Feb 2, 2016

“Classical music” is not a great term.

It’s rife with imprecision and baggage. Inevitably, it’s devotees and practitioners like to throw in a nice caveat about the little “c” and big “C” to make sure that anyone within earshot is aware that the little c is a broad catch-all for centuries of music and the big C version refers to music written between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It’s not that we think anyone would be confused or that the unaware would even care. It’s more that we want them to know that we know the difference.

The inadequacy of the name is often reflected in the pregnant pause or “so-called” modifier we throw in before using it. In music academia, sometimes we prefer “Western art music,” “fine art music” or even “serious” music to avoid saying “classical” altogether. But that also has it’s issues. “Western art music” might describe the history of the art form, but it is closed off to the growing audiences, performers and composers in other parts of the world that build upon its tradition. “Fine art” or “serious” are also limiting terms. Plenty of music later elevated to the canon has been intended as popular entertainment, and certainly not all classical music has been meant to be taken seriously. Believe it or not, composers are known to have fun from time to time.

Every few years, clever people think about how we might rebrand what we call classical music. Nashville-based music journalist Craig Havighurst recently advocated we retire “classical” and replace it with “composed music.”

“Baggage of history, class and race is swept away,” Havighurst wrote. “The awkwardness of there being a Classical Period in Classical Music becomes moot. In a radio context, the music would no longer come across as an oldies format but as a vibrant art form, with Mozart and Jennifer Higdon and Chopin and John Luther Adams getting equal billing and stature.”

Perhaps one of the most compelling point Havighurst argues in favor of the name swap is that it might not be a bad thing if the public at large doesn’t initially know what we are talking about when we use "composed music."

“It’s a chance to re-introduce and refresh the very idea of music made for careful listening and refined expression in a fast-changing and jaded world,” he writes.

Familiarity, after all, is likely the reason we cling to “classical.” There is some brand recognition, and since so many of our music labels (rock, R&B, easy listening, hip-hop) are created for and perpetuated by the business of selling recorded music, there is also already an accepted (albeit shrinking) spot in radio formats and music charts for “classical.” But as Alex Ross famously said on the subject, the term is a “tour de force of anti-hype.”

“Classical music” as a label can be as intimidating as a 600-page textbook with the word “Physics” scrawled across its thick leather cover. The sheer volume of the four or five centuries worth of creative output that term encompasses is often overwhelming to prospective listeners who often feel like they must have seven years of instrumental instruction and another four years of collegiate study just to have a valid opinion on anything they hear.

If you hang around online classical music forums in your spare time — and there are dozens of us — it won’t take long before you see the cry for help posed by some earnest newcomer asking, “How do I get into this? Where do I start?” The last thing a classical neophyte needs to hear at that possibility-filled moment of curiosity is instructions to begin with the birth year of Johann Sebastian Bach. What they need instead is multiple pathways that help them navigate from one thing they’ve found enjoyment in so that they might discover the next.

No other art form is so reliant on the collective identity assigned by the broad umbrella term that describes it. Imagine if a friend told you they were interested in getting into “literature.” No reasonable person would assemble a reading list featuring Homer’s Odyssey, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and then wish their friend good luck. Instead we would try to drill down to a particular novel that sparked their interest and build out from there.

Perhaps more than a new word to replace “classical music,” which has the tendency to flatten a diverse landscape into a singular, opaque thing, we need many terms that provide pathways of exploration. Particularly now in an era where new composers blaze trails in ambiguous gray areas, combining styles and performance practice from classical and popular music or so-called high and low art, the term “classical” suggests binary lines in the sand that contemporary musicians don’t see. Even speaking historically, those lines have always been blurry. Is a broadway musical classical? If not, what if it was written by Gershwin? By Bernstein?

“Composed music” is a fine start for changing the way we talk about this music, but maybe we shouldn’t stop there. Any singular term is likely to fall prey to the exceptions to a one-size-fits-all mindset. Perhaps we should take a page from heavy metal, which has countless subgenre names ranging from “melodic death metal” to “mathcore.” Perhaps we should try out everything from “neo-Romantic” and “symphonic minimalism” to “moody Germanic showpieces” and “post-war American chamber music.” Maybe we could invent some weird subgenre names like "hipster symphonia" or "Nordic piano new wave." Ok. Those last ones need some work. 

Like with all music names, things won’t fit neatly in a box, but they don’t need to. What is important is that we don’t allow the many pathways that already exist in this music to be hidden by our need for a collective noun. A journey begins with a single step, but it’s hard to motivate someone to take that step when they can’t see a road.