audience, and preparation and execution of performances.

These skills can be valuable for any musician who wants to connect with their audiences and deliver powerful and engaging performances.

So Should We Avoid the Word “Classical?”

It may be best to form a habit of being more specific when using the word.

We can first use it as we would. Then, clarify with more precise language what that means to us in the current context.

This can help our own thinking, as well as help the person we are talking to better understand us.

And if we discover that we have fuzzy areas in our thinking, then this is wonderful to note and explore!

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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