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A guide to basic terms in classical music

by John Welford 8 months ago in classical

A few definitions to help the newcomer to classical music

Anyone who is new to the world of classical music could easily be confused by the plethora of words and terms that are presented. What is a symphony? What is chamber music? What, for starters, is classical music anyway?

A short article cannot hope to answer more than a few of these questions, as a whole encyclopaedia would be needed to cover everything. However, a definition of “classical music” might be a good idea to put things in context, followed by a few explanations of the types of music frequently heard in concerts and recordings.

To be absolutely strict, the word “classical” should only be applied to music written between the decline of Baroque music and the birth of Romantic music. There are no fixed dates here, although the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750 is often given as marking the end of the Baroque and Beethoven’s Third Symphony (the “Eroica”), first performed in April 1805, is thought of as the first work that expresses the emotional depth that typifies Romanticism. Others would put the date a bit later, such as around 1820, after which very little music of note was written that was not Romantic in style. The Classical period is therefore relatively short, namely the 50 to 70 years dominated by Haydn, Mozart and the younger Beethoven.

However, “classical” is also used to designate virtually any music written and performed, at any period, that does not fall into any other category. That is, of course, a very unsatisfactory definition that does not answer the question at all, but classical music could be said not to be folk music, or jazz, or rock, or pop, for example. Any firm definition is a hostage to fortune, because it will always be open to challenge along the lines of: “but would you include X or Y in your definition?” There are too many examples of composers and works that seem to fall outside any limits one seeks to impose, but which might also be thought to deserve the label of “classical”.

Another term that is often used is “serious” music, to distinguish Benjamin Britten from, say, Mantovani, but this usage opens another can of worms! For example, is “serious” to be regarded as in opposition to “comical”? It is probably best to admit defeat and approach the issue from another angle, discussing the forms of music that might be encountered in the works of composers who fall, whether comfortably or not, into the category of “classical” or “serious”.


A symphony is a piece of music written for an orchestra, without a solo instrument taking a prominent part. It is unusual for a standard orchestral concert not to include one or more symphonies in the programme, which is why many orchestras have the word “symphony” in their title, such as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra or the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

A symphony can vary in length from ten minutes to well over an hour. Some very early symphonies, such as those by the baroque composer William Boyce and the earliest symphonies of Haydn, feature at the shorter end of the scale, with Mahler’s Third Symphony being the longest in the standard repertoire at 95-100 minutes.

Symphonies are usually purely orchestral, but many have been written with parts for solo or choral voices. The prime example is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the final movement, but other composers, such as Mahler and Vaughan Williams, have used voices to great effect in their symphonies.

Symphonies are commonly divided into “movements”, played at different tempi and expressing different moods. The usual format is four movements (originally three), with the second movement traditionally being the slowest. Needless to say there are many variations on the theme.

There are also many single-movement orchestral works, often referred to as "tone poems" or "symphonic poems". Noted exponents of this format include Sibelius and Richard Strauss.


The original form of concerto, in the baroque period, consisted of the orchestra, which was never particularly large, being split in half with each side playing contrasting themes, either separately in a form of a dialogue, or together “in concert”. In the later “concerto grosso” the two sections were of different sizes, namely the smaller “concertino”, which might comprise only three or four players, and the larger “ripieno”. The concertino players were given the chance to show off their skills and, naturally enough, the better players were chosen to do so, some of them becoming virtuoso performers on their instruments.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a noted composer of concerti for solo instruments, notably the violin, but he was not alone among composers of the period. Keyboard concerti were unusual at this time, mainly because instruments such as the harpsichord could only play at one volume and tended to be drowned out by the other instruments of the orchestra.

However, the development of the pianoforte (literally “soft loud”) in the later 18th century changed all that and enabled composers to develop the piano concerto so that a single solo instrument could more than hold its own alongside a large modern orchestra.

Concerti have been written for just about every instrument in the orchestra, although care must be taken to make sure that the solo instrument can always been heard. This means that many concerti are written for smaller orchestras.

An added feature of the concerto is the “cadenza”, which is an extended solo passage, usually in the final movement. In early concerti the cadenza was ad-libbed by the performer, and this feature sometimes led to performers “losing the plot” as far as the total effect was concerned and making life very difficult for the conductor and orchestra. However, in most modern concerti the cadenzas are written by the composer.

Concerti, especially those written for smaller orchestras, are sometimes conducted by the soloist. This can make sense in terms of getting the tempi correct because the situation in which the soloist and conductor have different opinions on this matter cannot then arise.

Concerti typically have three movements, of which the second is usually slower than the outer movements. Traditionally, there is a moderately long introduction by the orchestra before the soloist is heard, and this can apply to all three movements. However, there are some notable exceptions to this rule, Greig’s Piano Concerto being one of the best known such exceptions.

Theme and Variations

This has been a popular form of music composition over the centuries, either for solo instrument, orchestra, or in concerto form. It is typical for a composer to take a theme from another composer and then produce a set of interpretations of that theme, at different tempi, in different keys, and with added notes, often as a means of showing off their skill.

Notable examples included Elgar’s “Variations on an Original Theme” (the “Enigma Variations”) and Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”.


A suite is a multi-movement piece with each movement named, for example, as a type of dance. This is how many baroque suites were composed, such as Handel’s “Water Music” which includes minuets, bourrées and hornpipes. A more modern suite is Saint-Saëns’s “Carnival of the Animals”, in which each of the fourteen movements represents an animal, although the definition of “animal” extends to fossils and pianists!

Chamber Music

This refers to any form of music that is designed to be played in a private room rather than a larger public space such as a concert hall. Much early chamber music was written for the entertainment of the composer’s employer, such as Haydn’s many works for the Esterhazy family.

The simplest form of chamber music needs only one instrument, such as the piano. There is an enormous repertoire of piano sonatas that resemble concertos and symphonies by being multi-movement pieces. These movements are often written in “sonata form” which comprises three basic elements, namely introduction, development and recapitulation, with possibly an introduction and concluding “coda”.

Sonatas are also written for solo instruments such as the violin and flute. However, it is typical for the soloist to be accompanied by a pianist.

String quartets comprise two violins, a viola and a cello. With a piano added this becomes a piano quintet. A string trio is either two violins and a cello or violin, viola and cello. A string octet is normally a double quartet, or one of the cellos can be replaced by a double bass. Music written for these ensembles often follows sonata form.

Sacred Music

This is normally written for church use, and is usually choral or for solo voices. The earliest known western music is sacred, having developed in monasteries (etc) for chanting the daily offices, with Gregorian plainchant being a typical form. Some notable composers, such as Holst and Vaughan Williams, have written hymn tunes and choir anthems that are sung throughout the world on a regular basis.

Many composers have written masses, these being musical settings of the Catholic liturgy. The format of the Requiem mass, with its extra movements such as the Dies Irae, gave composers such as Mozart and Verdi huge scope to combine sacred music with their talents as operatic composers.

An oratorio (such as Handel’s “Messiah”) is a form of unstaged sacred opera, with arias and choruses. A cantata is a condensed version of an oratorio.

Secular Vocal Music

An opera (literally “works”) is a dramatic stage production for soloists, chorus (usually) and orchestra. Opera overtures are often performed separately.

Many composers have produced large numbers of songs, and some, including Schubert and Mahler, have composed connected “song cycles” that are of a similar length to concerti and symphonies.

As mentioned earlier, this is inevitably a generalised view of the range of music that can be designated as “classical”. There are many more terms that could have been included, due to fact that the world of music encompasses such a huge range of forms and styles.


John Welford

I am a retired librarian, having spent most of my career in academic and industrial libraries.

I write on a number of subjects and also write stories as a member of the "Hinckley Scribblers".

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