Periods of Classical Music

Classical music is broadly divided into 4 main periods:
  1. Baroque
  2. Classical
  3. Romantic
  4. Contemporary
Each composer is classified within one of these periods based on the time in which he lived and the characteristics of the music he composed. Music from each period has defining traits that can be used to differentiate periods from one another, but different pieces within a single period can vary immensely. The first 3 periods (Baroque, Classical, and Romantic) are classified under an overarching time called the Common Practice Period (1600 - 1900). Most of the classical music you are familiar with falls under this category. 

 J.S. Bach (Baroque)Beethoven (Classical)Tchaikovsky (Romantic) Shostakovich (Contemporary) 

  1. Baroque (1600 - 1750)
    • The Baroque period marked the beginning of what is commonly considered classical music. Music during this time developed from Renaissance music into the tonal music with which we are familiar today. 
    • Baroque music is primarily characterized by its polyphonic texture, meaning that the music contains 2 or more independent melodic voices. 
      • In particular, Baroque music is known for its use of the counterpoint. The counterpoint is a pretty complex musical idea, but in simpler terms, counterpoint uses different, independent musical lines that sound harmonious when played together. 
    • Characteristics of Baroque music include:
      • Polyphonic texture: multiple melodic lines in different voices
      • Unity of mood: each piece features a single emotion (i.e. a piece that begins happy will remain happy)
      • Continuity of rhythm: rhythmic patterns are often repeated throughout a piece
      • Repetition of melody: the melody is repeated; though it is distinct, it is not lyrical
      • Terraced dynamics: dynamics change suddenly rather than gradually
      • Ornamentation (music flourishes, often fast notes, to decorate the main note)
      • Less use of instrumental music; large use of the harpsichord
  2. Classical (1750 - 1830)
    • Music from the Classical period shifted away from the Baroque period's emphasis on polyphonic texture and more towards a single melody with accompaniment. This created music with less texture but with a more clearly defined melody.
    • Characteristics of Classical music include:
      • Single melody with accompaniment: one voice carries the primary melody while another voice plays a simpler line that supports the melody
      • Larger variety of keys, melodies, rhythms, and dynamics
      • More contrast in a piece
      • Shorter, clearer melodies than in Baroque music
      • More emphasis on instrumental music
      • Primary forms of composition: sonata, trio, string quartet, symphony, concerto
  3. Romantic (1830 - 1920)
    • Music from the Romantic period is characterized by its much greater passion and expression than that of earlier periods. Romantic works display an expansion of form (like the key and instrumentation of a piece). 
    • Characteristics of Romantic music include:
      • Freer form and more personal expression of emotion
      • Emphasis on lyrical melodies and themes
      • More modulation (change in key) to unexpected keys: the overall effect of this is that it is harder for the listener to predict what will happen next in the piece
      • More chromaticism and scales other than major/minor
      • Greater variety in pitch, dynamics, and rhythm
      • Less traditional chord progressions
      • Program music: more pieces inspired by literary/artistic sources
      • Greater emphasis on nationalism: many composers infused cultural songs or dances into their works
  4. Contemporary (1920 - present):
    • The most conspicuous differentiation between classical music in the Contemporary period and in previous periods is the shift in tone. Whereas music from the Common Practice Period was largely tonal, much Contemporary music is atonal. 
    • Contemporary classical music can be divided into:
      • 20th-century Contemporary Classical Music
        • Varies greatly, no dominant style
        • Increased use of dissonance
      • 21st-century Contemporary Classical Music:
        • Huge variety in style, which include minimalism, experimentalism
        • Contains a variety of influences, from world music to technology
        • Many classical composers have written for film scores