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Western Classical Music History

Last updated on the 29th September, 2014



The timelines, genres, some characteristics and some information about each period are given here. Each era of music is unique and interesting in its own way and it will greatly benefit you in so many ways if you research the events of each period and listen to the music. This page just contains a few things you should know but there is a lot more and I would recommend for you to go deeper.

Musical Periods in Western Classical Music History


Medieval 500 – 1400

Renaissance 1400 – 1600

Baroque 1600 – 1760

Classical 1730 – 1820

Romantic 1815 – 1910


*** Modern 1890 – 1930

20th Century 1901 – 2000

*** Contemporary 1975 – present

21st Century 2001 – present



- 20th century refers to the years 1901 – 2000, which is also referred to as “The 90’s.” “The 80’s” etc.

- Hence: 20th Century and “The 90’s” “The 80’s” “The 70’s”, etc. are the same time period.




Medieval Era


Genres of the Medieval era:

- Estampie

- Gregorian Chant

- Motet

- Organum

- Saltarello

- Ars Nova


+ Medieval music was both sacred and secular.

(Religious music (also sacred music) is music performed or composed for religious use or through religious influence.)

(Secular music is non-religious music; secular means being separate from religion.)

+ Medieval era started off with mainly monophonic music (e.g. the Gregorian chant)

+ Later in the era, polyphony became associated with the genre of Ars Nova.

+ During the Medieval period the foundation was laid for the notational and theoretical practices that would shape western music into what it is today.

+ The earliest Medieval music did not have any kind of notational system. The tunes were primarily monophonic and transmitted by oral tradition.

+ The practice of polyphony shaped western music into the harmonically-dominated music that we know today.

+ Plainsong is monophonic, consisting of a single, unaccompanied melodic line. Its rhythm is generally freer than the metered rhythm of later Western music.

+ The music of the troubadours and trouvères was a vernacular tradition of monophonic secular song, probably accompanied by instruments, sung by professional, occasionally itinerant, musicians who were as skilled as poets as they were singers and instrumentalists.

+ Demarcating the end of the medieval era and the beginning of the Renaissance, with regard to the composition of music, is difficult.




Renaissance Era


Genres of the Renaissance Era (meaning Rebirth):

- Ballade

- Carol

- Chanson

- Galliard

- Intermedio

- Laude

- Madrigal

- Madrigal comedy

- Madrigale spirituale

- Mass

+ Cyclic mass

+ Parody mass

+ Paraphrase mass

+ Cantus firmus mass

- Motet


- Motet-chanson


- Opera

- Pavane

- Ricercar

- Tiento

- Toccata


+ The development of printing made distribution of music possible on a wide scale. This is very major point in the history of music.

+ Music, increasingly freed from medieval constraints, in range, rhythm, harmony, form, and notation, became a vehicle for personal expression.

+ Italy became the powerhouse of the Renaissance era

+ Secular music absorbed techniques from sacred music, and vice versa.

+ The main characteristics of Renaissance music are:

_ Music based on modes

_ Richer texture in four or more parts

_ Blending rather than contrasting strands in the musical texture

_ Harmony with a greater concern with the flow and progression of chords




Baroque Era


Genres of Baroque Music:

- Allemande

- Cantata

- Chaconne

- Concerto

- Concerto grosso

- Fugue

- Gavotte

- Gigue

- Mass

- Minuet


- Opera

+ Opera buffa

+ Opera seria

- Oratorio


- Partita

- Passacaglia

- Prelude

- Sarabande

- Sinfonia

- Sonata

+ Flute sonata

- Suite


+ The Baroque period saw the creation of tonality

+ Composers and performers used more elaborate musical ornamentation, made changes in musical notation, and developed new instrumental playing techniques.

+ Baroque music expanded the size, range, and complexity of instrumental performance

+ More widespread use of figured bass

+ New basso continuo technique of the Baroque




Classical Era


*** See below for the table of genres of music for both the classical era and romantic era

+ Polyphonic texture was no longer the main focus of music

+ More popular became the single melodic line with accompaniment, there was greater emphasis on notating that line for dynamics and phrasing

+ Forms such as the concerto and sonata were more heavily defined and given more specific rules

+ The symphony was created in this period

+ Classical music has a lighter, clearer texture than Baroque music and is less complex. It is mainly homophonic

+ Variety and contrast within a piece became more pronounced than before. Variety of keys, melodies, rhythms and dynamics along with frequent changes of mood and timbre were more commonplace in the Classical period than they had been in the Baroque

+ Melodies tended to be shorter than those of Baroque music, with clear-cut phrases and clearly marked cadences

+ The orchestra increased in size and range

+ The harpsichord was replaced by the piano

+ Importance was given to instrumental music

+ This era was the same time as classical antiquity which served as an inspiration or a way of thinking towards the music of this classical era




Romantic Era


*** See page 7 for the table of Genres of music for both the classical era and romantic era

+ Romantic music in particular dominated the Romantic Movement in Germany

+ Romanticism (also the Romantic era or the Romantic period) was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century

+ Often characteristics of romantic era music include:

- A freedom in composing. With a strong importance on expressing an emotion. Also fantasy, imagination and a sense of adventure were explored.

- Emphasis on lyrical melodies. Rich, often chromatic harmonies, with a use of discords.

- Sense of vagueness: especially in tonality or harmony, but also in rhythm and meter.

- Denser textures with bold dramatic contrasts, exploring a wider range of pitches, dynamics and tone-colours.

+ During the Romantic period, music often took on a much more nationalistic purpose (Nationalism)

+ The Industrial Revolution was in full effect by the late 18th century and early 19th century

+ Music was on the rise of the middle class




Genres of Classical Era and Romantic Era Music:


· Concerto

+ Cello concerto

+ Clarinet concerto

+ Concerto grosso

+ Double bass concerto

+ Flute concerto

+ Oboe concerto

+ Piano concerto

+ Trumpet concerto

+ Viola concerto

+ Violin concerto

· Opera

+ Ballad opera

+ Opera buffa

+ Opéra comique

+ Opera seria

+ Operetta

+ Overture

+ Singspiel

+ Zarzuela

+ Concert Aria

· Sonata

+ Piano sonata

+ Violin sonata

+ Viola sonata

+ Cello sonata

+ Flute sonata

+ Clarinet sonata

+ Bassoon sonata


· Bagatelle

· Ballet

· Carol

· Étude

· Impromptu

· Intermezzo

· Lied

· Mass

· Mazurka

· March (music)

· Nocturne

· Oratorio

· Polonaise

· Prelude

· Waltz

· Quartet

+ Piano quartet

+ String quartet

+ Oboe quartet

· Quintet

+ Piano quintet

+ String quintet

· Requiem


· Rhapsody

· Rondo

· Scherzo

· Serenade

· Sinfonia concertante

· Symphony






All the information above was research not only from the listing of sites below, but in interviews, academic experiences (lectures, discussions, etc.).

- Although there has been a lot of controversy of the accuracy of the information on Wikipedia, my usage of this site has been very cautious, researched, followed through and also as a guideline.







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