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What is the Difference Between Classical and Instrumental Music?

Classical music is a genre steeped in tradition, often encompassing complex compositions from historical periods. Instrumental music, while it can include classical works, refers broadly to any music performed without vocals. Each note in classical pieces tells a story, while instrumental music can range from jazz improvisations to modern film scores. What emotions do these styles evoke for you?
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Gauging the difference between classical and instrumental music comes down to the definition of either form, and it can be difficult to state precisely. Classical music has several definitions. It can refer to the music of a specific area or country, such as classical Romanian music, or to a strict period of Western music production between 1750-1820 that was expressed with a range of different instruments, instrument arrangement, and vocal productions. Composers of the classical music period include Mozart and Beethoven.

Sometimes, people use "classical music" to refer to any music written prior to the early 20th century that might be performed by an orchestra or a symphonic band. Classical music could be operas, solos, and small arrangements for chamber orchestras, quartets, quintets or trios. In this case, the difference between classical and instrumental music is the instruments: electric guitars, synthesizers, or any instruments developed after the early 20th century would be examples of those capable of producing instrumental but not classical music.

Electric guitars are used for instrumentals, but not classical music.
Electric guitars are used for instrumentals, but not classical music.

When comparing the two, it can be helpful to look at instrumental music that is produced in the style of classical music but written after the 20th century. In this case, the difference is based on the era. Some modern film scores, for example, are instrumental music, evocative of the classical era. Here, the modern film's score may sound like classical music, but isn’t because it was written recently.

It may be difficult to discern between classical and instrumental music.
It may be difficult to discern between classical and instrumental music.

Instrumental music in strictest definition is music played on an instrument. Some people include the human voice as an instrument, but others do not, so only classical music without singing is instrumental. Even if voice is included in the definition of instrumental music, many modern bands still would not be classed as instrumental. Further, they wouldn’t be considered classical, especially if they played in different genres like rock or ska.

Classical music may refer to music from a particular area or time period.
Classical music may refer to music from a particular area or time period.

When instrumental means without vocal accompaniment, any music composed without vocals would be instrumental. In this case, the difference between classical and instrumental music comes down to fine details and how strict the definition is of either form. To some, all classical music, vocal or not, is instrumental. To others, instrumental music means without vocals, so only some classical music qualifies. To others there is no difference between them, since both genres are produced on instruments.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines classical music compared to instrumental music?

Beethoven is one of the most famous classical music composers.
Beethoven is one of the most famous classical music composers.

Classical music is a genre rooted in Western musical traditions, spanning from the 11th century to the present. It is characterized by structured compositions, often written by composers like Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, and typically performed by orchestras or chamber groups. Instrumental music, on the other hand, refers to any music performed without vocals, regardless of genre. This means that while all classical music can be instrumental, not all instrumental music is classical.

Can instrumental music belong to genres other than classical?

Instrumental music often incorporate electronic instruments, such as a keyboard synthesizer.
Instrumental music often incorporate electronic instruments, such as a keyboard synthesizer.

Yes, instrumental music encompasses all genres where instruments are used without vocal accompaniment. This includes jazz, rock, electronic, and world music, among others. For instance, the intricate guitar solos of rock or the synthesized beats of electronic dance music are both examples of instrumental music that fall outside the classical genre.

How does the complexity of classical music compare to other instrumental music?

Classical music is often noted for its complexity in terms of structure, harmony, and melody. Compositions frequently feature multiple movements with varying tempos and time signatures. In contrast, other instrumental music may follow simpler patterns and structures, focusing on groove, mood, or improvisation. However, complexity is subjective and can be found across all music genres, depending on the composer and the piece.

Are there any specific instruments unique to classical music?

While many instruments are shared across various music genres, certain instruments are more closely associated with classical music. These include the violin, viola, cello, double bass, harpsichord, and various woodwinds like the oboe and bassoon. However, these instruments can also appear in other genres, demonstrating their versatility.

How has the audience for classical music evolved over time?

The audience for classical music has evolved significantly over time. Historically, it was often associated with the aristocracy and performed in courts and churches. Today, classical music has broadened its reach and is enjoyed by diverse audiences worldwide. According to a report by Statista, as of 2018, 35% of adults in the United States had attended a classical concert within the past year, indicating its enduring appeal across different demographics.

For more detailed statistics and insights into the audience for classical music, you can visit the Statista website: https://www.statista.com/statistics/310746/share-adults-attended-classical-concert-last-year/.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent MusicalExpert contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent MusicalExpert contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

Wisedly33

"All classical music is instrumental"? Huh? Not in my book. While Handel's "Messiah" has instrumental parts, it's an oratorio -- or a piece primarily sung. You can make a better case for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, since only the last movement contains vocals. I know this because I was in choir in college and we did both pieces.

My sister is the real classical music nut, but I know from helping her with her papers in college that there are arias, recitatives, art songs, madrigals -- you name it, and classical music has vocal pieces that are certainly not instrumental. That's just kind of nutty.

Scrbblchick

Well, heck, jazz and rock music can be instrumental! There are a lot of modern jazz tracks that are instrumental, and rock and roll tracks, too. I remember this little novelty song from the early 70s called "Pop Corn." It was a big instrumental hit. Or "Feels So Good" by Chuck Mangione, or more recently, Kenny G's hits.

I define an instrumental as a piece of music with no words and few or no vocals. Bluegrass and country music are also famous for their instrumentals, like "The Orange Blossom Special," "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and "Last Date." Pop music had "Music Box Dancer." It's everywhere, and not just elevator music.

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    • Electric guitars are used for instrumentals, but not classical music.
      By: mekcar
      Electric guitars are used for instrumentals, but not classical music.
    • It may be difficult to discern between classical and instrumental music.
      By: db238
      It may be difficult to discern between classical and instrumental music.
    • Classical music may refer to music from a particular area or time period.
      By: kirvinic
      Classical music may refer to music from a particular area or time period.
    • Beethoven is one of the most famous classical music composers.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      Beethoven is one of the most famous classical music composers.
    • Instrumental music often incorporate electronic instruments, such as a keyboard synthesizer.
      By: nikkytok
      Instrumental music often incorporate electronic instruments, such as a keyboard synthesizer.