Have you ever wondered about the difference between Baroque and Romantic music? And what about the “Classical” period? Isn’t it all classical music? Read on for the scoop on 1,200 years of western music!

Is It All “Classical Music?”

Though we often call all older western music “classical”, no one word can do justice to 1,200 years of musical evolution. Western musical history is actually divided into many different eras (or periods), only one of which is the Classical era. Categorizing music into these different periods helps distinguish the changing styles, trends, instrumentation and composers over the centuries.

Western classical music has a long history, going all the way back to days when musical notation was only a loose method of recording a melody. Like a story with no punctuation or a blueprint with no measurements, early manuscripts are missing many details regarding how the music would have sounded (no rhythms, for example). This leaves us with little knowledge of music prior to the Medieval era, when notation schemes became much more detailed.

So our exploration of western musical history starts with the Medieval era and ends with today’s music: the Modern era. Dates are approximate due to the great amount of overlap between periods.

The Medieval Era (800 to 1400 AD)

Music of the medieval times was primarily that of the church. Monophonic chanting of Latin religious texts was the predominant style of this time period. Monophonic means no harmonies are used–one note was sung at a time, without instrumental accompaniment. Gregorian chant, the sound most people associate with medieval music, emerged late in the period (between the 11th and 13th centuries).

Hear it: Traditional Gregorian chant “Dies Irae”

The Renaissance Era (1400 to 1600 AD)

byrdRenaissance music was still predominantly church music, though more sophisticated melodies and polyphony (harmonies with more than one note at a time) became common. The Renaissance was a period of explosive growth for the arts, and music was no exception. Different styles emerged, such as Madrigals (text and verse set to music) and various dance forms. Works of the time were still primarily choral, though composers did begin to write pieces with parts for multiple instruments.

Notable Renaissance composers include Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, John Taverner, Josquin des Prez and Giovanni Palestrina.

Hear it: Pavane–The Earl of Salisbury by William Byrd

The Baroque Era (1600 to 1750 AD)

bachThe Baroque era was primarily one of expansion: the scope of compositions changed from works for choirs and small ensembles to compositions for the newly emerged modern orchestra. The church’s influence continued to decline and secular works became common, leading to the creation of compositional forms like the concerto, opera and cantata. Like the paintings, sculptures and architecture of the day, baroque music was characterized by extravagant ornamentation added at the whim of the performers. Instrumentation became more varied, and the viol family of instruments was replaced with the modern violin, viola and cello.

Influential Baroque composers include Purcell, Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, JS Bach, Handel, Telemann and Vivaldi.

Hear it: Rondeau from Abdelazer by Henry Purcell

The Classical Era (1750 to 1820 AD)

mozartThe Classical era saw the invention of an instrument that would change music forever: the pianoforte (which we now know as the modern piano). Countless pieces were composed for solo piano, multiple pianos, piano and strings, orchestra with piano… Strict adherence to set musical structures dominated and defined the Classical era; the sonata was developed, and the symphony and string quartet forms were taken to new heights. Theme and variation (a musical theme stated and then developed) reached the peak of its popularity.

Classical era composers the history of music in this era include Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, Johann Christian Bach, Stamitz, Schubert and Boccherini.

Hear it: Overture from The Magic Flute by Mozart

The Romantic Era (1820 to 1910 AD)

The Romantic era was a period of rapid change for music. Composers began to abandon the traditional rules of music in order to express greater emotion and passion in their music. To support this greater intensity of expression, orchestras grew in size from about forty musicians to over 100. The accepted musical structures of earlier periods were adapted (or even abandoned), and free-form pieces like preludes, nocturnes and fantasias began to appear. Harmonies became more adventurous, using intervals and chords that would have been heard as dissonant and unpleasant in any previous era.

Chopin, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Brahms, Grieg, Dvorak, Schumann, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens, Mussorgsky and Debussy are some of the popular composers of the Romantic era.

Hear it: Voiles by Debussy

The Modern Era (1910 to present)

The Modern era is a time of experimentation and “anything goes” compositions. Composers commonly explore new realms of atonal, serial, experimental and minimalist music. Rhythms are manipulated, and instruments used in non-traditional ways (i.e. John Cage and “prepared piano”). Traditional rules of structure, harmony and instrumentation are embraced or ignored.

Well-known Modern composers include Strauss, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Bartok, Gershwin, Ravel, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Philip Glass. The Modern era also encompasses all film music and its composers.

Hear it: An American in Paris by Gershwin

Your Era

Western classical music is our heritage, representing the sum of all the ideas, emotions, passion, creativity, and work of millions of people across the centuries. But music isn’t static, and it’s not done growing and changing and evolving. Composers, performers, students–ordinary people like you and I–still have the ability to influence the course of music. Whether you choose to compose, adapt or play music already written, you can have an influence on the course of modern music.

How will you define your musical era?

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9 replies
  1. Esther_Meza
    Esther_Meza says:

    This history guide taught me that not all western music is classified as classical music. Many of the famous composers we know today are from different eras such as Chopin being in the Romantic era and Mozart and Beethoven being part of the classical era. This history guide also taught me that even in today’s era music is still changing and even I as a young violinist have the opportunity to be part of that change.

  2. Will
    Will says:

    Many people say they like classical music, but when I hear that, I wonder which era or eras they are referring to. Usually they mean they like music from the Baroque to the Romantic eras lumping them all together. I like playing music from the Baroque and Romantic eras most.

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