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What Makes Classical Music Classical and What Does this Have to do with Diversity?

In a recent “Talk to the Newsroom” blog, Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic of the New York Times, was asked, “What makes classical music classical? Seriously. I recognize it when I hear it but I don’t know how to define it. How do you?”

His answer? “You can’t say that classical music is more serious than other kinds of music, or more complex, necessarily, or more substantive, and so on. [. . . ] I don’t think that Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is more profound than the Beatles’s song “Eleanor Rigby.” But the Mahler is a whole lot longer. [. . . ] So, I think that’s all I can see about the matter. With apologies to Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” most works of classical music are long. (

Of course, his answer was a lot more complicated: it went into some detail about the consequences of length: more musical development, contrast, variation, complexity – those words long associated with western classical music and the discourses surrounding it.

The label “classical music” is actually an outgrowth of the ideas of an eighteenth century German philosopher, poet, and literary critic, Johann Gotfried von Herder (1744-1803). Herder was also a collector of German folk music and published songs of the volk, or the “common people”, seeing them as the source of German culture. Later writers, to distinguish these musics from those of the court and the city, added the labels, “classical” and “popular” to Herder’s “folkmusic” musics, constructing a three-part hierarchy of musical classification, based on class. Classical music came to be that associated with court patronage, schooling, and lots of money, and many of us still use this classification system today to distinguish one music from another.

What is so much fun about Tommasini’s response to the question posed by the blogger, is that it completely ignores the historical notion of class as a defining factor.

So, I pose the following questions:

— Is “class” still important to the definition of “classical” music? If so, why? If not, why not?

— Is the study, performance, and creation of classical music open to everyone? How? How not? And,

— Should we give up these labels altogether? What others (if any) would we substitute?

Ellen Koskoff
Professor of Ethnomusicology
Chair, Eastman School Diversity Committee

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