Why, asked a student, do some people call it ‘classical music’? (She played the oboe in our orchestra.) And what does classical mean anyway?

The usage of the word, with its associated forms, seems to fall under two headings:


  • Chambers describes a classic as ‘something of established excellence; something quintessentially typical or definitive.’
  • The OED defines classical as ‘of or relating to a period considered the most highly developed of the civilization that produced it; designating such a period…’
  • Gilbert Highet* says that the word classical simply means ‘first class’, ‘good enough to be used as a standard’; and that by derivation it came in the Renaissance to be a general description for all Greek and Latin literature.


  • Chambers explains classical as meaning  ‘chaste, refined or restrained.’
  • The OED takes classical to be used of a style ‘characterized by adherence to established stylistic forms, and by harmony, balance, and restraint…’ and says that the word is used to mean ‘of or relating to the ancient Greek or Latin writers whose works form a canon of acknowledged excellence… hence: of or relating to ancient Greek or Latin literature in general.’
  • Professor J A K Thomson says of classical literature that it is animated by a love for, and faith in, reason.

A colleague in the Art department, some years ago, gave the opinion that classical art of any kind has a distinguishing feature: which is that, rather than assaulting or seducing its readers, viewers or listeners, it involves them in a thought process. By subtlety and suggestion, it invites them to participate and interpret, and so of its nature it is intellectual and stimulative of the imagination.

And so, finally, I showed this student the following paragraph in the OED defining the word classical as used of music:

‘of acknowledged excellence; of, relating to, or characteristic of a formal musical tradition, as distinguished from popular or folk music; spec. of or relating to formal European music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, characterized by harmony, balance, and adherence to established compositional forms.’


* The Classical Tradition, OUP, 1967

The Classical Background of English Literature, George Allen & Unwin, 1948