What is the preferred, more precise English-language musicology term for the genre of music which North Americans typically call “classical music”? I mean the broader meaning of "classical", which includes composition before and after the "Classical era" of 1730 to 1820.

For instance, I have heard this genre called “Western European Art Music”. What is the preferred term among experts? What is the preferred technical definition for this kind of music?

An answer to another question suggests the definition is "all music that is written with the art form itself as a top priority." That is a good start, but maybe we can do even better. Perhaps the definition should include the Western European, even German and Italian, roots of the genre.

Adam Neely's video Music Theory and White Supremacy suggests replacing the phrase "music theory" with "the harmonic style of 18th century Western European musicians", as a way of revealing the framing of "classical music" as the pinnacle of music across all cultures. I suspect the term I am looking for would avoid that framing.

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    I’m voting to close this question because it'd be a much better fit for musicfans.stackexchange.com May 20, 2023 at 13:34
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    "Colloquially-classical music"?
    – Nacht
    May 22, 2023 at 2:08
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    @ElementsinSpace I've kept quiet, but I respectfully disagree. The type of question discouraged by that clause is "Is this song post-pop punk, or post-punk pop"; discouraged because they're too specific, basic, or otherwise unanswerable. This has not been a straightforward question, but it might very well have been; akin to "Should we call the output of CPE Bach Empfindsamkeit or Sturm und drang?" It's definitely a question of musicology as opposed to practice, and it's not totally clear to me to what degree we intend to support that, but I don't think it's "genre categorization." May 22, 2023 at 14:14
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    @ElementsinSpace (Hopefully one thing that's clear is that "classical music" isn't a genre—or rather, if it is used as one, that use is problematic. And although the question used the word "genre," I think it was meant in the sense of body, corpus, rather than the nitpicking discouraged by that clause.) May 22, 2023 at 14:18
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    The rule I was taught was that you use capital-C "Classical" to refer to the Classical period but lowercase-c "classical" to distinguish the broad tradition of classical music from other types of musical practice. Mozart is both Classical and classical, Mahler is classical but not Classical. I can see other comments / answers making that distinction but not in terms of the initial capital so this may now be outdated, I'm not sure.
    – helveticat
    May 22, 2023 at 16:10

8 Answers 8


Heh, the problem isn't really with the choice of label, it's that the thing it labels is really hard to pin down. Most attempts wind up meaningless or controversial.

But there is a colloquial usage, obviously. A radio station near me claims to play "Great Classical Music." Well, what do they not play? No rock and roll. No jazz. No hip hop. Generally, the most useful man-on-the-street sense of what makes something "classical" has a lot to do with the instruments used. Adding a violin to the band Yellowcard doesn't make them classical, and adding a drum set to a symphony orchestra for Rhapsody in Blue doesn't make it not-classical, but in general, using the instruments of the symphony orchestra tends to cause a perception of "classical."

But obviously this colloquial sense is of little use to scholarly discussion. Is a movie soundtrack "classical"? Many will vehemently deny it. The classical radio station is unlikely to play it. (But they will play music from ballets or operas...) Is a Vitamin C String Quartet cover of a pop song "classical"? Is John Cage's 4'33" (a piece consisting of silence) classical? Is Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint, written for/with jazz guitarist Pat Metheny? What about when Johnny Greenwood, guitarist from Radiohead, plays it? What about when Steve Reich reworks Radiohead songs in Radio Rewrite?

If one's scholarship were sociological, it could be a rich (perhaps impossible) task to parse all these conflicting uses. But in the meantime, rather than find a different label, it's better to nail down exactly what one is talking about.

The term "art music" is marginally more useful, but still very problematic. It carries a lot of baggage. It's a step more generous than simply talking about "music," and then talking in a way that ignores non-classical genres. It admits that folk music and pop music are actually "music," but then it tries to exclude them, and the word it chooses for that purpose is "Art." There's already plenty of ink spilled over that word, clear back to the ancient Greeks, and we're implying that folk music and pop music are not "art." Functionally, the best this term can do is try to focus on the "use" and context of the music. Is it played in a concert hall, or an outdoor festival? Is it played to people who sit still and listen to it, or is does it contribute to another activity, like dance music in a club? Ultimately, this distinction will break down under scrutiny as well. A string quartet, a jazz combo, and an indie rock band might all play in medium-size venues, to attentive audiences who came specifically to hear them. The only distinctions become cultural "highbrow"/"lowbrow"/"middlebrow" tokens. We even open the door to the implication that "Art" is the opposite of "Entertainment," and that therefore "classical" equals "serious music" (as opposed to what? music that can smile?). I once saw, backstage in a concert hall, an old lighting control console from the 1920s, no longer in use. Someone had added joking labels to the various dials and levers. One was a big handle that pivoted vertically, and the top of the scale was labeled "Art" and the bottom "Entertainment." Phrases like "art music" lead inevitably to this lever—the more fun it is, the less artistic, and vice versa.

The best thing, then, is to narrow your topic of discussion. Are you talking about the social role of classical music institutions? It's easy enough to talk specifically about symphonies, opera companies, etc. Are you contrasting this music with that of another global music-culture? I often use "Western tonal tradition" or words to that effect to mean "the monolithic musical practice that derives mostly from European origin, starting roughly in the baroque, and that became codified by these social institutions like symphonies and continues to be practiced by them, and that is marked by musical conventions like tonality and regular meter." But if at all possible it's more fruitful to draw more specific comparisons. I once wrote a paper about how "classical music" came to be such a big deal to Chinese culture, but it's a story of individual connections and influences, of a clavichord in the Emperor's court and a symphony in Shanghai. I got most of it from the book Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese by Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai. (I highly recommend it, a great read.) Note that they, at least, pick the term "Western Classical," but they devote a paragraph to talking about the fact that they picked it.

Throughout the writing of this book, we have grappled with our use of the term "classical music." It is a phrase that we find to be deeply flawed and woefully inexact, but largely unavoidable. Because it had not yet been coined during most of the time period covered in Chapter 2, we have substituted "European music" instead. But in writing about the missionaries who used music as a tool of conversion and education in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we switch to "Western music" since many of them were American and the music they taught was not strictly-speaking "European" or "classical." However, as we got deeper into the 20th century, we were largely forced to drop "Western music" because by then the term could include jazz, pop, rock, disco, and rap, none of which we discuss. So, for the title of our book and through many of its chapters, we have been obliged to use the phrase "classical music" to refer to a broad range of music that was originally brought to China from the West and includes the clavichord, the military march, opera, the symphony, the piano concerto, and more. If the phrase and our use of it are far from perfect, we at least find comfort in the fact that even The Oxford Dictionary of Music defines classical music as a "term which, applied to music, has vague rather than specific meaning." (p.3)

And that's about the only way we can talk about these things—defining the scope of your conversation, and taking time to talk about the terms you've chosen, their inherent problems, and what you mean for them to mean.

Update: I feel like, after that, I'm lacking a clear answer to the original question, "If 'classical music' is an inadequate label, what term should I use?" My answer, then would be:

  • First, try not to talk about such a monolithic and poorly-defined entity. Wherever possible, talk about more specific slices of history and culture. And,
  • If you must talk about it (e.g. if you're talking about the sociological phenomenon of people perceiving a body of "classical music"), I don't know that any other label would avoid the same problems with definition and boundaries. Instead, do as Melvin and Cai did above; be open about its problems and clear about what meanings and boundaries you intend, and when you discuss others' use about it, make their meanings clear as well (or call out their unclearness).
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    Interesting idea to refer to colloquial use. Of the two radio stations I can pick up that call their programming “classical”, one plays orchestral movie soundtracks for a few hours each week and the other never does. Neither plays anything else 20th century or composed after the romantic period, but I feel like a good term to replace “classical” music should include Penderecki and Cage. But then what about electronic “art” music like Eno and if we include that can (or should) we exclude Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross? May 19, 2023 at 21:26
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    @ToddWilcox Yeah, cause we can't deny that there is one, right? Here we are having this discussion in the first place. Curious that a phrase so un-useful became so universal—and that there's this whole big sociocultural monolith looming over our collective awareness but we have such trouble defining its shape and borders. May 19, 2023 at 21:29
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    All that said, every genre term has the same problem, although maybe on a smaller scale. Like “alternative” music is very poorly defined. May 19, 2023 at 21:31
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    @ToddWilcox "neither plays anything else 20th century": no Fanfare for the Common Man? No Rachmaninoff 3rd piano concerto? Puccini's Nessun Dorma? Holst's Planets?
    – phoog
    May 20, 2023 at 8:24
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    @ToddWilcox I do, but I hope you also appreciate my point about the flexibility with which we use labels such as "classical music" and "20th century." The romantic period persisted well into the 20th century, but we use "20th century" as a convenient stylistic label in many contexts, often excluding "romantic" composers such as Puccini (Turandot dates to the mid 1920s; it's not yet 100 years old). The use of "classical music" is similar.
    – phoog
    May 20, 2023 at 13:09

This is a topic of ongoing scholarly debate, and currently there is no generally accepted specific term. Musicologists, theorists, and others use "classical music", "art music", "Western art/classical music", "The European musical tradition", and a host of other terms.

As one example among many of the fluidity of these terms, here is an excerpt from Chris van Rhyn's introduction to Perspectives of New Music's special issue on Africa (Volume 59, Number 2):

Music studies in Africa are known for purposefully disregarding strict divisions between Music Theory, Analysis, Musicology and Ethnomusicology, which is evident in the articles presented here. The definition of “new music” (or “art music” or “contemporary classical music”) is fluid. It includes film music, contemporary choral music with strong roots in Western hymn traditions, and music of pre-colonial origins performed outside their traditional contexts or applied in new musical contexts. (page 5)

And in that same issue, author Emaeyak Peter Sylvanus introduces his article with

IF WE CONSIDER DISCUSSIONS on the ambiguity of film music as the “new classical music” within and outside of the dominant North American and European traditions, then a study of Nollywood film music makes for both an interesting and original contribution to the debate. ("Rethinking Nollywood Film Music", p. 173)

with a note further explaining

Conversations on and around film music as classical music are not new among writers and composers. See, for example, Jed Distler, “Debate: When is film music ‘classical?’” Gramophone Reviews (online, 2017). https://www.gramophone.co.uk/features/article/debate-when-is-film-music-classical. (page 194)

In that particular issue, authors generally refer to "classical music".

  • I’ve also seen the term “western classical music” used for the line of music from mediæval over renaissance, baroque, etc. but sadly also including 20th/21st century weird noises.
    – mirabilos
    May 22, 2023 at 21:32

Wittgenstein has a lot to say about defining words such as "game" which would also apply to defining Classical music.

“There is no characteristic that is common to everything that we call games; but we cannot on the other hand say that ‘game’ has several independent meanings like ‘bank’. It is a family-likeness term. Think of ball-games alone: some, like tennis, have a complicated system of rules; but there is a game which consists just in throwing the ball as high as one can, or the game which children play of throwing a ball and running after it. Some games are competitive, others not. This thought was developed in a famous passage of the Philosophical Investigations in which Wittgenstein denied that there was any feature — such as entertainment, competitiveness, rule-guidedness, skill — which formed a common element in all games; instead we find a complicated network of similarities and relationships overlapping and criss-crossing. The concept of ‘game’ is extended as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. ‘What ties the ship to the wharf is a rope, and the rope consists of fibres, but it does not get its strength from any fibre which runs through it from one end to the other, but from the fact that there is a vast number of fibres overlapping’

That was a summary of Wittgenstein’s position, from Anthony Kenny’s book ‘Wittgenstein’ (1973).

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    Thanks for contributing! This does seem relevant, but you might want to expand to make sure that your point is clear. The application seems to be "'classical music' doesn't have a single definition, but rather is the sum of component definitions." But make sure you're answering the question at the top of the page, not just responding to other answers. The question was "what label should I use." (I suppose I didn't answer it very directly either, since my answer amounts to "please just talk about something else.") May 22, 2023 at 14:23

The term I've seen the most in harmony, counterpoint, analysis, etc textbooks is "common practice period" or just "common practice"; see Wikipedia.

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    But "classical music" is typically used to cover a much broader scope than "common practice period," both before (Renaissance) and after (20th century and beyond). For example, Stravinsky and Palestrina are both composers of classical music who are well outside the common-practice period.
    – phoog
    May 22, 2023 at 12:04

There isn't a single term.

A lot is understood in context. When someone is talking about the music of Haydn and they refer to "classical" music it's pretty well understood, unless the discussion has some specific detail to the contrary, that the meaning is European, 18th century, aristocratic court music. If someone says "music theory" and goes on to ask about something like "what's a passing 6/4 chord", it is understood the harmonic style is European, 18th century (+/- about 70 years), aristocratic court and Church music.

If for whatever reason more precise language is needed, you can use "Classical era" and "common practice period" to make clear you are talking about a particular musical style period within a certain region or particular musical conventions used during several style periods.

...I have heard this genre called “Western European Art Music”

I've read that kind of thing too. I think it just makes matters worse. First of all, where is that western border? (It's odd to contemplate a notion that would lump Russia into the west.) All other music must be artless? It also lumps together a lot of separate musical styles.

In comments someone suggested the similar term "art music." The Wikipedia page on that topic links to another page of "classical and art music traditions." I think that page offers a way out of this generic labeling problem: use the term for the thing you actual mean to talk about.

"World music" is meaningless, but something like "gamelan" or "nohgaku", etc. is specific.

"Classical" is meaningless, but "symphonic", "liturgical music", or "12 tone music" are specific.

When I think of my own conversation I think I usually refer to specific composers and the traditions they may have followed. I'll talk about Mozart's music understanding his voice leading was based on a tradition that came from Church music. Or, I might talk about Erik Satie knowing that his un-metered music and parallel harmonies were influenced by his interest in Medieval music. The only time I wouldn't speak with that kind of specific language is when the listener doesn't understand it, and I'll probably go with a default "...classical music", and then probably change the subject.

Anyway, I ask what the real purpose of finding a single term is? What purpose is served by a term that would lump something like an early 18th century duet for recorders with Stravinsky's Rites of Spring?


I think professor of music and musicologist Robert Greenberg, who teaches dozens of Western "classical" music courses through The Great Courses produced by the Teaching Company, nailed it: concert music. He consistently and self consciously used the term "concert music" in his courses.

Unfortunately, I rarely hear other musicologists in the academia use this term, although I think "concert music" is a great term since it:

  1. connotates methodically composed music that are worthy to be analyzed by theories (akin to great literature by literary criticism). Prof. Greenberg calls it high "information content".
  2. requires the music to be appreciated fully only by being listened to attentively, usually in a concert hall setting
  3. requires the musicians to acquire a certain level of proficiency by (usually) going through rigorous training in the "performance art" section of college music departments
  4. avoids the association with Classical Greece (and by extension, Western civilization) and the meaning of "classical" as a historical period
  5. avoids the narrow period (around 1750 to 1820, the period of Haydn, Mozart, etc.) where classical Greek ideals of order, balance / symmetry, and elegance predominated
  6. avoids the negative connotations inadvertently attached: snobbishness, elitism, boring, etc.

Prof. Greenberg explained his choice of term in this 2017 interview:

What do you like about classical music? Or what you call concert music?

The reason I call it concert music is not to be obnoxious. The word “classical” has a specific meaning, something that relates to ancient Greece. The implication of “classical” is something is better than something else, something elite, something special. In the case of classical music, something European. And I hate that whole trip. It doesn’t do anything for me or the music. It creates a barrier between potential listeners and the music by giving it this elite Euro status. Which it should not have. It’s written by working class people. It’s always been written by working class people because rich people don’t have to write music for a living. It’s not elitist art; it’s every person art. All music, as far as I’m concerned, is valid to all people. All we need is an entre into what the music is supposed to mean and the social milieu that created it and the time and environment that set it, and we can suddenly live through the lives of those musical creators, and in doing so, live through the time the music was created. ...

... what term do you feel comfortable using to denote this kind of music we’re talking about?

That’s why I use the phrase “concert music.” Even that’s bad, too. It’s only a 5 percent improvement. Obviously we can consume it on YouTube, a CD player, on the radio, all kinds of settings. Some academics would distinguish between popular and so-called concert music by saying “vernacular” versus “cultured.” But I don’t like that either. There’s a lot of vernacular music that’s high cultured. I hate the value judgements. They don’t do anyone any freaking good. That’s why I distinguish different music with the phrase “information content.” For example, let’s take a good pop song, a Beatles song, versus a symphony by Mahler. We have a 4 minute song versus a 45 minute symphony. What’s the difference between them? Information content. And that’s it. The Beatles song is purely expository, it consists of a theme and maybe a contrasting thematic idea and that’s it. A symphony takes it theme and develops them, alters them, varies them. The information content in a symphony is different. It’s more than an expository idea. It doesn’t mean the ideas in a Beatles song is less interesting than the Mahler. I love concert music because for me listening to a great piece of music is like reading a great story or novel. I do follow a narrative. I’m aware of a higher storyline, created by developing ideas the same way an author might develop his characters and action. I like being submerged in a piece of music for a period of time. ...

  • "It’s always been written by working class people because rich people don’t have to write music for a living." hasn't been true for a while now. It's more like the the music is written and played by people who can afford to play music instead of doing something more productive. If you're lucky, talented and have the perseverance you might eventually get paid for it, but you need to invest a lot of unpaid hours before it's even a possibility.
    – ojs
    May 26, 2023 at 21:09

I prefer "Euroclassical" as described by Philip Tagg in his book Everyday Tonality II:

EUROCLASSICAL adj. mus. neol. (2008) belonging to or having the characteristics of European classical music (a.k.a. ‘art music’, or ‘WECT’ [=Western European Classical Tradition]), most typically that composed between c. 1650 and c. 1910. The prefix EURO is included to avoid confusion with classical (or ‘art’) music traditions outside Europe, e.g. the Tunisian nouba, the rāga traditions of India, Cambodian court music, the yăyuè ( 雅乐) of imperial China, etc. ‘Euroclassical’ is shorter than other labels denoting the same thing; nor does it imply that other musics are artless.


Classical is a very broad term in the first place. There are multiple "classical eras": Classical antiquity, Weimar Classic, Jazz Classics, and also what started to be called the classical period somewhere in 19th century.

The term is judgemental by nature, as "classical" means nothing more than "with class". So the notion of calling the time from Bach to Beethoven "classical" is nothing than some attempt of glorification of that time. Similarly if we talk about "classical music" it inherently implies that there is something better, elevated about that music.

Most importantly the terms "classical period" and "classical music" are not really related, one being an elevation of a certain line of composers and the other one being an elevation of a whole class of music.

So while both things are stupid this means that there is no demerit to using both of these terms independently, in fact I suppose one should not start to use "classical music" to refer to the timeframe of the classical period, rather one should say "music of the classical period".

Now, as I said the term is essentially stupid, as it implies that other kinds of music do lack class. A more fitting term could be "art music of European tradition". This is nice, as it also works for non European composing "classical music", and it can be easily generalized to different music traditions.

Also I would not put too much emphasis on "western European", as this seems to imply that "eastern Europe" is not relevant for classical music, which is bogus.

  • It's seems to me that "western art music" was originally supposed to help differentiate the music from other entirely separate classical traditions, mostly from Asia (India, Indonesia, China, Japan, probably others). Somehow that purpose got lost and the phrase was therefore misconstrued as a shortening of "western European...."
    – phoog
    May 21, 2023 at 6:47
  • You say, '"classical" means nothing more than "with class"'. Some dictionaries disagree with you, e.g. Classical: 'Of or relating to the ancient Greeks and Romans, especially their art, architecture, and literature.…' etc. (Source: wordnik.com/words/classical) May 21, 2023 at 19:21
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    @JimDeLaHunt That is because dictionaries do reflect the use of language, not the meaning of language, unless you are talking about an etymological dictionary, see etymonline.com/word/classic#etymonline_v_13778 ). The use you are talking about is derived from "classical antiquity", also called the "classical period" or "classical era", which is a very broad time frame where most of antique greek and roman art and culture is located, which is taken to be about 800 BCE to 500 CE. ...
    – Lazy
    May 22, 2023 at 5:56
  • @JimDeLaHunt ... The term is still a modern coinage. The term classic is essentially derived from latin classis, which is the census class. classicus would mean something like "someone from the first census class".
    – Lazy
    May 22, 2023 at 5:56

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