What Makes Something Classical?

What makes something classical? This is a question that has puzzled people for centuries. The term “classical” is often used to describe something that is timeless, elegant, and enduring. But what is it about certain works of art, literature, or music that gives them this quality? Is it their age, their popularity, or their cultural significance? In this article, we will explore the different factors that contribute to something being considered classical, and how this concept has evolved over time. From ancient Greek and Roman art to the classical music of Beethoven and Mozart, we will examine the elements that define the classical aesthetic and what makes it so enduring. So, join us as we delve into the world of classical art, literature, and music, and discover what makes these works timeless and enduring.

Quick Answer:
Classical refers to a style or period of art, music, literature, or architecture that is characterized by a particular set of principles, conventions, or rules. In general, classical works are considered to be timeless and enduring, and often reflect a sense of balance, harmony, and proportion. In music, classical music typically refers to the period from the late 18th century to the mid-19th century, characterized by composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin. In literature, classical works often refer to those written in ancient Greece or Rome, such as Homer’s “The Odyssey” or Virgil’s “Aeneid.” In architecture, classical buildings often feature columns, pediments, and other elements inspired by ancient Greek and Roman structures. Overall, what makes something classical is its adherence to a set of principles and conventions that reflect a particular historical period or cultural tradition.

Defining Classical

Criteria for Classical Works

When determining what makes something classical, several criteria can be used to evaluate a work’s status as a classic. These criteria include timeless appeal, enduring relevance, cultural significance, originality and innovation, and influence on subsequent works.

Timeless Appeal
A classical work transcends time and continues to be appreciated by generations. It possesses a quality that makes it ageless and relevant to people of all ages. Such works have a timeless quality that allows them to resonate with people from different eras and cultures.

Enduring Relevance
A classical work remains relevant long after its creation. It continues to inspire, influence, and provoke thought in people’s lives. It may address universal themes and human experiences that continue to resonate with people across different periods of history.

Cultural Significance
A classical work has significant cultural importance and represents a particular era or movement. It reflects the values, beliefs, and aesthetics of a particular culture or society. It may be considered a national treasure or symbol of cultural identity.

Originality and Innovation
A classical work is often characterized by its originality and innovation. It may introduce new techniques, styles, or ideas that revolutionize its respective field. It challenges conventional norms and expectations, and paves the way for new creative possibilities.

Influence on Subsequent Works
A classical work has a lasting impact on subsequent works of art, literature, music, or other creative endeavors. It may serve as a source of inspiration, influence, or reference for future artists and creators. Its influence may be seen in the works of many subsequent generations, and it may continue to shape the course of its respective art form.

Examples of Classical Works


  • William Shakespeare’s plays, such as “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Macbeth,” are considered classical works of literature due to their enduring influence on English language and literature.
  • Jane Austen’s novels, including “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility,” are also regarded as classical works, as they have withstood the test of time and continue to be widely read and studied.


  • Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies, particularly his “Symphony No. 9 in D minor,” are considered classical works that have had a profound impact on Western classical music.
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operas, such as “The Magic Flute” and “Don Giovanni,” are also recognized as classical works, as they represent a significant development in the genre of opera.


  • Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings, such as the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper,” are considered classical works of art that have had a lasting impact on the development of Western art.
  • Michelangelo’s sculptures, including the statue of David and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, are also regarded as classical works, as they exemplify the highest standards of artistic excellence.

Challenges in Defining Classical

Defining classical art is a complex and challenging task due to several factors. One of the main difficulties is the subjective nature of art. What one person considers to be classical may not be the same for another individual. This is because people have different tastes, preferences, and cultural backgrounds, which influence their perception of art.

Another challenge in defining classical art is the changing cultural values and perspectives. Art is often influenced by the cultural and historical context in which it was created. Therefore, what was considered classical at a particular time may not be viewed as such in a different context or era. For instance, what was once considered to be classical music may no longer be considered as such due to changes in musical styles and tastes.

Additionally, determining a fixed timeframe for what constitutes classical art is also challenging. Artistic movements and styles often evolve over time, and it can be difficult to determine when one period ends and another begins. For example, the Baroque period in art and music is generally considered to have ended around the 18th century, but some art historians argue that certain Baroque elements continued to be present in subsequent styles, making it difficult to definitively say when the period ended.

In conclusion, defining classical art is a complex task due to the subjective nature of art, changing cultural values and perspectives, and the difficulty in determining a fixed timeframe.

Elements of Classical Works

Key takeaway: Defining classical works is a complex task due to the subjective nature of art, changing cultural values and perspectives, and the difficulty in determining a fixed timeframe. Classical works are characterized by their timeless appeal, enduring relevance, cultural significance, originality and innovation, and influence on subsequent works. Examples of classical works include William Shakespeare’s plays, Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies, and Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings. Balance, harmony, coherence, simplicity, universality, and emotional resonance are key themes and meaning elements of classical works.

Form and Structure

Classical works of art, literature, and music are characterized by their form and structure. These elements contribute to the overall aesthetic experience and communicate the intended message or meaning. In this section, we will examine the key features of form and structure in classical works.

Balance and Harmony

Balance and harmony are essential components of classical form and structure. They refer to the equilibrium and unity achieved through the arrangement of elements within a work. In visual arts, balance can be achieved through the placement of objects, colors, or shapes. In literature, it is achieved through the distribution of themes, characters, and plotlines. In music, balance is achieved through the harmony of melodies, rhythms, and instruments.

A well-balanced classical work creates a sense of harmony, which allows the audience to experience a sense of order and coherence. This balance contributes to the overall aesthetic appeal and makes the work more accessible to a broader audience.

Coherence and Unity

Coherence and unity are crucial aspects of classical form and structure. They refer to the consistency and interrelatedness of the elements within a work. In visual arts, coherence is achieved through the use of a unified style, color palette, or composition. In literature, it is achieved through the development of a central theme or motif. In music, coherence is achieved through the use of recurring melodies, harmonies, or rhythms.

A coherent classical work creates a sense of unity, which allows the audience to follow the narrative or interpret the meaning of the work. This unity contributes to the overall impact and longevity of the work, as it allows the audience to engage with the work on a deeper level.

Clarity and Simplicity

Clarity and simplicity are important elements of classical form and structure. They refer to the accessibility and straightforwardness of a work. In visual arts, clarity is achieved through the use of clear lines, shapes, and colors. In literature, it is achieved through the use of simple language and concise sentences. In music, clarity is achieved through the use of clear melodies, harmonies, and rhythms.

A classical work with clarity and simplicity is more likely to be understood and appreciated by a wider audience. This accessibility contributes to the timeless appeal of classical works and allows them to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers.

In conclusion, the form and structure of classical works play a crucial role in their overall aesthetic appeal and impact. Balance, harmony, coherence, unity, clarity, and simplicity are the key features that contribute to the lasting significance of classical works across various art forms.

Style and Technique

When examining the elements that make something classical, one cannot overlook the importance of style and technique. These aspects play a crucial role in determining the enduring value and lasting impact of a work.

Attention to Detail

Attention to detail is a hallmark of classical works. This means that the creator of a classical work pays meticulous attention to every aspect of the work, from the smallest details to the grand design. This level of care and precision is evident in the craftsmanship of classical buildings, the composition of classical music, and the language of classical literature. The meticulous attention to detail in classical works is what sets them apart from more casual or hastily produced works.

Skill and Mastery

Another essential element of classical works is skill and mastery. The creators of classical works have honed their skills through years of study, practice, and dedication. This mastery is evident in the technical proficiency and artistic skill displayed in classical works. Whether it is the intricate fingerwork of a classical musician, the subtle brushstrokes of a classical painter, or the eloquent prose of a classical writer, the skill and mastery of the creator is plain to see.

Innovation and Creativity

Innovation and creativity are also essential elements of classical works. While classical works are often associated with tradition and conformity, they are also characterized by innovation and creativity. Classical artists and thinkers push the boundaries of their respective fields, introducing new ideas, techniques, and styles. They are not afraid to take risks and experiment, even if it means challenging established norms and conventions. This innovative spirit is what gives classical works their timeless quality and ensures that they continue to inspire and influence future generations.

Overall, the style and technique of classical works are what set them apart from other forms of art and culture. The meticulous attention to detail, mastery of skill, and innovative spirit are all essential elements that contribute to the enduring legacy of classical works.

Themes and Meaning

One of the defining characteristics of classical works is their themes and meaning. These elements are often deep and complex, reflecting universal human experiences and emotions.

Universality and human experience

Classical works often explore themes that are relevant to all human beings, regardless of their cultural or historical background. These themes may include love, death, power, justice, and the search for meaning and purpose in life. By addressing these universal themes, classical works have the power to resonate with audiences across time and space.

Depth and complexity

Another characteristic of classical themes is their depth and complexity. Classical works often explore these themes in a nuanced and multi-layered way, rather than presenting a simple or straightforward message. This complexity allows audiences to engage with the work on a deeper level and encourages them to reflect on their own experiences and beliefs.

Emotional resonance and impact

Finally, classical works often have a strong emotional impact on audiences. Whether it’s through the use of music, poetry, or drama, classical works have the power to evoke powerful emotions and stir the soul. This emotional resonance is often what makes classical works enduring and timeless, as they continue to speak to audiences across generations.

Examples of Classical Elements

  • Symbolism: The use of symbols to convey a deeper meaning or message beyond the literal meaning of the text. For example, the color white can symbolize purity, while the color black can symbolize death or mourning.
  • Foreshadowing: The hinting or suggestion of future events or developments in the story. This technique creates suspense and anticipation in the reader, as they are given a glimpse of what is to come.
  • Character development: The process of creating complex and well-rounded characters that undergo significant changes or growth throughout the story. This element helps to create a sense of depth and realism in the narrative.

  • Harmony: The combination of different pitches or notes to create a pleasing or interesting sound. Harmony can involve the use of chords, counterpoint, and other musical techniques to create a cohesive and balanced sound.

  • Melody: A sequence of single pitches or notes that create a pleasing or interesting sound. Melodies can be simple or complex, and can be played on a variety of instruments.
  • Rhythm: The pattern of beats or sounds that create a sense of movement or momentum in the music. Rhythm can involve the use of drums, percussion, or other instruments to create a consistent or varied beat.

  • Perspective: The way in which objects are depicted in a painting or drawing to create the illusion of depth or three-dimensional space. Perspective can involve the use of lines, shading, and other techniques to create a sense of distance or closeness.

  • Color: The use of different hues, shades, and tones to create a visually appealing and harmonious image. Color can be used to create mood, convey emotion, or draw attention to specific elements in the artwork.
  • Composition: The arrangement of visual elements in a painting or drawing to create a cohesive and balanced image. Composition can involve the use of contrast, symmetry, and other techniques to create a sense of balance and harmony.

The Evolution of Classical Works

Influence of Historical Context

  • Social, political, and economic factors
    • The role of patronage in the creation and preservation of classical works
    • The impact of social and political upheaval on the evolution of classical works
  • Intellectual and artistic movements
    • The influence of philosophy and religion on classical works
    • The role of classical works in shaping artistic movements
  • Technological advancements
    • The impact of technological advancements on the creation and dissemination of classical works
    • The role of technology in preserving classical works for future generations

Social, political, and economic factors played a significant role in the evolution of classical works. The role of patronage, for example, was crucial in the creation and preservation of many classical works. Patrons, often wealthy individuals or organizations, provided financial support to artists and musicians, enabling them to create and perform their works. In return, patrons expected to be associated with the works and their creators, often through dedications or other forms of recognition. This relationship between patrons and artists was instrumental in the creation and preservation of many classical works, particularly in the fields of music and visual arts.

Social and political upheaval also had a significant impact on the evolution of classical works. Wars, revolutions, and other major events often disrupted the creation and performance of classical works, forcing artists and musicians to flee or go into hiding. In some cases, classical works were destroyed or lost forever. However, these events also inspired new works, as artists and musicians responded to the challenges and turmoil of their times. For example, the French Revolution led to the creation of many new works that reflected the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Intellectual and artistic movements also played a significant role in the evolution of classical works. Philosophy and religion, for example, had a profound influence on the creation of many classical works. Religious texts and teachings inspired many works of literature, music, and art, particularly during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In addition, classical works often played a central role in shaping artistic movements. For example, the works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven inspired many later composers, including Brahms, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky.

Finally, technological advancements had a significant impact on the creation and dissemination of classical works. The invention of printing, for example, made it possible to mass-produce books and sheet music, allowing classical works to reach a wider audience. The development of recording technology, including the phonograph and audio tape, made it possible to record and preserve classical works in a variety of formats. In recent years, digital technology has revolutionized the way classical works are created, performed, and distributed, making it possible for artists and audiences to connect across the globe.

Adaptation and Reinterpretation

Adaptation and reinterpretation play a significant role in the evolution of classical works. This process involves taking an existing work and reimagining it in a new context, while still preserving the essence of the original piece. This can be done for various reasons, such as to appeal to modern audiences, to make the work more relevant to contemporary issues, or to simply to create a new interpretation of the work.

One of the key factors in adaptation and reinterpretation is the role of tradition and nostalgia. Classical works often have a rich history and cultural significance, and adapting them can be a way to pay homage to that tradition while also bringing the work to a new audience. For example, a contemporary ballet company may perform a modern interpretation of a classic ballet, using the original choreography but updating the costumes and music to appeal to a contemporary audience.

Another factor to consider is the contemporary relevance and appeal of the work. While classical works may have been relevant and popular in their time, they may not necessarily resonate with modern audiences. Adaptation and reinterpretation can help to make the work more relatable and appealing to contemporary audiences, while still preserving its original essence. For example, a modern opera company may update the setting and characters of an opera to make it more relevant to contemporary issues, while still preserving the original music and story.

Finally, adaptation and reinterpretation can also influence modern works. Classical works often serve as a source of inspiration for contemporary artists, and adapting and reinterpreting these works can help to spark new ideas and creativity. For example, a contemporary composer may take a classic piece of music and use it as a starting point for a new composition, creating a unique and original work that draws on the original while also moving in a new direction.

Overall, adaptation and reinterpretation play a crucial role in the evolution of classical works. By updating and modernizing these works, they can continue to be relevant and meaningful to contemporary audiences, while also inspiring new creativity and artistic expression.

Preservation and Conservation

  • The Importance of Preserving Classical Works
    Preserving classical works is essential for several reasons. Firstly, it helps to ensure that these works continue to exist for future generations to appreciate and study. Many classical works have been passed down through the ages, and they offer a unique insight into the cultural, social, and historical context of the time in which they were created. Preserving these works also ensures that they can continue to be studied and analyzed by scholars, which can provide valuable insights into the evolution of artistic and cultural expression.
  • Challenges in Maintaining Authenticity and Relevance
    One of the biggest challenges in preserving classical works is maintaining their authenticity and relevance. Many classical works have been copied and recreated over the years, which can make it difficult to determine the authenticity of a particular work. Additionally, as society evolves, some classical works may become less relevant to contemporary audiences, which can make it challenging to preserve their cultural significance.
  • Balancing Preservation with Innovation and Evolution
    Finding the right balance between preserving classical works and allowing them to evolve and adapt to contemporary audiences can be challenging. On one hand, preserving the original form of a classical work is important to maintain its authenticity and cultural significance. On the other hand, allowing classical works to evolve and adapt to contemporary audiences can help to ensure that they remain relevant and continue to be appreciated by new generations. This delicate balance requires careful consideration of the needs of both the preservationist and the contemporary audience.

Appreciating Classical Works

Engaging with Classical Works

Appreciating classical works requires an open mind and a willingness to engage with different forms of artistic expression. By approaching classical works with an open mind, one can appreciate the unique qualities that make them timeless and enduring. Here are some tips for engaging with classical works:

  • Approaching with an open mind: It is essential to approach classical works with an open mind and without preconceived notions. By doing so, one can appreciate the works on their own terms and avoid imposing modern sensibilities onto them.
  • Considering historical context and cultural significance: Classical works are often products of their time and place. Understanding the historical context and cultural significance of a work can provide insight into its meaning and relevance. For example, understanding the political and social climate of the time in which a piece of literature was written can shed light on its themes and messages.
  • Seeking personal connections and resonance: Engaging with classical works requires finding personal connections and resonance with them. By connecting with a work on a personal level, one can appreciate its artistic merit and significance. For example, a piece of music may evoke memories or emotions, making it more meaningful and enjoyable.

By following these tips, one can engage with classical works in a meaningful and rewarding way.

Benefits of Classical Works

Exposure to classical works can offer numerous benefits, including broadening perspectives and understanding, developing critical thinking and analysis, and enhancing appreciation for art and culture.

Broadening Perspectives and Understanding

Classical works, such as literature, music, and art, provide a unique lens through which to view the world. By engaging with these works, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of historical and cultural contexts, as well as broaden their perspectives on life and human experience.

Developing Critical Thinking and Analysis

Interpretation and analysis of classical works require the development of critical thinking skills. By engaging with these works, individuals can learn to scrutinize and evaluate different viewpoints, consider multiple interpretations, and make connections between seemingly disparate ideas.

Enhancing Appreciation for Art and Culture

Classical works represent some of the most enduring and influential creations in human history. By engaging with these works, individuals can develop a deeper appreciation for the artistic and cultural achievements of previous generations, as well as gain a greater understanding of the role that art and culture play in shaping human experience.

Encouraging Exploration and Discovery

  • Exposure to diverse works and genres: To appreciate classical works, it is crucial to expose oneself to a wide range of styles and genres. This allows individuals to develop a comprehensive understanding of the different forms that classical works can take, as well as to identify patterns and commonalities across various artistic movements.
  • Engaging with different mediums and formats: Classical works can be experienced through various mediums and formats, such as live performances, recordings, and written scores. Exploring these different formats can enhance one’s appreciation of classical works by providing different perspectives and experiences. For instance, listening to a recording of a classical piece can reveal nuances in the performance that may not be immediately apparent during a live performance.
  • Fostering curiosity and intellectual growth: Encouraging exploration and discovery of classical works requires an open-minded and curious approach. It is essential to actively engage with the works, asking questions, and seeking to understand the historical and cultural contexts in which they were created. This process of active engagement can lead to a deeper appreciation of the works and foster intellectual growth as one develops a more comprehensive understanding of the classical tradition.


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

The term “classical” is often used to describe something that is traditional, long-established, or of high quality. In the context of music, the term “classical” refers to a specific period in history, generally considered to be from the late 18th century to the mid-19th century, during which Western art music was composed and performed. This period is characterized by the use of complex forms, intricate melodies, and harmonies that were highly structured and often based on musical theory.

2. What are the characteristics of classical music?

Classical music is known for its complex forms, intricate melodies, and highly structured harmonies. It often features a variety of instruments, including the piano, violin, cello, and orchestral strings. Classical music is also known for its use of musical theory, such as counterpoint and harmony, to create intricate and complex musical structures. The music of the classical period is often characterized by its formalism, with pieces often following strict musical forms such as sonatas, symphonies, and concertos.

3. What are some famous composers from the classical period?

There are many famous composers from the classical period, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Joseph Haydn. These composers, along with others such as Chopin, Schubert, and Brahms, are known for their contributions to the development of classical music and their influential works that continue to be performed and enjoyed today.

4. How do you appreciate classical music?

Appreciating classical music can be a highly personal experience, and there is no one “right” way to do so. Some people enjoy listening to classical music while reading or studying, while others prefer to attend live performances. Attending a concert or recital can be a great way to appreciate the nuances of classical music, as well as to experience the energy and emotion of a live performance. It can also be helpful to learn a bit about the history and context of the music you are listening to, as this can provide insight into the composer’s intentions and the cultural context in which the music was created.

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