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Introduction to Classical Music


The body of works in the “classical music” genre is vast and spans many periods of musical development.  Classical music is generally thought to have began in the Middle Ages and evolved through the Baroque,




Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary Periods.  Composers produced great works in styles from fugues to sonatas to concerti, both establishing classical music itself as well as building a foundation for other genres such as jazz, rock, and pop.


Early Music


Classical music had its beginnings in the Middle Ages, from 450 to 1450 A.D.  Most composers and performers were monks and priests who wrote their music for the Catholic Church.  This music is generally referred to as Gregorian Chant, named after Pope Gregory I who was the first to develop a system of notation and write music down.  The early music style is characterized by open fifths and octaves, and simple and spiritual melodies.


During the Renaissance, from 1400-1600, music spread from the early styles and became more widely available to the masses.  The Renaissance was generally an exciting era, with Columbus and Sir Francis Drake exploring the world, Shakespeare writing plays, and art and religion experiencing a rebirth.  At the same time, music saw the introduction of harmony, four-part choirs, and secular and instrumental music.


Some good early music works to hear include:

-  A high quality recording for learning about Gregorian Chant is
Salve Regina: Gregorian Chant, an anthology of chants sung by the
Benedictine Monks of the Abbey of Saint-Maurice & Saint-Maur.

-  Some of the music by Frescobaldi is among the most famous early works, having a rich and exciting quality even more captivating for being produced with the early instruments and theory of the time.  A good recording of Frescobaldi’s works is Arias, Toccatas, and Canzoni.  It contains still relatively simple harmonies, but one can also hear Frescobaldi starting to move away from the parallel fifths and octaves of the early church music, and towards the more complex part-writing rules of the Baroque Period.


Baroque Period


From 1600-1750, the Baroque Period is often seen as the first of the four major periods in classical music history.  Much experimentation occurred and the rules of the early church music were broken.  Performers began to improvise during concerts and use ornamentation, or embellishments of melodies such as trills and turns.  Composers used more complex harmonies; dissonances, i.e. harsh sounding and contrasting notes; and dance rhythms.  Nevertheless, many of the great composers still wrote mainly for the church.  For example, Bach produced many of his masterpieces and chorales writing for the church each week, as did Vivaldi, Handel, and Telemann.


Another major event was Bartolomeo Cristofori’s invention of the piano in Italy in 1709.  Although few people initially took notice of the instrument, German instrument makers copied the idea and began selling to wealthy buyers.  The piano soon became one of the most popular and important solo instruments, prized for its ability to produce different levels of dynamics and provide all the notes or harmonies of an orchestra.


Some recommended works include:

-  One of the most famous Baroque works is Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.  Bach wrote this set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, one in each major and minor key, as a learning tool for students, as repertoire for advanced musicians, and to assist in tuning.  Glenn Gould's version of the WTC is one of the most respected recordings.

-  A representative and famous Baroque work is Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, each part a concerto for violin.


Classical Period


The Classical Period, from 1750-1825, saw a trend towards simpler melodies, harmonies, and forms.  Society generally had more leisure time and demand for music.  Composers began to write works for some of the first public concerts, rather than for dances or church events.  Furthermore, instrumental music began to take precedence over vocal music, with new instruments being added to the orchestra such as the woodwinds and fuller string sections.


Composers also established several new forms.  One was the Classical concerto, in which an orchestra provided accompaniment for an instrumental soloist.  Another was the symphony, involving the full orchestra playing together usually for three or four movements.  Franz Haydn became known as the “father of the symphony,” writing over 100 symphonies.  A third new form was the sonata, usually written for popular instruments of the time such as the piano.  Sonatas contained an exposition section, in which melodies and secondary themes were introduced; a development section, in which themes were changed and used to express the composer’s musical ideas; and a recapitulation section, restating the themes in the tonic key.


Great Classical works include:

-  More introduction will arrive shortly… (3/2/06)…





[Below is an older version (1999) of this introduction:]

Strictly speaking, classical music refers to music from the "Classical" Period (1750-1820).  However, many people use the term "classical music" to represent music from all four major periods--Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary.  This music is by many valued for usually having more complexity and depth than popular music, or just for the generally relaxing listening experience.

So what makes up a piece of classical music?  One description is that classical music is a medium for a composer to express different feels or moods.  Rhythm, melody, and harmony provide the basic components for musical expression.

The earliest classical music took form around 1600 A.D.  Before this time, most music consisted of religious chants written for four voices (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) singing in unison or parallel.  Around 1600 there was much religious upheaval, and composers such as Bach, Telemann, and Vivaldi rebelled against tradition, overthrowing the strict older laws of music writing.

They created dissonances, harmonies which clashed and made "impure" sounds.  They introduced suspensions, notes held over from opposing keys.  They even established rules against following the old conventions, not allowing writing in unison or in parallel.  This showed the beginning of the Baroque Period, from 1600-1750.

Baroque music had a very precise, controlled quality which made it easy to recognize.  It contained melodic themes which repeated themselves in different voices, and dance styles such as the minuet, march, and gigue.  Representative works include the pieces in Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, a collection of Preludes and Fugues in every key written to test a piano's tuning, and Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.

During the Classical Period (1750-1820), composers took even more liberties.  They turned from the two-voice style of the Baroque to a solo line with chords underneath.  Keyboardists began producing a much louder and more resonant sound after Cristofori's invention of the piano in 1709.

A midsized Austrian city called Vienna became the center of musical activity; and Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven all lived there.  Mozart was best known for his operas, Haydn for his symphonies, and Beethoven for his piano sonatas and symphonies.  Despite the innovation of the time, music of this period remained relatively simple.  It often sounded somewhat elegant and refined but was also very emotional.  A large number of current-day movie scores are simply not-so-clever copies of Haydn symphonies or other works.

Beethoven helped lead the way into the Romantic Period.  While going deaf, he began to write very passionate music with less emphasis on rigid structure.  This became a general characteristic of the Romantic Period (1820-1900).  Passionate works such as Liszt's virtuosic piano solo St. Francis of Paul Walking on the Waves and Mendelssohn's First Violin Concerto were written during this period.

For a few years around the turn of the century, the Impressionistic Period dominated music and art.  Most of this music was intended to conjure up images for the listener--Debussy wrote piano songs about sunken underwater castles and reflections in a pool of water. Ravel composed his famous symphonic work, Bolero, which evoked dance scenes using only one rhythmic theme.

Composers created these scenes using colorful harmonies and scales.  The tempos of most pieces were marked "rubato," meaning free-flowing--the idea was to produce a certain atmosphere.  The Impressionistic Period lasted for only short time, and the Contemporary Period (1900-Present) soon began.

In Contemporary music the rule was often "anything goes"; traditional structure, form, and harmony were nearly forgotten.  Many of the traditional forms were  used as foundation for study, but then discarded for new experimental types of music.  Composers incorporated all styles of music, such as classical patterns, jazz lines, and romantic melodies.  They also created new musical idioms, including Schoenberg's 12-tone system and John Cage's use of nuts, screws, and other objects to alter the sounds of piano strings.




For more on music history, check out the comprehensive reference text, A History of Western Music, by Donald Grout and Claude Palisca.


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