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A Brief History of Classical Music

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M. Beck has had an on again, off again love affair with writing for over 20 years. Music is one of his favorite topics.


What Is Classical Music?

Did you know that much of what people call "Classical Music" really isn't?

Technically speaking, classical music only refers to musical compositions from a specific period in history. This may seem nit-picky and academic, but knowing the boundaries of classical music can make it easier to find music you like when perusing your favorite music store.

Here's a brief overview of the different periods of music that typically fall into what people refer to as classical music.


Music in the Middle Ages (400-1400 A.D.)

Music in the Middle Ages was primarily religious in nature and chant-like. The technical term for this is monophonic, literally "single note." Monophonic music consists solely of the melody, with no accompaniment.

The most famous type of music from this era is the Gregorian Chant, named after Pope Gregory I (590-604). Gregorian chants are meditative and extremely relaxing.

Renaissance Music (1400-1600 A.D.)

Polyphony, two or more musical voices, became more popular during this time. Music was often written for specific instruments for accompaniment and to entertain nobility at ballroom dances.

The recorder, an early precursor to the flute and piccolo, and the Lute, an ancestor to the modern guitar, were two of the most popular instruments of the day.


Baroque Music (and Sometimes Rococo) (1600-1750 A.D.)

The word "Baroque" means extravagant or complex, especially ornamental. This was the age of wigs, decorative coats, and lace. The music of the time reflects these trends.

Simplicity was replaced by complex harmonic textures. Counterpoint, the use of two or three melodies played at the same time, and frequent harmonic changes became prominent. Polyphony was further enhanced to what is known as "Imitative Polyphony," which was typically a melodic line that would be picked up and echoed in turn by each instrument in the orchestra. This is known as a "round" when used in vocal arrangements. The children's song "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" is often sung in a round.

Dances continued to remain popular, but new forms of music such as toccatas and fugues, suites, preludes, themes, and variations also rose to prominence.

The new instrument on the scene was the keyboard. This era saw music written for such keyboard instruments as the harpsichord, clavichord, and organ, all of which were ancestors of the modern-day piano. Music was also written for oboe, flute, bassoon, and various horns. Recorders became less favorable, while violins, viola, and cellos became popular.

There is a transition period between the end of the Baroque era and the beginning of the classical Rococo period. This is mostly a matter of academic distinction, as much of the music is similar to the layperson.

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The major musical form to emerge from this period was the concerto. Concertos were written in contrasting sections called movements and usually featured a soloist. Perhaps the most famous example of a concerto from the baroque period is Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons.


The Classical Period (1750-1820 A.D.)

During the Classical period, "the masses" really began to partake in the musical experience with more and more public concerts and performances. As the general populace began paying for concerts, the composers were free to write more of what they wanted, as long as it appealed to the public. They no longer had to write what the nobility wanted to hear.

The cornerstone of Classical music composition was balance. The gaudy, overly ornate style favored in the Baroque age fell out of favor in the Classical period. This new style was reflected in the titles of the pieces of the day. Compositions no longer used flowery titles like "The Four Seasons." Instead, compositions had more matter-of-fact titles like "Piano Concerto No. 9."

New musical forms of this period included minuets, rondos, symphonies, and sonatas. Harmony continued to include polyphonic elements, though imitative polyphony had fallen out of favor. Harmony was predominantly a single-line melody with an accompaniment, and the use of cadences (a particular series of chords that signals the end of a musical phrase) was introduced.

The major innovation in instrumentation was the invention of the pianoforte, which literally means "soft-loud." Previous versions of keyboard instruments were not pressure-sensitive. For example, the sound produced by a harpsichord was the same whether you "tickled the ivories" or jumped up and down on them like Jerry Lee Lewis.

The style of Classical period compositions was also more dynamic, containing soft and loud passages in the same movement than earlier periods.


The Romantic Period (1820-1900 A.D.)

Where the Classical period was balanced and refined, the Romantic era was marked by expressive compositions. Poems were set to music, and musical themes were used to tell stories.

Conventions regarding proper length, number of movements, and instrumentation of a piece were abandoned in favor of more expressive and experimental aspects. This led to new forms like etudes, variations, and character pieces.

Chromatic harmony, a scale with 12 notes, and diminished, dominant, and sevenths became widely used. Rich textures and full chords were also popular. Rhythms became more complex and used syncopation. Melodies were songlike and much more expressive, often using varied phrase lengths, more dynamic volume, and tempos.

The Piano gained importance and was the subject of much of the compositions of this period, including nocturnes, impromptu, and etudes.


20th Century Classical Music (1900-)

The 20th century saw the relaxation of strict rules of musical form continue. Often, the only limit to 20th-century classical music was the composer's own imagination.

Composers experimented with forms in which the structure and content are left to chance. One such composition is only the sound of the audience gathered to hear the performance of a piece, only to realize they are the performers and their cough's, shuffles, etc.. is the "music."

The harmony of 20th-century music is characterized by increased dissonance and the use of chromatic, pentatonic, and modal scales.

Instrumentation has continued to evolve. Pianos are still used, but so are synthesizers and electronic keyboards.

Music from the 20th century and on is often characterized by being polyrhythmic (more than one rhythm) and having a strong sense of dissonance and a vague melody. This type of music tends to be atonal and unpredictable.


someone u dont no on September 03, 2014:

helped me study for a huge project!!! YAY I got good grades

JasonPLittleton on June 06, 2011:

I like you hub M. Beck.

John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on May 13, 2011:

Thank you for the history lesson. By the way, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9 is one of my favorites....

D. Davis on January 17, 2011:

Thanks for the input very helpful this is my first class for music appreciation and I'm listening to different types of music and I kind of enjoy it its quite relaxing. Again thanks for the input I just may stay in this class :*))))

Joyful Pamela from Pennsylvania, USA on July 09, 2010:

Wonderful information! I should send my students here to read about the different style periods. :-D

Haydee Anderson from Hermosa Beach on March 31, 2009:

thansk for the information. It certainly nice to know the history of something we enjoy.

GUEST on February 22, 2009:


Quite Nice on October 15, 2008:

Thanks!! very helpful! got my grade 8 flute exam today and have left aural to the last minute this has helped a lot!! :D

ink on December 07, 2007:

Can't believe mine's the only one. I've actually saved this page to disk because it's such a handy reference guide!

M. Beck (author) from Parts Unknown on December 04, 2007:

Thanks for being the trail blazer and leaving the 1st comment Ink! Glad you liked the hub.


ink on December 04, 2007:

Another great hub with no comments! Thanks I learnt quite a bit from this, and it's a good reference.

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