What was classical music called back in the days? (Pre 1900s?) Was it divided in to genres as we do today, or was it simlpy categorized by the type of instruments used, or just "concert music".

In short, was classical music categorized in genres back then (maybe it is now as well but i'm not aware of it)?

I know the question is quite fuzzy, but I'm not very familiar with classical music and the history of it.

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    Reminds me of Friends. :) JOEY: Go to China. Eat Chinese food. CHANDLER: Course there, they just call it food. Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 21:51

6 Answers 6


I would separate out the idea of "art music" -- or "high music" versus "low" music -- from the specific question of musical "classics." You can find clear taxonomies of genre from high to low in treatises going very far back in music history, clear back into the late Medieval period. Theorists understood that there was a music that "the people" made, and it was not the same as cultivated church and court music.

But the notion of "classical" music is only invented, by analogy with the "classics" of Greek and Roman literature, in the mid-1700s, and it really takes hold after the death of Beethoven.

There are many scholarly works on the "rise of the musical canon"; do an internet search on the research of historian William Weber if you want the full story. Weber identifies what he calls "high-status popular" and "high-status classical" music publics in the major European cities in the 1830s and 1840s. The confusing thing for modern listeners is that, while the "classical" music of that period (Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Handel, Beethoven) is recognizable as classical music, SO IS THE POPULAR (Rossini, Bellini, Chopin, Liszt) - we've lost this distinction altogether. The other counter-intutitive fact is that the high-status audience for "popular" music was more wealthy than the high-status audience for "classical" music: the 1% of 1830 patronized Chopin and went to the opera to hear Donizetti, while the intellectuals of the day -- the Volvo-driving, latte drinking, college professor types -- championed Beethoven and older music as more serious and intellectual.

You sometimes experience this disconnect at a "classical music" concert today: a serious, weighty symphony by Beethoven (CLASSICAL) might be accompanied by a flashy (and somewhat trashy) concerto by Chopin (POPULAR). In the middle 19th century, those two pieces would have had two different audiences.

Weber also notes that there was, of course, "low-status popular" music and its audience. But that stuff, the ancestor of today's "pop," didn't leave much trace.

PS: Note that I am not at all saying that the music of Chopin is worth less than that of Beethoven. Just that some people thought it was in 1840. Another irony is that standards of performance were much higher in the high-status popular music world: the biggest virtuosi were not much interested in playing Beethoven or Mozart, because it wasn't hard enough! (It was only when the classical music ideology really took hold, in the later 19th-ct, that brilliant technicians like Liszt started playing Beethoven and earlier music to show how serious and intellectual they could be, too.)

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    I take serious issue with the ideas that "low-status popular" music is either an ancestor of pop or didn't leave much trace. Today, we call it folk music.
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 16:09
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    Fair enough - I should have said "written trace," and of course the words to many folk ballads were printed on broadsheets once that was possible. Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 2:17

It was just called music.

It's hard to believe it, but this is the music everybody could hear and understand at the time (18th-19th century). Let's not forget that what we call today "classical music" evolved from folk music of the middle ages; let's say, Bach's suites, they contain Gigue, Gavotte, Allemande, Sarabande etc. These are no less than folk dances (btw, Bach himself like very much to dance, they say).

Or, take for example Beethoven's funeral: thousands of citizens payed homage to the composer, as if he was a pop star, with today's terms.

Division by genres must be a very recent development. People didn't care about music's genre until very recently (maybe the '60s).

I know a few examples of people in the enjoying as much western as eastern music (which by todays standards is way too broad diversity); like 18th's century Vienna or early 20th's century Smyrna. People just didn't care about genre. And I know for sure my grandparents enjoyed equally Operetta and greek folk songs. The only genre division they cared about was greek song / foreign song. Because they could not sing in a foreign language :)

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    Do you have any resources in support of this theory or the date regarding when genres were invented? Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 16:05
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    Let me be precise: I am talking about genre perception by people . In other words, genres were there, it was just people who did not care about (people, not academia). That being said, I do not have an online resource, it is rather a deduction based on books I read who clearly suggest that (I could give some examples), and a number of newspapers clips: they write about Rock "music" but before that, Rock'n'roll is a "dance". BTW, maybe I am lost in translation, I understood "genre" as style, I got it wrong?
    – theodojo
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 10:48

What was classical music called back in the days? (Pre 1900s?) Was it divided in to genres as we do today, or was it simply categorized by the type of instruments used, or just "concert music".

We can look back at history in general, in so far as no man living during the Middle Ages would say he was living in "the Middle Ages" in a conversation. I am confident the secular citizens of the time were aware they were in the middle of something - Rome had just collapsed, and a couple of false starts occurred, such as the Carolingian time, but they did not mature. In short, categories and labels are only inventions of today applying to the past. And label can be false - "classical" strictly refers to ancient Greece and Rome, while the music of the Enlightenment had nothing to do with antiquity values.

The same is true for music - any music is contemporary during its time, much like pop music is contemporary to us today. There was no notion of "classical music" back then, because the majority of the music there was fell into one category.

However, there were genres, such as concerto and sonata. Each genre follows/followed a particular form, e.g. sonata-allegro, or rondo. Composers of the time were aware that music would fall into one of these categories/labels depending on the piece's structural buildup and instrumentation, among others. However, what constitutes a genre varied over time. The criteria for a piece to be a nocturne in pre-John Field decades differed from those during Field's own times, to be later "challenged" by Chopin, so on and so forth. The late Romantics, e.g. Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, favored colossal orchestration and by that reinvented much of what Beethoven had known of a symphony.

Towards the 20th century, however, you start seeing composers more or less aware of stylistic development preceding theirs. For example, Prokofiev wrote the Classical (capital C) symphony (and he was aware of the label, but strictly speaking its style is neo-classical), while Stravinsky was writing in a neo-Bachian manner. While those compositions were largely experimental in nature, there were others that were more utilitarian. Some composers utilized musical categorization in an attempt to legitimize, say, their own countries. Keep in mind this was during the time of Nationalism. Italy needed a sense of Italian, so Respighi provided a surge by going back to mythic Italian past in pieces such as "The Pines of Rome." These composers, along with their compositions, signal a greater divide between a past and a present.


Classical music is not a genre. It is a "catch-all" term used to lump together a very broad number of genres across a number of different cultures across many centuries. There is certainly much more than one style of music involved in such a vast period of time and across a vast range of cultures and peoples.

In contrast, when we refer to a contemporary genre such as "rock music", we are referring to a particular and very narrowly-defined style of music made mostly by musicians in the United States of America and England from about 1956 up until the present day, and chiefly by ethnically white musicians who speak and write lyrics in English. This is a tiny, brief genre compared to the entire history of all music.

Many music historians do not like to use the term "classical music", and there are many other ideas about how this music should be described. My preferred term is "traditional music".

When most people use the term "classical music" they are referring to all the "traditional" music made in all the countries in Western Europe since the dawn of civilization, in every nation and in every language. Furthermore in recent centuries the great powers of Western Europe conquered and colonized the rest of the world, spreading their music culture with them. So there has been classical music written in places like Mexico and the USA and Argentina which are derived from Western European forms.

[Music from the traditions of Eastern Europe, the Arab nations, Asia and India and Africa, and elsewhere have their own distinct melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic languages, musical instruments and styles that are very different than Western music. These styles developed virtually completely independently from Western music, and vice-versa. This is why we don't include indigenous music from these cultures when we talk about "Western classical music". This is not to imply that music from these non-Western cultures is in any way inferior. These musics have their own kinds of sophistication and virtuosity. But these musics are so different in character that we don't fit them into a discussion of what we call "Western classical".]

Within the "Western classical" tradition, we do, however, make a distinction between "classical" and "folk" music. The distinction is chiefly economic along with being artistic. Historically, "classical" music is music that is supported by patronage. The music is created when wealthy people, churches, governments or corporations hire composers and musicians and pay them to create their music.

"Folk" music, on the other hand, is music made by musicians who have no expectation of earning any money from their music -- they just play it for the love of music, and they are not part of the "patronage" system. They make "music of the folk" which tends to be less formally-organized, and handed down from generation to generation in more of an oral tradition, not written down in fixed form.

In the 20th century a third kind of music came about: "commercial" music. Commercial music is music that attempts to earn its own income without patronage, from selling things like recordings and sheet music, or getting paid royalties for having recordings played on radio or television or used in motion pictures. Of course this did not happen until the 20th century because before that time there were no recordings, radio, television or motion pictures, no iPods, no Internet. Of course during the period of "commercial music", or better put, "the music industry" there continues to be "classical" and "folk" music being created. But when music and musicians enter the "music industry" their music tends to become less "classical" or "folk" and more "commercial" in character. Genres like jazz, rock, Broadway, country, or any kind of electronic dance music fall into the "commercial" category.

When historians speak of "classical" music, they usually speak of distinct style periods, according to eras in history. Each style period includes all the "classical" music made in every nation, in every language, in every style of instrumentation or singing. Here is a list of the generally-agreed-upon style periods. Of course all dates and years are approximate.

  • Ancient (before 500 AD)

  • Medieval (500 AD to 1400 AD)

  • Renaissance (1400 to 1600)

  • Baroque (1600 to 1750)

  • Classical (1750 to 1830)

  • Romantic (1830 to 1910)

  • Modern (from the beginning of World War I to the end of World War II)

  • Post-Modern (1945 to today)

All of these names and distinctions of dates were labeled after the periods in question were over. (the terms "Modern" and "Post-Modern" sound lame because, well, not enough time has passed for us to invent more clever names.) And the "barriers" between one style period and another were not rigid. However, dividing things up into style periods gives one an opportunity to understand how Western classical music has evolved and developed.

Each different "style period" is characterized by composers using particular kinds of rhythm, melody and harmony in their music. New methods and styles of melodies, rhythms and harmonies were invented and used in each of the successive style periods, and these methods spread in waves throughout the Western world. I cannot take any more time here to explain how the music of each of these style periods is different; I hope that I have provided you a framework to do your own study on the subject.

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    "Folk" music, on the other hand, is music made by musicians who have no expectation of earning any money from their music -- they just play it for the love of music, and they are not part of the "patronage" system": this is not entirely true. Much folk music serves at social occasions such as weddings, where the musicians expect to be paid for their services.
    – phoog
    Commented May 26, 2020 at 5:58

I know this is an old question, but I wanted to add a concise answer...

Two terms which I understand were actually used by people of the 18th century were galant and learned. Galant referred to what we might call early classical music. Learned referred to polyphonic music like fugues. In the 18th century galant would have been the current or modern style, and learned would have been an old fashioned style. You can even look to the Bach family. CPE Bach worked in the galant style while is father JS Bach was associated with the learned style. Changing generations, changing styles.

Maybe also check out the terms 'sturm und drang' and 'empfindsamer stil.'

Two sources regarding 'galant'

I can't give a better direct quotation of the use of these terms. I only know them from English textbooks. Of course original usage would be in French, German, or Italian. I wish I could give better references.

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    Can you give quotes to give context to that, for ex. someone from that time using the words to describe the music ?
    – Angst
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 21:45
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    @Angst, I edited my answer to try to give some quotes. Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 4:47

Music, or concert music, perhaps.

As a matter of fact, today you will not find that in the music schools they call it "classical music", but "concert music", that is, the concert that is interpreted in halls. The actual "classical music", as they teach, is only the music either from the Greeks and the Romans, or from the neoclassic movement in the 18th century.

I do not think that this be new, I think this probably was there before, and I am sure that many did not want to associate themselves with "classicism".


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