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Music is a universal language; music is a parallel world, existing outside time. Both these statements contain an element of truth, but both overlook the fact that the ordering of sounds - which is what music is - comes in such varied forms that some are literally incomprehensible to listeners from other cultures.

The language of Western classical music has only existed for four centuries. The major and minor scales on which it is based emerged from the varied modes that dominated European music from AD 400 onward; those had in turn evolved from scales used by the ancient Greeks. From the time of Monteverdi - classical music's Shakespeare - to Debussy three centuries later, this language remained essentially unchanged.

But this is also the language used by jazz and rock (the debased folk music of Western capitalism). So what's the difference? In classical music, the composer dictates every single note. But its "forbidding" image is ludicrously wide of the mark: there's more wit in Beethoven's bagatelles, and more steamy sex in Mozart's arias than in anything from the "popular" end of the spectrum. And as Classic FM is demonstrating, classical music is extremely popular.

The classical tradition is a glorious relay, with divine inspiration as the baton. Each innovator provides a new baseline for those who come after: the game resounds with the acknowledgment of debts. Initially it resided in courts (Monteverdi), churches (Bach), and theatres (Handel): it was primarily a vocal affair.

The great emancipation - the instrumental leap into abstraction - came with Haydn and Mozart, who hammered sonata-form into a weapon which has been in constant use ever since. Their sonatas had three movements, while their quartets and symphonies had four, but the pattern didn't vary much: an agenda-setting first movement, a slow lyrical one, a quirky one, and a liberating finale. Beethoven - who reluctantly studied under Haydn, and devotedly played Mozart - was the third deity in this phase, but with his personal bid for creative freedom he staked out a route for all who were to follow.

He was the first composer to make himself the hero of his works, and the first to write for posterity: he was music's first revolutionary. This latter trait is best perceived not in the symphonies - on the performance of which there should, please God, be a 50-year moratorium - but in the perennially astonishing sonatas and quartets. Schubert, who worshipped Beethoven from afar, carried on the heroic torch, but he also lit a torch for full-blown Romanticism. When he in turn died, Schumann - who only knew him through his works - wept all night. This apostolic succession was a very conscious affair.

Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Liszt were contemporaries, friends, and rivals; with the exception of Mendelssohn (a sweet mediocrity) they each had immense influence on the course of classical music. Chopin, whose unexpected hero was Bach, showed what sublimity could be achieved in miniature genres; Schumann, working on a similar scale, created undreamed-of palettes of tone-colour. Liszt was a fine composer and a generous man, but his main legacy was regrettable: the cult of the virtuoso.

Romanticism reached its twin peaks with Brahms and Tchaikovsky. When it ran out of steam, attention shifted to the musical language itself. Early Romantic composition had been closely allied with developments in poetry: Debussy's tonal experiments drew inspiration from both poetry and painting, and paved the way for the more overt tonal revolutions which have happened since. Stravinsky railed against "the superannuated system of classical tonality", but his works paid oblique homage to it. Schoenberg blew it apart and replaced it with serialism, a system in which all 12 notes of the semitone scale are accorded equal importance. Maybe this had to happen, but something died all the same: instinct was ousted by intellect. The Schoenberg school was succeeded in the Sixties by the Boulez coterie which, urged on by doctrinaire critics, took "new music" into the avant-garde ghetto from which it is now painfully emerging. Tonality is "back" - though for this century's best composers it never went away.

Classical music speaks more powerfully, and to a much broader social spectrum, than parochial arts such as painting and theatre; pace current jeremiads, concert culture is in rude health. All one can predict with certainty is that - thanks to the star circus, the record industry, and the Internet - it will become ever more international. And it will continue to legitimise the tackier products of Hollywood. Shut your eyes - no great hardship - in Independence Day and listen to the soundtrack: you'll hear the ghosts of Elgar, Dvorak and Bruckner dismally rattling their chains.

Monday: DNA