I know that the word "classical" can mean the period of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. However, "classical" can also mean the whole common practice period (CPP). We can even take a step further -- it seems okay to call Stravinsky and Shostakovich classical composers, although they are not in the CPP.

Now, I am writing the title of a research project, and I wonder what the word "classical" really means. Can I class some 20th-century composers as "classical"?

  • If you're using the term "classical music" to differentiate it from pop or jazz or folk, then "classical" seems the best term, whatever the era, even contemporary. None of the alternatives, such as "serious music" or "art music" or "concert music", is really appealing imho. I've never thought of Stravinsky, or Unsuk Chin for that matter, as anything but a classical composer. Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 2:31
  • 1
    I have found in that in tv- movies undertitles (taglines) they use to write: classical music when there is music - even modern atonal music and even played by synthesizer sampled wave sounds - but without a drumset. :) some people also understand classical music as all music played in a theatre or concert hall by an orchestra independent of the style or aera. Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 9:08
  • Great question - maybe one without an absolute answer!
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 10:35
  • There are also different countries musical styles that use the term "classical" to consider, such as 'Indian Classical Music", Chinese Traditional Music etc. A quick search brings en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 1:23

2 Answers 2


1) At its most specific, classical refers to music specifically written between 1730 and 1820, what we call the Classical era. This usage is pretty limited and is most common in actual discussions of music history and related topics.

2) Getting a little more general, we can include music from the boroque era to the romantic era, or roughly 1600 through 1850.

3) From there, we can further broaden our scope to include contemporary composers and pretty much any piece written in any form of classical style.

4) Finally, we can expand to include all experimental, avant-garde and obscure works. Anything that is written for the sake of art, not just entertainment.

But that is getting pretty specific and the lines can get pretty arbitrary and subjective. In the end I would say there are only two whose definitions serve a practical purpose: 1 and 4 above (any number of further subdivisions could be made as one sees fit). To reiterate: the two most important definitions of classical music are music literally from the Classical era and all music that is written with the art form itself as a top priority.

Edit: To be clear, I am not saying that any "art" music is classical. Literally all music is art and many popular mainstream artists prioritize their artistry over their popularity and revenue (a lot of the good ones do anyway). What I mean is that the art is the composition itself, not the performance (though that is certainly an art form all its own). For this reason, I think that some film scores (especially orchestral) and some jazz compositions (among other things) can also be considered classical


One meaning is, of course, music from the 'Classical era' - whether you see this as European 'art music' written between 1750 and 1810, or lay the chronological boundaries slightly wider, the meaning seems fairly clear.

At the other end of the spectrum, 'classical' seems refer to an approximate, and somewhat arbitrary, sociological boundary around a range of musics that tend to be associated with the wealthier classes, the educated, and the church. Beyond this, it's hard to pick out one particular indicator. One might say that classical music is written primarily for the sake of the art of the music itself, but operatic music would be seen as 'classical' and yet serves an entertainment purpose, while liturgical music also has a primary purpose other than the art itself. On the other side of the boundary, many examples of jazz music could be said to elevate the music itself to being of primary importance, although all of jazz is normally seen as being distinct from classical. (Having said that, jazz is sometimes referred to as America's classical music, so perhaps it's the exception that proves the rule).

One of the indicators of classical music is the separation between the concept of the composer and the performer, and the score as an 'interface' between the two functions. Of course scores and a separation between composer/songwriter and performer are common in genres that would be seen as non-classical, But the reverse is rarely true - it's not common to come across a classical work without some kind of score, whereas it is common in most non-classical genres to work without a score.

I would agree with WillRoss that between the narrowest and broadest meanings of 'Classical'/'classical', you could put your finger on any number of points, so there's no particular number of specific meanings you can pin down.

Can I class some 20th-century composers as "classical"?

Of course! Shostakovich wrote "Symphonies" on score for performance by orchestras in concert halls, and now has his music studied in academic circles - all of these are indicators (though not definitive ones) of being 'classical'.

A more tricky question might be to consider some of the prominent film composers of the 20th and 21st century - are they 'classical', or are they simply writing music in a 'classical style'?

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