A few defining characteristics of classical music

Before talking about any one composer, or piece of classical music, I thought I’d write out a few brief notes about this kind of music in general. Hopefully, this will provide context for the recommended performances…


When I think of classical music, the first thing that comes to mind that distinguishes it is the instruments that are played.

Oh, the instruments!

Of course, we have guitars, violins, and keyboards in other kinds of music as well, but we should know that in this kind of music especially, the instruments that are sought out and played are of the highest quality.

I remember in my mid twenties, when I switched first from the electric guitar, to steel string, and then to nylon string classical. I had the feeling that I was only then beginning to explore the quiet end of the spectrum of sound. If we learn to listen, there are tones and textures that can be heard in classical music that are seldom found in other kinds of music.

Looking back now, it seems to me that the louder music becomes, the less is actually heard. I wouldn’t have expected my twenty year old self to know this, but it became clear to me the more I involved myself with classical music.

I was also surprised and delighted to learn that classical musicians develop their technique. Each instrument has its own pedagogy, that is the knowledge, accumulated over generations, on how to play that instrument well.

Over many years, they develop their tone, which can become unique to the player, and identifiable.

Of course, we need a good environment, or recording to hear this at all, but it is there, and worth seeking out.

I had one experience in my twenties that highlighted this for me. I went to stay with a friend who lived in a trailer in the mountains above Malibu, here in California. For some reason, he left me there alone for the evening, and, as I had my classical guitar with me, I decided to play a bit.

I noticed that the environment there was so quiet that I could hear the instrument like never before. I knew then that there are worlds of sound to be discovered.

We may wonder why there are so many recordings of the same pieces of music, or why the most famous compositions are so often heard on the radio, or in concerts. The reason is that different interpretations can result in a very different piece of music.

To illustrate this, if I were telling someone about it, I would sing the melody to a Bach minuet, first slowly and gracefully, and then at a more lively tempo. Examples abound.

The classics are called this because they offer endless possibilities.

It’s  a wonder then to behold world class musicians performing the same composition. The world is enriched by that much.

To enter the world of Western classical music is to enter a tradition that has developed over five centuries, and that continues to develop. And it is a living tradition, that is being added to by every new generation of composers and musicians.

The different genres of classical music, and the main figures in each era should be known, for a start. A brief survey will usually begin with music of the Renaissance, followed by the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern eras.

Each era in classical music builds on what came before, and so, for example, the music of Beethoven, who is often considered the first Romantic, made much more sense to me after listening to a lot of Mozart. He began with the classical era as his starting point, and took off from there.

All of this is what we are heirs to, if we receive it.

A word here can also be said on the wonders of modern recording.

Although nothing can replace a live performance, in an excellent recital hall, the advances made in recording over the last twenty years are astonishing.

The technology we have now, in 2022, can capture the quality of diverse instruments, and the voice like never before. This may not be as important with pop or rock music, but with classical music, more comes across in the recordings. I find this especially true when I listen to Baroque music, where unique instruments contrast with each other.

Perhaps this will suffice as the briefest of introductions to the great world of classical music.