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Classical Music Throughout History

Music is ancient. It has been around for thousands of years with one of the oldest documented instruments being traced back to 40,000 years ago! We can go on and on when it comes to the history and origins of music, but it’s such a large period of time to go over. So for now, we’re going to put a pin in that topic and instead take a quick summarized look at classical music through the ages!

We all know that classical music is still being performed today and has definitely evolved a lot over the millennia. You can trace classical European music traditions as far back as the Middle Ages but one of the defining characteristics of western classical music is the use of formal musical notation. This helps to distinguish classical music from other genres such as folk music, which was often passed on from people to people rather than being written down.

As classical music changed and developed over the years, decades, and centuries, we can split classical music into different periods, or eras, each with their own distinctive sounds, features, and key composers. Let’s take a look!

The Medieval Period (500-1400 AD)

By far the longest era of classical music, the Medieval music era stretches from about 500 AD to 1400 AD, a span of about 900 years! Since music was starting to be notated for the first time, this allowed musical pieces to spread much more easily. Notable instruments during this time included the flute, the recorder, and plucked string instruments, like the lute, as well as early versions of the organ and fiddle.

Religion played a huge role during this period, so most notated manuscripts came from the church or places connected to it. Pieces were monophonic (a single, unaccompanied melodic line) with no accompanying harmony parts or instrumental accompaniment. One great example would be Gregorian chant, or plainsong, which was sung by monks during Mass in the Catholic Church.

Though the monophonic style was a staple in the Medieval period, it’s important to note that polyphonic music (which has two or more simultaneous independent melodic parts) started to develop in the later half of the Medieval period paving way towards the grander Renaissance style that was to come.

Though a large portion of the music written in this era is not attributed to any author, John Dunstable, Adam de la Halle, Phillippe de Vitry, Guillaume de Machaut, and Francesco Landini were all notable composers in this period.

Take a look at this example of a Gregorian chant, "Invitatorium: Deum Verum" composed by Etienne de Liege.

The Renaissance Period (1400-1600 AD)

From 1400-1600, the Renaissance Era saw music become more expressive and complex with harmony and polyphony being incorporated more and more into music! Religious music continued to flourish, but secular music increased in popularity, as composers were allowed to write more creative music, and the invention of the printing press allowed for more widespread distribution of music.

With technological advancements in instrument making, ensembles had access to larger ranges and increased textural variety, and as harmony became more rich, the sound started to turn closer to the kind of functional tonality that we use today! Here are some notable instruments that started to come into play:

  • Early brass instruments: slide trumpet, cornet, valveless trumpet, sackbut.

  • Adapted string instruments: viol, rebec, lyre, lute, guitar.

  • The harpsichord (a precursor to the modern day piano).

  • Small percussion instruments: triangle, tambourine, bells, small drums.

  • Early woodwind instruments: reed pipe, bagpipe, transverse flute, recorder.

As for the important composers of this time, many of whom focused upon choral music, this list includes William Byrd, John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and Thomas Tallis.

Let’s take a moment to listen to “Spem in Alium”, a famous choral piece still sung today by composer Thomas Tallis!

The Baroque Period (1600-1750 AD)

Expanding upon the end of the Renaissance period, the Baroque period’s most distinctive feature is the use of dense polyphony allowing for complex pieces and intricate harmonies.

The idea of the modern orchestra was born, along with opera, the concerto, sonata, and cantata, laying the groundwork for the next 300 years of music. Choral music was no longer the top dog. As “Classical” music gradually began to work its way into society, composers turned to compose instrumental works for various ensembles.

  • Many new instruments emerged, such as the oboe, bassoon, cello, contrabass, and fortepiano (which was yet another step towards the modern day piano, as unlike the harpsichord, it could now play loud (forte) and soft (piano) instead of just one dynamic!).

  • The string family of the Renaissance was replaced with stronger sounds from the violin, viola, and cello.

  • The invention of the harpsichord flourished, and all existing woodwind and brass instruments were improved upon.

  • The Baroque period also introduced stronger percussion with instruments like the timpani, snare drum, tambourine, and castanets.

Composers such as Antonio Vivaldi, Geroge Friedrich Handel, Henry Purcell and Arcangelo Corelli began to experiment with larger ensembles, giving rise to what we would call the orchestra.

A great example of baroque music is “The Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565” by Johann Sebastian Bach, let’s take a look!

The Classical Period (1730-1820 AD)

The term “Classical Music” has two meanings. The word “Classical” (capitalized) refers to this specific era (1730-1820), while “classical” (non-capitalized) refers to the whole western art music tradition.

The Classical period expanded upon the Baroque period, introducing the heavily influential new song form: the sonata. Melody was the trend with simple, elegant tunes and highly elegant tunes organized in neat, balanced phrases, in contrast to the complexity of the previous era.

  • This period also saw the development of the concerto, symphony, trio, and quartet.

  • The harpsichord was officially replaced with the piano (or fortepiano).

  • Orchestras increased in size, range, and power, and instrumentation overall had a lighter, more evident texture.

Notable composers from the Classical period include musical giants Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Let’s take a listen to one of the most well known pieces by Mozart himself, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, I. Allegro”!

The Romantic Period (1800-1910 AD)

Following on from Beethoven’s and Schubert’s developments, the gap was bridged between the Classical and Romantic periods. As the period developed, composers freed themselves from the restrictive conventions of the Classical era, adding a grand sense of scale with much more drama and emotion!

Instrumentation became even more prominent, with more and more orchestras coming into play. Many composers experimented in new ways, trying out unique instrumentation combinations and reaching new lengths in harmony. Public concerts and operas were no longer exclusive to royalty and the rich as doors were opened to the urban middle-class society for all to enjoy as well.

  • The modern piano, with a more powerful, sustained tone and a wider range took over from the more delicate-sounding fortepiano.

  • The size of the orchestra (typically containing around 40 musicians in the Classical era) grew to hold over 100 musicians.

  • New woodwind instruments were added, such as the contrabassoon, bass clarinet and piccolo, and new percussion instruments were added including xylophones, snare drums, celestas (a bell-like keyboard instrument), bells, triangles, large orchestral harps, and even wind machines for sound effects.

  • Saxophones appear in some scores from the late 19th century onwards, usually featured as a solo instrument rather than as an integral part of the orchestra.

Prominent composers of this period include Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Frédéric Chopin, Hector Berlioz, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt, Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, Alexander Scriabin, Nikolai Medtner, Edvard Grieg, and Johann Strauss II. Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss are commonly regarded as transitional composers who bridged the gap between late romantic and early modernist elements.

Let’s take a look at a world-renowned piece that I’m sure we have all heard or even seen called “Swan Lake Suite Op. 20” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky!

The 20th Century Classical and Modern Periods (1900-Present)

Each era of classical music up until the 20th and 21st centuries usually had a general set of guidelines and characteristics that most composers would follow. But as time progressed, composers have moved further and further away from rules and restrictions into what is ultimately now a place of complete free reign. No longer are there any limits to classical music, it is a playground full of experimentation. Although classical music may not be as popular today as it was in the 1800s, it certainly has not disappeared and continues to evolve with each passing day.

Prolific composers in this period include Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Gustav Holst, Arnold Schoenberg, and many more.

Possibly one of the most famous classical pieces of music composed during this time is “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy. However, let’s take a look at something that was composed within the last decade. Here’s “On the Nature of Daylight (Entropy)” by Max Richter!


We did it! We’ve covered all the periods of classical music, albeit grossly summarized as each period could really be covered by its own blog! Classical music has truly come a long way, especially with the countless amount of composers contributing to making it what it is today. I would say that if there is anything we learned from what we’ve read today is that classical music is one thing: timeless.

We will always look back to the beginning from time to time and remember the beautiful music so many people poured their hearts into. We can only be grateful for their hard work and for the wonder they gave us through music. At the end of the day, it’s up to us to continue to carry on the art - you are all a vital part of the next generation of musicians that will go on to influence all of the future eras of classical music, so keep up the good work!


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