What Do We Even Call Ourselves?

By Anthony LaBat

Do you ever hit this roadblock? The cognitive dissonance of a conversation where you’re confronted and frustrated with the inconsistent definitions we have for what kind of music we play. 

I use “we” intentionally here, because I was going to say “classical musicians.” But, not all classical music is classical, right? Doesn’t “classical” mean from 1750 – 1800 (musicologists cringe)? Isn’t that just Mozart, Gluck, Haydn, and the whimsically named Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf? 

Well, let’s go to the dictionary … aw hell, Merriam-Webster doesn’t have an entry! Let’s go to Oxford Music Online: 

Classical Music, (n.), [mass noun]: Serious music following long-established principles rather than a folk, jazz, or popular tradition.

But wait––jazz isn’t serious? Kansas City, y’all should be incensed at that assertion. I guess neither Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Claude “Fiddler” Williams, John Coltrane, Jay McShann, nor Charlie Parker was serious about their music; it clearly doesn’t share any of these specific long-established principles, pedagogies, and techniques …Really though, to be honest, “classical” doesn’t really differ from any of those styles in that way. Color me frustrated! 

Oh boy, I’m going to have to go to Dictionary.com

Classical Music: A loose expression for European and American music of the more serious kind, as opposed to popular or folk music. 

Well damn, that’s a little better. “Classical music” as we know it is very much rooted in Western culture, but these definitions are still ripping on folk music! Folk music, as an oral tradition ubiquitous across the planet, has been around for far longer. Frankly, if it weren’t for folk music, we wouldn’t have anything. Just ask Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Dvořák, Brahms (I guess), Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, et cetera. If classical favs are so dependent on folk music, so derivative of it, shouldn’t that be regarded highly as well? Just because composers made it all loud and sad doesn’t mean folk music doesn’t play a formative role in both storytelling and music making. 

Plus, there’s nothing serious about some of the malarkey Haydn pulled off. “Surprise” Symphony? “Farewell” Symphony? The BEAR? His “Joke” Quartet? What about the sheer amount of poop jokes Mozart made? They even found a way to make that sound fancier by calling it scatological humor (At least you had this definition, Merriam-Webster!)

Whew…Then there’s “contemporary music!”––even more of an issue. 

Let’s go to Merriam again … no results

Oxford must have … wait, nope

What if we called it, “early twenty-first-century music”, or “late twentieth-early twenty-first-century music?” 

Eh, it’s a little verbose, and by that definition, Maroon 5 is also early twenty-first-century music. This ain’t that. Then you have those fuming musicologists and conductors lumping in anyone who burped after World War II into “contemporary music.” But gosh, that’s just not right either. 

Art music? Isn’t all music a form of art? Isn’t that the point? That still doesn’t quite fit …

Abstract music? That’s synonymous with absolute music, or having no story to represent. Music for its own sake. That’s in contrast to programmatic music, which does depict a story. However, those types of music transcend time, place, language, and genre. 

So … what do we even call it? 

Bougie music? 

Strings n’ things? 

Boop-squeak plinky-plunk? 

Western white heteronormative dominated music structured around various forms of cultural appropriation? 

Emo? 

In study, it’s vital to have some kind of label, just to start off with. In conversation though, this is exhausting, maybe we should just start calling it what it is …

“This is some of Julius Eastman’s music. It’s for piano.” 

“This is a string quartet from the mid-1800s.” 

“This is something called ‘chance music.’”

“This is some music by a composer named Kate Soper. It’s kind of like an opera, but really cool.” 

“This is church music from medieval times.”

We could remove the adjective “serious” altogether and just describe it by the common forms of instrumentation, i.e. families of string, wind, brass, and percussion instruments. We could talk about the common genres it encompasses like orchestra, string quartet, opera, concerto, sonata, et cetera. That still sets “classical” apart from other forms without the condescending notion that other forms can’t compare in “seriousness,” whatever that means. Maybe if we free up dialogue a bit this wouldn’t be so hard to define, or so exclusionary to those who may be interested in finding out what exactly it is in the first place.