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Given the wide range of styles in European classical music, from Medieval plainchant sung by monks to Classical and Romantic symphonies for orchestra from the 1700s and 1800s to avant-garde atonal compositions for solo piano from the 1900s, it is difficult to list characteristics that can be attributed to all works of that type. However, there are characteristics that classical music contains that few or no other genres of music contain, such as the use of music notation and the performance of complex forms of solo instrumental works (e.g., the fugue). Furthermore, while the symphony did not exist prior to the late 18th century, the symphony ensemble—and the works written for it—have become a defining feature of classical music.
The key characteristic of European classical music that distinguishes it from popular music and folk music is that the repertoire tends to be written down in musical notation, creating a musical part or score. This score typically determines details of rhythm, pitch, and, where two or more musicians (whether singers or instrumentalists) are involved, how the various parts are coordinated. The written quality of the music has enabled a high level of complexity within them: fugues, for instance, achieve a remarkable marriage of boldly distinctive melodic lines weaving in counterpoint yet creating a coherent harmonic logic that would be difficult to achieve in the heat of live improvisation. The use of written notation also preserves a record of the works and enables Classical musicians to perform music from many centuries ago. Musical notation enables 2000s-era performers to sing a choral work from the 1300s Renaissance era or a 1700s Baroque concerto with many of the features of the music (the melodies, lyrics, forms, and rhythms) being reproduced.
That said, the score does allow the interpreter to make choices on how to perform a historical work.basso continuo accompaniment do not specify which instruments should play the accompaniment or exactly how the chordal instrument (harpsichord, lute, etc.) should play the chords, which are not notated in the part (only a figured bass symbol in the bass part is used to guide the chord-playing performer). The performer and the conductor have a range of options for musical expression and interpretation of a scored piece, including the phrasing of melodies, the time taken during fermatas (held notes) or pauses, and the use (or choice not to use) of effects such as vibrato or glissando (these effects are possible on various stringed, brass and woodwind instruments and with the human voice).
For example, if the tempo is written with an Italian instruction (e.g., Allegro), it is not known exactly how fast the piece should be played. As well, in the Baroque era, many works that were designed for
Although Classical music in the 2000s has lost most of its tradition for musical improvisation, from the Baroque era to the Romantic era, there are examples of performers who could improvise in the style of their era. In the Baroque era, organ performers would improvise preludes, keyboard performers playing harpsichord would improvise chords from the figured bass symbols beneath the bass notes of the basso continuo part and both vocal and instrumental performers would improvise musical ornaments. Johann Sebastian Bach was particularly noted for his complex improvisations. During the Classical era, the composer-performer Mozart was noted for his ability to improvise melodies in different styles. During the Classical era, some virtuoso soloists would improvise the cadenza sections of a concerto. During the Romantic era, Beethoven would improvise at the piano. For more information, see Improvisation.
Instrumentation and vocal practices
The instruments currently used in most classical music were largely invented before the mid-19th century (often much earlier) and codified in the 18th and 19th centuries. They consist of the instruments found in an orchestra or in a concert band, together with several other solo instruments (such as the piano, harpsichord, and organ). The symphony orchestra is the most widely known medium for classical music and includes members of the string, woodwind, brass, and percussion families of instruments. The concert band consists of members of the woodwind, brass, and percussion families. It generally has a larger variety and number of woodwind and brass instruments than the orchestra but does not have a string section. However, many concert bands use a double bass. The vocal practices changed over the classical period, from the single line monophonic Gregorian chant done by monks in the Medieval period to the complex, polyphonic choral works of the Renaissance and subsequent periods, which used multiple independent vocal melodies at the same time.
Many of the instruments used to perform medieval music still exist, but in different forms. Medieval instruments included the flute, the recorder and plucked string instruments like the lute. As well, early versions of the organ, fiddle (or vielle), and trombone (called the sackbut) existed. Medieval instruments in Europe had most commonly been used singly, often self accompanied with a drone note, or occasionally in parts. From at least as early as the 13th century through the 15th century there was a division of instruments into haut (loud, shrill, outdoor instruments) and bas (quieter, more intimate instruments). During the earlier medieval period, the vocal music from the liturgical genre, predominantly Gregorian chant, was monophonic, using a single, unaccompanied vocal melody line. Polyphonic vocal genres, which used multiple independent vocal melodies, began to develop during the high medieval era, becoming prevalent by the later 13th and early 14th century.
Many instruments originated during the Renaissance; others were variations of, or improvements upon, instruments that had existed previously. Some have survived to the present day; others have disappeared, only to be recreated in order to perform music of the period on authentic instruments. As in the modern day, instruments may be classified as brass, strings, percussion, and woodwind. Brass instruments in the Renaissance were traditionally played by professionals who were members of Guilds and they included the slide trumpet, the wooden cornet, the valveless trumpet and the sackbut. Stringed instruments included the viol, the harp-like lyre, the hurdy-gurdy, the cittern and the lute. Keyboard instruments with strings included the harpsichord and the virginals. Percussion instruments include the triangle, the Jew's harp, the tambourine, the bells, the rumble-pot, and various kinds of drums. Woodwind instruments included the double reed shawm, the reed pipe, the bagpipe, the transverse flute and the recorder. Vocal music in the Renaissance is noted for the flourishing of an increasingly elaborate polyphonic style. The principal liturgical forms which endured throughout the entire Renaissance period were masses and motets, with some other developments towards the end, especially as composers of sacred music began to adopt secular forms (such as the madrigal) for their own designs. Towards the end of the period, the early dramatic precursors of opera such as monody, the madrigal comedy, and the intermedio are seen. Around 1597, Italian composer Jacopo Peri wrote Dafne, the first work to be called an opera today. He also composed Euridice, the first opera to have survived to the present day.
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Baroque instruments included some instruments from the earlier periods (e.g., the hurdy-gurdy and recorder) and a number of new instruments (e.g, the oboe, bassoon, cello, contrabass and fortepiano). Some instruments from previous eras fell into disuse, such as the shawm and the wooden cornet. The key Baroque instruments for strings included the violin, viol, viola, viola d'amore, cello, contrabass, lute, theorbo (which often played the basso continuo parts), mandolin, cittern, Baroque guitar, harp and hurdy-gurdy. Woodwinds included the Baroque flute, Baroque oboe, rackett, recorder and the bassoon. Brass instruments included the cornett, natural horn, Baroque trumpet, serpent and the trombone. Keyboard instruments included the clavichord, the harpsichord, the pipe organ, and, later in the period, the fortepiano (an early version of the piano). Percussion instruments included the timpani, snare drum, tambourine and the castanets.
One major difference between Baroque music and the classical era that followed it is that the types of instruments used in Baroque ensembles were much less standardized. Whereas a classical era string quartet consists almost exclusively of two violins, a viola and a cello, a Baroque or Classical-era group accompanying a soloist or opera could include one of several different types of keyboard instruments (e.g., pipe organ, harpsichord, or clavichord), additional stringed chordal instruments (e.g., a lute) and an unspecified number of bass instruments performing the basso continuo, including bowed strings, woodwinds and brass instruments (e.g., a cello, contrabass, viol, bassoon, serpent, etc.).
Vocal developments in the Baroque era included the development of opera types such as opera seria and opéra comique, and related forms such as oratorios and cantatas.
The term "classical music" has two meanings: the broader meaning includes all Western art music from the Medieval era to the 2000s, and the specific meaning refers to the art music from the 1750s to the early 1820s—the period of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig van Beethoven. This section is about the more specific meaning. Classical era musicians continued to use many of instruments from the Baroque era, such as the cello, contrabass, recorder, trombone, timpani, fortepiano (the precursor to the modern piano) and organ. While some Baroque instruments fell into disuse (e.g., the theorbo and rackett), many Baroque instruments were changed into the versions that are still in use today, such as the Baroque violin (which became the violin), the Baroque oboe (which became the oboe) and the Baroque trumpet, which transitioned to the regular valved trumpet. During the Classical era, the stringed instruments used in orchestra and chamber music such as string quartets were standardized as the four instruments which form the string section of the orchestra: the violin, viola, cello and double bass. Baroque-era stringed instruments such as fretted, bowed viols were phased out. Woodwinds included the basset clarinet, basset horn, clarinette d'amour, the Classical clarinet, the chalumeau, the flute, oboe and bassoon. Keyboard instruments included the clavichord and the fortepiano. While the harpsichord was still used in basso continuo accompaniment in the 1750s and 1760s, it fell out of use in the end of the century. Brass instruments included the buccin, the ophicleide (a replacement for the bass serpent, which was the precursor of the tuba) and the natural horn.
In the Romantic era, the modern piano, with a more powerful, sustained tone and a wider range took over from the more delicate-sounding fortepiano. In the orchestra, the existing Classical instruments and sections were retained (string section, woodwinds, brass and percussion), but these sections were typically expanded to make a fuller, bigger sound. For example, while a Baroque orchestra may have had two double bass players, a Romantic orchestra could have as many as ten. "As music grew more expressive, the standard orchestral palette just wasn't rich enough for many Romantic composers."  New woodwind instruments were added, such as the contrabassoon, bass clarinet and piccolo and new percussion instruments were added, including xylophones, snare drums, celestes (a bell-like keyboard instrument), bells, and triangles, large orchestral harps, and even wind machines for sound effects. Saxophones appear in some scores from the late 19th century onwards. While appearing only as featured solo instruments in some works, for example Maurice Ravel's orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, the saxophone is included in other works, such as Ravel's Boléro, Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet Suites 1 and 2 and many other works as a member of the orchestral ensemble. The euphonium is featured in a few late Romantic and 20th-century works, usually playing parts marked "tenor tuba", including Gustav Holst's The Planets, and Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben.
The Wagner tuba, a modified member of the horn family, appears in Richard Wagner's cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen and several other works by Strauss, Béla Bartók, and others; it has a prominent role in Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 in E Major. Cornets appear in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake, Claude Debussy's La mer, and several orchestral works by Hector Berlioz. Unless these instruments are played by members doubling on another instrument (for example, a trombone player changing to euphonium for a certain passage), orchestras will use freelance musicians to augment their regular rosters.
Modernism in music is a philosophical and aesthetic stance underlying the period of change and development in musical language that occurred from 1890 to 1930, a period of diverse reactions in challenging and reinterpreting older categories of music, innovations that lead to new ways of organizing and approaching harmonic, melodic, sonic, and rhythmic aspects of music, and changes in aesthetic worldviews in close relation to the larger identifiable period of modernism in the arts of the time. The operative word most associated with it is "innovation". Its leading feature is a "linguistic plurality", which is to say that no single music genre ever assumed a dominant position.
Contemporary classical music
Contemporary classical music is the period that came into prominence in the mid-1970s. It includes different variations of modernist, postmodern, neoromantic, and pluralist music. However, the term may also be employed in a broader sense to refer to all post-1945 musical forms.
Postmodern music is a period of music that began around 1930. It shares characteristics with postmodernist art – that is, art that comes after and reacts against modernism.
Many instruments that in the 2010s are associated with popular music filled important roles in early music, such as bagpipes, theorbos, vihuelas, hurdy-gurdies (hand-cranked string instruments), accordions, alphorns, hydraulises, calliopes, sistrums, and some woodwind instruments such as tin whistles, panpipes, shawms and crumhorns. On the other hand, instruments such as the acoustic guitar, once associated mainly with popular music, gained prominence in classical music in the 19th and 20th centuries in the form of the classical guitar and banjo. While equal temperament gradually became accepted as the dominant musical temperament during the 19th century, different historical temperaments are often used for music from earlier periods. For instance, music of the English Renaissance is often performed in meantone temperament. As well, while professional orchestras and pop bands all around the world have tuned to an A fixed at 440 Hz since the late 19th century, there was historically a great variety in the tuning pitch, as attested to in historical pipe organs that still exist.
Performers who have studied classical music extensively are said to be "classically trained". This training may come from private lessons from instrument or voice teachers or from completion of a formal program offered by a Conservatory, college or university, such as a Bachelor of Music or Master of Music degree (which includes individual lessons from professors). In classical music, "...extensive formal music education and training, often to postgraduate [Master's degree] level" is required.
Performance of classical music repertoire requires a proficiency in sight-reading and ensemble playing, harmonic principles, strong ear training (to correct and adjust pitches by ear), knowledge of performance practice (e.g., Baroque ornamentation), and a familiarity with the style/musical idiom expected for a given composer or musical work (e.g., a Brahms symphony or a Mozart concerto).
Some "popular" genre musicians have had significant classical training, such as Billy Joel, Elton John, the Van Halen brothers, Randy Rhoads, Ritchie Blackmore, and Dream Theater members. Moreover, formal training is not unique to the classical genre. Many rock and pop musicians have completed degrees in commercial music programs such as those offered by the Berklee College of Music and many jazz musicians have completed degrees in music from universities with jazz programs, such as the Manhattan School of Music and McGill University.
Gender of performers
Historically, major professional orchestras have been mostly or entirely composed of musicians who are men. Some of the earliest cases of women being hired in professional orchestras was in the position of harpist. The Vienna Philharmonic, for example, did not accept women to permanent membership until 1997, far later than the other orchestras ranked among the world's top five by Gramophone in 2008. The last major orchestra to appoint a woman to a permanent position was the Berlin Philharmonic. As late as February 1996, the Vienna Philharmonic's principal flute, Dieter Flury, told Westdeutscher Rundfunk that accepting women would be "gambling with the emotional unity (emotionelle Geschlossenheit) that this organism currently has". In April 1996, the orchestra's press secretary wrote that "compensating for the expected leaves of absence" of maternity leave would be a problem.
In 1997, the Vienna Philharmonic was "facing protests during a [US] tour" by the National Organization for Women and the International Alliance for Women in Music. Finally, "after being held up to increasing ridicule even in socially conservative Austria, members of the orchestra gathered [on 28 February 1997] in an extraordinary meeting on the eve of their departure and agreed to admit a woman, Anna Lelkes, as harpist." As of 2013, the orchestra has six female members; one of them, violinist Albena Danailova became one of the orchestra's concertmasters in 2008, the first woman to hold that position. In 2012, women still made up just 6% of the orchestra's membership. VPO president Clemens Hellsberg said the VPO now uses completely screened blind auditions.
In 2013, an article in Mother Jones stated that while "[m]any prestigious orchestras have significant female membership—women outnumber men in the New York Philharmonic's violin section—and several renowned ensembles, including the National Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, and the Minnesota Symphony, are led by women violinists", the double bass, brass, and percussion sections of major orchestras "...are still predominantly male." A 2014 BBC article stated that the "...introduction of 'blind' auditions, where a prospective instrumentalist performs behind a screen so that the judging panel can exercise no gender or racial prejudice, has seen the gender balance of traditionally male-dominated symphony orchestras gradually shift."
Works of classical repertoire often exhibit complexity in their use of orchestration, counterpoint, harmony, musical development, rhythm, phrasing, texture, and form. Whereas most popular styles are usually written in song form, classical music is noted for its development of highly sophisticated instrumental musical forms, like the concerto, symphony and sonata. Classical music is also noted for its use of sophisticated vocal/instrumental forms, such as opera. In opera, vocal soloists and choirs perform staged dramatic works with an orchestra providing accompaniment. Longer instrumental works are often divided into self-contained pieces, called movements, often with contrasting characters or moods. For instance, symphonies written during the Classical period are usually divided into four movements: (1) an opening Allegro in sonata form, (2) a slow movement, (3) a minuet or scherzo (in a triple metre, such as 3/4), and (4) a final Allegro. These movements can then be further broken down into a hierarchy of smaller units: first sections, then periods, and finally phrases.