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What Is Art Music?

Art Music is a term that has been around for quite a while. Yet, if you were to ask someone what Art Music means, most people would probably answer that they don’t know. 

For most people, music is an art form. So, why would you have a genre of music called Art Music? Well, that’s the question that I’m going to answer. So, let’s get started.

What Is Art Music


What Is Art Music?

Art Music (sometimes also called classical music, cultivated music, serious music, and canonic music) generally refers to music that has a more complex phonoaesthetic architecture than popular music. 

These styles of Art Music are normally associated with tradition and have a set structure or form. The most popular example of Art music in the Western world would be Western Classical music.

A static definition of Art music is not as simple as it seems. Many musical traditions that are now viewed as Classical or Art Music, were once popular forms. Likewise, many of the popular traditions of today may be considered Classical or Art Music in the centuries to come.

Characteristics of Art Music

One of the widely agreed upon aspects of Art Music is that it requires a bit more from the listener. Generally, Art Music makes use of more complex and theoretical elements than popular or vernacular music. 

This means that the listener is often required to have a bit of musical training to appreciate the complexity of composition.

In contrast… 

Genres that belong to more popular musical families are “easy” to listen to. Often the beat and melody are simple but very catchy to get it stuck in the listener’s head. The tempo doesn’t change a lot, and neither does the key of a song.

Complexity is, however, not the cardinal requirement for something to be considered Art Music. If a genre or tradition can be seen as a “niche,” then it can also fall into the realm of Art Music.

These compositions aren’t necessarily very complex, but they have such a “niche” sound that they are likely to appeal only to a very small number of listeners. Examples could include Ambient and Minimalist Classical compositions from the 90s and early 2000s. 

Music is like a language… 

And, just like a language that you find unpleasant or don’t understand, a musical genre that you are unfamiliar with may not appeal to you. Many music traditions that fall under Art Music make use of elements and structures which are not familiar or obvious to the untrained ear.

These conventions, when compared with what a person might regularly listen to, will not sound appealing or even pleasant. Unless you understand why they are the way they are. If you can understand the language of Art Music, then it is more likely that you are going to find the sound pleasant, Or, at the very least, interesting.

Art Music vs. Pop Music

Art Music

Pop Music is built upon the concepts of catchiness, relatability, and predictability. Songs that fall under this banner are often simpler in their structure and don’t have a lot of key or tempo changes.

Pop Music often contains lyrics. Not everyone can hear a guitar riff or piano line and start playing along. But anyone can hear their favorite song on the radio and start singing along to it. 

However, this doesn’t mean that instrumental music can’t become popular. The success of EDM across the world has proven that.

A song is more likely to become popular if it has vocals… 

If the subject matter of those lyrics is highly relatable, then the song is even more popular. A song about partying with friends will be more relatable than a song about being a refugee in World War II.

When it comes to rhythm and melody, simplicity is often a convention of Pop Music. If a track has a predictable and steady beat, then the listener can get hooked on it. Likewise, a melody needs to be powerful but not so intricate that you are unable to follow along.

What Is Art Music? – A Worldwide Genre

The definition of Art Music becomes even more dynamic when you expand it to include global cultures. In terms of Western music, genres like Jazz and Blues were once considered popular but are now regarded as Art Music. 

All western classical music in all its periods, including modern film scores, also falls under Art Music. In other parts of the world, the scope can increase dramatically. Many Eastern traditions are part of the Art Music genre

These include Indian Hindustani Classical Music, Indonesian Gamelan Music, Traditional African Music, and many more. Some ethnic music types also fall under Art Music because they were eventually academically studied by music scholars. An example is Mariachi Music. 

Appreciating Art Music


Trying to do so without an understanding of the conventions and methods used might be hard for most people. Also, do not make the mistake of thinking that being trained in one style of art or music makes you capable of appreciating all of them. 

For example, a professor in Western Classical Music will have a hard time appreciating Indian Hindustani Music. Since the professor is used to music being arranged around the same twelve keys and tonal system, hearing music that breaks those conventions will be unappealing. 

In Indian music… 

The same major/minor key system applies, but there are some subtle differences. Firstly, Western Music is organized around harmony, whereas Indian Music is organized around the melody. Notes, therefore, have different relationships to one another depending on the context. 

Atypical examples can also be found in the western world. Some of the earliest composers of the 20th century used a modal method of organizing notes. This method was stomped out by the popular 12-tone system we use now. But, the music still exists in some forms, and it’s very hard to appreciate for the untrained. 

Do You Enjoy Learning About Musical Styles?

If so, take a look at our detailed articles on What is Indie MusicWhat is House MusicWhat Is DubstepWhat Is Music Without Lyrics Called, and Different Types of Rock Music for more interesting information about music.

Of course, you need to hear all the music. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, the Best Headphones for Music, the Most Comfortable Headphones, the Best Bass Earbuds, and the Best Sound Quality Earbuds you can buy in 2023.

What Is Art Music? – Final Thoughts

Art Music is something that asks a bit more of its listener. It is the kind of music that you need to put your drink down to listen to properly. Art Music doesn’t have to be something old, such as Beethoven. Modern examples include Olafur Arnalds and instrumental bands like the truly phenomenal Polyphia. 

If you are curious as to what makes Art Music special, you will likely have to do some learning. But that’s never a bad thing when it comes to being able to enjoy even more things than you were before.

Until next time, let the music play.

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About Corey Hoffman

Corey is a multi-instrumentalist who has played in numerous bands over the years, some good, some not so good. He has also written countless songs and recorded five albums in professional studios across America. Today he is a hobby musician but still loves the guitar after over 15 years of playing.

He considers his writing as a way to share what he has learned over the decades with younger generations ad always can't wait to get his hands on the latest gear.

He lives just outside New York with his wife Barbara and their two German Shepherds, Ziggy and Iggy.

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