What Makes Something “Classical”? A Comprehensive Exploration

When we hear the term “classical,” what comes to mind? For many, it conjures up images of ancient Greece and Rome, or perhaps the stunning architecture of European cathedrals. But why is something called “classical”? What defines this term and makes it so enduringly relevant? In this comprehensive exploration, we’ll delve into the many facets of the word “classical,” from its roots in ancient culture to its ongoing influence on modern society. So, let’s embark on a journey through time and discover what makes something truly “classical.”

Defining Classical: Criteria and Characteristics

The Timelessness Factor

  • Durability of style and form: A defining characteristic of classical works is their ability to transcend the boundaries of time and remain relevant even centuries after their creation. This durability is evident in various art forms, including literature, music, and architecture. For instance, the works of William Shakespeare, which were written in the 16th and 17th centuries, continue to captivate audiences today with their timeless themes and poetic language. Similarly, the architectural marvels of ancient Greece and Rome have inspired generations of architects and designers, proving their timeless appeal.
  • Resilience against obsolescence: Another factor that contributes to the timelessness of classical works is their resilience against obsolescence. Unlike fleeting fads and trends, classical works have stood the test of time and continue to resonate with people across generations. For example, the music of Bach and Beethoven, composed hundreds of years ago, remains relevant and beloved today, despite the numerous changes in musical styles and tastes. This timeless quality is not limited to the arts; it can also be observed in scientific discoveries and philosophical ideas that have endured for centuries, shaping our understanding of the world and guiding our moral and ethical beliefs.

Overall, the timelessness factor is a crucial aspect of what makes something classical. The durability of style and form, combined with the resilience against obsolescence, ensures that classical works continue to inspire, educate, and enrich our lives long after their creation.

The Evolutionary Factor

Historical context and era of origin

One of the primary factors that contribute to something being considered “classical” is its historical context and era of origin. In order for a work to be deemed classical, it must have originated during a specific time period that is considered to be the height of a particular style or movement. For example, the works of William Shakespeare are considered to be classical because they were written during the Elizabethan era, a time when English literature was undergoing significant changes and development.

Influence on subsequent styles and movements

Another key factor that makes something “classical” is its influence on subsequent styles and movements. Classical works often serve as a foundation for future artistic endeavors, and their impact can be seen in the works of later artists and movements. For example, the works of the classical Greek playwrights, such as Sophocles and Euripides, continue to influence modern playwrights and theater productions. Similarly, the works of the classical composers, such as Bach and Beethoven, continue to inspire modern musicians and composers.

It is important to note that a work’s influence on subsequent styles and movements is not necessarily limited to the arts. Classical works can also have a broader impact on culture and society as a whole. For example, the principles outlined in the classical texts of ancient Greece and Rome continue to be studied and applied in fields such as politics, philosophy, and ethics.

Overall, the evolutionary factor is a critical component in determining what makes something “classical.” A work must have originated during a specific historical context and have had a lasting impact on subsequent styles and movements in order to be considered classical.

The Universality Factor

Global impact and appeal

The first factor that contributes to something being considered classical is its global impact and appeal. This means that the work in question has had a significant influence on people and cultures around the world. For example, Shakespeare’s plays are considered classical because they have been performed and studied across the globe for centuries, and continue to be relevant today.

Transcending cultural and linguistic barriers

Another important aspect of the universality factor is the ability of a work to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers. This means that a classical work can be appreciated and understood by people from different backgrounds, regardless of their language or cultural upbringing. For instance, the music of Beethoven is considered classical because it can be enjoyed by people from any culture, and its emotional power can be felt even without understanding the lyrics or the context in which it was written.


In addition to global impact and appeal, a work must also possess timelessness in order to be considered classical. This means that the work continues to resonate with people long after it was created, and its themes and messages remain relevant even as time passes. For example, the poetry of Emily Dickinson is considered classical because it explores universal themes such as love, death, and nature, and its language is so powerful that it continues to captivate readers even today.

Continuing relevance

Finally, a work must continue to be relevant in order to be considered classical. This means that it remains important and influential in the present day, and continues to inspire new works and interpretations. For example, the novel “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen is considered a classic because it continues to be adapted into new films and television shows, and its themes of love, marriage, and social status remain relevant today.

Examples of Classical Works and Artifacts

Key takeaway: Classical works are defined by their timelessness, evolutionary impact, and universality. Literature, music, architecture, and art have all been shaped by classical concepts and ideas, which continue to influence modern works. The classical canon remains relevant today, but it must be challenged to include the works of marginalized artists and to reevaluate the criteria used to determine which works are included in the canon.


Literature is one of the most significant forms of classical works that have stood the test of time. From the ancient texts of Greece and Rome to the timeless prose of William Shakespeare, literature has played a vital role in shaping our understanding of the world. In this section, we will explore some of the most significant examples of classical literature.

William Shakespeare’s Plays

William Shakespeare is arguably the most famous playwright in the English language. His plays, which include works such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth, have been performed for centuries and continue to be widely read and studied today. Shakespeare’s works are renowned for their complex characters, intricate plots, and poetic language.

One of the key features of Shakespeare’s plays is their use of blank verse. Blank verse is a form of poetry that consists of unrhymed iambic pentameter, which means that each line has five iambs (a type of metrical foot) and does not rhyme. This form of poetry was popular in the Elizabethan era, and Shakespeare used it to great effect in his plays.

Another notable feature of Shakespeare’s plays is their exploration of universal themes such as love, revenge, and power. These themes continue to resonate with audiences today, and the plays remain relevant to contemporary society.

Jane Austen’s Novels

Jane Austen is another literary giant whose works are considered classical. Her novels, which include Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion, are renowned for their sharp wit, complex characters, and insightful commentary on society.

Austen’s novels are set in the Regency period, a time of great social change in England. Her works explore the lives of women in a society that was heavily patriarchal, and she is particularly adept at depicting the intricacies of relationships between men and women.

One of the key features of Austen’s novels is their use of irony. Austen was a master of using irony to comment on the social norms of her time, and her works continue to be celebrated for their wit and intelligence.

In conclusion, literature is a vital form of classical work that has played a significant role in shaping our understanding of the world. From the timeless prose of William Shakespeare to the insightful commentary of Jane Austen, literature continues to be relevant and celebrated today.


Classical Music: A Definition

Classical music refers to a broad range of musical styles and forms that emerged in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. It encompasses various genres, including symphonies, concertos, sonatas, and operas, among others. Characterized by its complex harmonies, intricate melodies, and structured forms, classical music has had a profound impact on the development of Western art music.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphonies

Ludwig van Beethoven, a German composer and pianist, is considered one of the most influential classical composers. His nine symphonies, composed between 1800 and 1824, are among his most renowned works. These symphonies, ranging from the effervescent First Symphony to the somber and introspective Ninth Symphony, showcase Beethoven’s innovative use of harmony, rhythm, and form.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Operas

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, an Austrian composer, is another key figure in the classical music tradition. He composed over twenty operas, many of which are regarded as masterpieces of the genre. Works such as “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” and “The Magic Flute” exemplify Mozart’s ability to combine dramatic narrative, compelling characters, and intricate musical structures. These operas continue to be performed and celebrated worldwide for their timeless artistry and emotional depth.


Ancient Greek Temples

Ancient Greek temples are considered classical architectural marvels due to their intricate design and use of classical elements. These temples were built to honor the gods and were constructed using a variety of materials, including stone and marble. The most famous of these temples include the Parthenon in Athens and the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

Gothic Cathedrals

Gothic cathedrals, which emerged in Europe during the medieval period, are another example of classical architecture. These cathedrals are characterized by their pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and large stained glass windows. Gothic architecture was influenced by the Romanesque style, but also incorporated new technologies and engineering techniques that allowed for greater height and complexity in building design. Notable examples of Gothic cathedrals include Notre-Dame in Paris and Chartres Cathedral in France.


  • Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings
    • Mona Lisa: A painting that has become an icon of the Renaissance period, depicting a woman with a mysterious smile. The work’s subtle use of sfumato technique, combined with its striking composition, has made it one of the most recognizable paintings in the world.
    • The Last Supper: A large-scale fresco painting that depicts the moment when Jesus tells his apostles that one of them will betray him. The work is notable for its innovative use of perspective, as well as its dramatic and emotional depiction of the scene.
  • Michelangelo’s sculptures
    • David: A large marble sculpture of the biblical hero David, depicted before his battle with Goliath. The work is celebrated for its extraordinary attention to detail and its realistic portrayal of the human form.
    • The Pietà: A sculpture of Mary holding the body of Jesus after his crucifixion. The work is renowned for its emotional power and its technical mastery, particularly in the way that Michelangelo has captured the flow of drapery and the delicate features of the figures.

Classical Concepts and Ideas That Shaped the World


  • Aristotle’s Logic and Ethics
    • Syllogism: Aristotle’s famous method of deductive reasoning, which consists of drawing a conclusion based on two given premises.
    • Virtue Ethics: Aristotle’s ethical theory that focuses on the development of good character traits rather than adherence to rules or duties.
  • Plato’s Idealism and Theory of Forms
    • Idealism: Plato’s metaphysical theory that asserts the existence of an ideal world of eternal, unchanging Forms or Ideas, which is more real than the physical world.
    • Theory of Forms: Plato’s theory that objects in the physical world are mere shadows or imitations of their ideal counterparts in the world of Forms.
    • The Cave: Plato’s allegory used to illustrate the process of philosophical enlightenment, in which individuals are freed from their sensory illusions and attain knowledge of the Forms.


  • Isaac Newton’s laws of motion
    • Newton’s three laws of motion describe the relationship between an object’s motion and the forces acting upon it. These laws form the foundation of classical mechanics and are still used today to describe the motion of objects in the absence of friction and other non-gravitational forces.
    • The first law states that an object at rest will remain at rest, and an object in motion will continue moving in a straight line at a constant velocity unless acted upon by an external force.
    • The second law states that the acceleration of an object is directly proportional to the net force acting upon it and inversely proportional to its mass.
    • The third law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
  • Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution
    • Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection proposed that species evolve over time through a process of genetic variation and adaptation to their environment. This theory provided a scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth and has been supported by numerous observations and experiments since its introduction.
    • The theory states that individuals with advantageous traits are more likely to survive and reproduce, passing on those traits to their offspring. Over time, these advantageous traits become more common in the population, leading to the evolution of new species.
    • The concept of natural selection has been applied to numerous fields, including medicine, agriculture, and biotechnology, and has had a profound impact on our understanding of the natural world.

Politics and Governance

Politics and governance are central to the classical tradition, with seminal texts and documents shaping the way we think about government and the relationship between the state and the individual. Two such important documents are the U.S. Constitution and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

The U.S. Constitution

The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1787, is the oldest and one of the most influential constitutions in the world. It lays out the framework for the federal government of the United States, dividing power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The Constitution also establishes the system of checks and balances, ensuring that no one branch of government becomes too powerful. Furthermore, it enshrines individual rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, and the press, and the right to bear arms.

The Constitution has been amended several times to reflect the changing needs and values of American society. The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were added in 1791 to protect individual liberties. The Civil War and Reconstruction led to the addition of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which abolished slavery, granted citizenship to former slaves, and protected their right to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920, gave women the right to vote.

The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, adopted in 1789, was a central document of the French Revolution. It enshrined the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and it served as the basis for the French Constitution. The Declaration proclaimed that all men are born free and equal in rights, and it affirmed the right to life, liberty, and property. It also established the principle of popular sovereignty, declaring that all political power comes from the people.

The Declaration had a profound impact on French politics and culture, and it influenced the development of liberal and democratic movements around the world. Its emphasis on individual rights and the limits of government power helped to shape modern concepts of human rights and democracy. The Declaration remains an important document in the history of political thought, and its ideas continue to influence political discourse and practice today.

The Influence of Classical on Modern Works

Classical literature has had a profound impact on modern works, with many contemporary authors drawing inspiration from the literary techniques and themes of the past. In this section, we will explore the influence of classical literature on modern works of literature.

The Brontë sisters’ novels

The Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, were all influential writers of the 19th century, and their works are considered to be classics of English literature. Their novels, such as “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights,” were heavily influenced by the literary tradition of the time, with elements of Gothic romance and social commentary. However, the sisters also pushed the boundaries of the genre, using their works to explore themes of feminism, love, and identity.

James Joyce’s Ulysses

James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is a modernist novel that is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century. The novel is a complex exploration of the human condition, using a stream-of-consciousness narrative style and experimental literary techniques to delve into the inner thoughts and experiences of its characters. While Joyce was heavily influenced by the literary tradition of the past, he also sought to break away from it, creating a work that was both innovative and groundbreaking in its approach to storytelling.

Overall, the influence of classical literature on modern works of literature cannot be overstated. From the Brontë sisters’ exploration of feminism and identity to Joyce’s groundbreaking experimentation with narrative style, classical literature continues to inspire and influence contemporary authors to this day.

The influence of classical art on modern works is a complex and multifaceted subject that has been the focus of much academic and artistic discourse. Two examples of modern works that have been significantly influenced by classical art are Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” and Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits.

Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”

Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” is a painting that was created in response to the bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The painting is a powerful and poignant depiction of the horrors of war and has been widely regarded as one of the most significant works of art of the 20th century.

Classical art had a profound influence on Picasso’s work, particularly in the way that he used classical themes and motifs to convey his message. For example, the use of the classical figure of the suffering hero, as seen in the figure of the screaming man in the center of the painting, is a direct reference to classical works such as Michelangelo’s “David”. Additionally, the use of bold and contrasting colors, as well as the composition of the painting, draws on the techniques of classical painting.

Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portraits

Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits are another example of modern works that have been significantly influenced by classical art. Kahlo was heavily influenced by classical Mexican art, particularly the works of the great muralists Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco.

Kahlo’s self-portraits often incorporate classical themes and motifs, such as the use of symbolism and allegory, as well as the use of dramatic lighting and composition. Additionally, Kahlo’s use of vivid colors and bold brushstrokes draws on the techniques of classical painting.

Overall, the influence of classical art on modern works can be seen in a variety of ways, from the use of classical themes and motifs to the use of classical techniques and methods. The impact of classical art on modern works continues to be a subject of much academic and artistic debate, and its influence can be seen in the works of many contemporary artists today.

  • Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring
    • Stravinsky’s Revolutionary Style
      • Synthesizing Russian Folk Melodies with Modern Techniques
      • Experimentation with Rhythm and Orchestration
    • The Rite of Spring’s Influence on Modern Music
      • Breakdown of Traditional Musical Forms
      • Emphasis on Atonality and Dissonance
  • Arnold Schoenberg’s Atonality
    • Schoenberg’s Twelve-Tone Technique
      • Replacement of Traditional Tonality with Atonal Harmony
      • Emphasis on Individual Notes and Their Placement in a Compositional Framework
    • The Influence of Atonality on Modern Music
      • Expansion of Harmonic Language
      • Development of New Compositional Techniques

The Classical Canon and Its Relevance Today

The Canon’s Historical Significance

The canon of classical music is a collection of compositions that have been widely recognized and celebrated for their enduring artistic and cultural value. This canon has evolved over time, reflecting changes in taste, critical opinion, and cultural context.

Evolution of the canon

The canon of classical music has undergone several significant changes since its inception. In the early years, the canon was dominated by religious music, including choral works and masses composed by European composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. During the Romantic era, the canon expanded to include symphonies, concertos, and other instrumental works by composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert.

One of the most significant changes in the canon of classical music occurred in the early 20th century, with the rise of modernism. Composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky challenged traditional musical conventions, and their works were initially met with controversy and resistance. However, over time, these compositions became an integral part of the classical canon, paving the way for future generations of composers to push the boundaries of musical expression.

Preservation of the most enduring works

The canon of classical music serves an essential role in preserving the most enduring works of Western art music. It is a testament to the lasting power of these compositions, which continue to resonate with audiences today, more than 200 years after they were written.

The canon also helps to ensure that these works are not lost to history. Throughout the centuries, many compositions have been lost or forgotten, and without the canon, we would be deprived of some of the greatest works of art ever created. The canon provides a framework for music lovers, scholars, and performers to engage with these works and keep them alive for future generations.

Furthermore, the canon serves as a source of inspiration for contemporary composers. By studying the works of the classical canon, contemporary composers can gain a deeper understanding of the art of composition and find new ways to express themselves through music. The canon, therefore, is not a static entity but a living, breathing testament to the evolution of Western art music.

Contemporary Relevance

Classical works continue to hold significance in contemporary society as cultural touchstones. These timeless pieces serve as a foundation for understanding and appreciating art, literature, and music. Furthermore, the adaptations and reinterpretations of classical works demonstrate their enduring relevance in modern times.

  • Contemporary Relevance: Cultural Touchstones
    • The influence of classical works on contemporary culture is pervasive. These pieces have transcended their original contexts and become enduring symbols of artistic excellence. For instance, the plays of William Shakespeare have inspired countless adaptations and reinterpretations in film, television, and stage productions. Similarly, classical music continues to influence modern composers, who often draw from the works of Beethoven, Mozart, and other great composers for inspiration.
  • Contemporary Relevance: Adaptations and Reinterpretations
    • The enduring appeal of classical works has led to numerous adaptations and reinterpretations in contemporary culture. These creative endeavors often seek to update the themes and messages of classical works for modern audiences. For example, the classic novel “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen has been adapted into numerous films, television shows, and even modern-day retellings that explore the same themes of love, marriage, and social class in a contemporary context. Similarly, classical music has been reinterpreted in various forms, such as jazz and hip-hop, showcasing the versatility and timelessness of these works.

In conclusion, the contemporary relevance of classical works is evident in their continued influence on contemporary culture as cultural touchstones and their adaptation and reinterpretation in various forms of artistic expression.

Challenging the Canon

The classical canon, a collection of works considered to be of the highest quality and most representative of a particular tradition, has long been a subject of debate and critique. In recent years, there has been a growing movement to challenge the classical canon and reevaluate the works of marginalized artists. This has led to a greater focus on inclusivity and diversity in the arts, as well as a push for a more representative and inclusive approach to the study and appreciation of classical works.

One of the main arguments for challenging the classical canon is that it has traditionally been dominated by the works of white, male, and wealthy artists, leaving out the perspectives and experiences of marginalized communities. By reevaluating the works of these marginalized artists, we can gain a more complete and nuanced understanding of the classical tradition and its evolution over time.

Another argument for challenging the classical canon is that it can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and reinforce social hierarchies. For example, the works of certain composers and writers have been used to justify discriminatory practices and perpetuate negative stereotypes about certain groups of people. By reevaluating these works and placing them in their historical context, we can better understand their impact and how they have contributed to social injustice.

Challenging the classical canon also means taking a closer look at the criteria used to determine which works are included in the canon and which are not. This includes examining the biases and prejudices of those who have contributed to the canon’s development and questioning whether these biases continue to influence our understanding of classical works today.

In order to challenge the classical canon in a meaningful way, it is important to approach this task with an open mind and a willingness to question our own assumptions and biases. This requires a commitment to ongoing education and dialogue, as well as a recognition of the limitations and biases inherent in any canon.

Overall, challenging the classical canon is an important step towards creating a more inclusive and diverse arts culture. By reevaluating the works of marginalized artists and questioning the criteria used to determine which works are included in the canon, we can gain a more complete and nuanced understanding of the classical tradition and its evolution over time.


1. What is meant by the term “classical”?

The term “classical” can refer to a variety of things, but in common usage, it is often used to describe something that is considered to be of high quality, traditional, or enduring. In music, for example, classical music refers to a style of music that emerged in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, characterized by complex harmonies, formal structures, and orchestral performances.

2. Why is classical music called “classical”?

Classical music is called “classical” because it emerged during the “classical” period of Western history, which is typically defined as the period between the 18th and 19th centuries. This period was marked by a renewed interest in the artistic and cultural achievements of ancient Greece and Rome, and the music of this time reflected this influence. The term “classical” is also used to describe the formal and structured nature of this music, which contrasts with the more free-form and improvisational nature of earlier and later musical styles.

3. What are some examples of classical music?

Some examples of classical music include symphonies, concertos, sonatas, and operas. These works were composed by famous classical composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johann Sebastian Bach, among others.

4. What makes something “classical”?

There are several factors that can contribute to something being considered “classical”. One important factor is the date of creation, as classical music is typically defined as music that was composed during the 18th and 19th centuries. Additionally, classical music is often characterized by its formal structure, complex harmonies, and use of orchestral instruments. Finally, classical music is often associated with a sense of tradition and enduring value, and is often considered to be of high artistic quality.

5. Is classical music still relevant today?

Yes, classical music is still relevant today. While it may not be as popular as it was in the past, it continues to be performed and enjoyed by audiences around the world. Additionally, many contemporary composers draw inspiration from classical music, and it continues to be an important part of the musical canon.

What is Classical Music? A Quick Introduction to Classical Music

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