Breaking down the eras of Classical Music

in #music4 years ago (edited)

In the wider population of Steemit (and the larger world population in general!), there is this conception that associates Classical Music with the large symphonic orchestras and the wobbly opera singing that is a small part of what constitutes the field of Classical Music. So, when people say that they don't like Classical music, it really is a catch all term to dismiss nearly a millennium of historical music of widely varying styles! It would be as ludicrous as someone saying that they don't like Justin Bieber, and thus jumping to conclusion that they hate The Beatles, U2, Rancid, Nirvana, all types of Jazz, Dixie, rap and Bob Dillon!


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Part of this problem has been the use of the word "Classical" to denote all the "artistic" music (mostly from countries with a "Western European" background) from history. However, as any "Classical" musician will tell you, there are many eras of "Classical" music, of which the Classical era is only small section of the complete history.

So, in my own little way, in this overview post (I plan to do detailed era posts later), I hope to inform the Steemit universe of the different eras of music that make up the idea of "Classical" music. For clarity, from now I will be using the word "Classical" to refer only to the Classical era music, and historical music to refer to the broad sweep of music history (that is commonly referred to as Classical Music). Hope that was clear!

Anyway, I will focus on providing musical examples of each era along with some historical text and flavour. However, in a topic like this, it is much better to hear the differences rather than talk about them. I have tried to restrict myself to four examples from each broad era, obviously it is too few to convey the vast span and variety of these eras, but the detail will have to wait for my in-depth posts on each individual era.

So, a great deal of care needed to go into "curating" (Haha...) the best videos from YouTube, with the best performances of perhaps some of the most representative pieces in the historically informed styles of performance in each era.


  1. When to define an era change?
  2. Renaissance music (1400-1600)
  3. Baroque Music (1600-1750)
  4. Classical Music (1750-1820)
  5. Romantic Music (1780-1900)
  6. 20th Century Music (1900-present)
  7. Closing

When to define an era change?

The change of musical styles throughout time is a gradual process as each individual composer develops their own style and tastes of composition. In addition, ideas and various musical fashions sweep into favour with the public audience and then out of favour again. So, as with all types of social classifications, it is difficult to point to a single point in time where we can make the switch from one musical style to another. However, as a musician or a music lover, we do see the differences and can make the rough classification of one composer's music as one genre or another.

Or, to borrow a phrase that was originally applied to obscenity and pornography:

"I know it when I see it"

US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart

Music did not evolve in a vacuum and the changes of eras and the accompanying changes in musical style were a reflection of the prevailing ideas and philosophies of the contemporary population. It is possible to see the same influences in other art forms such as painting, sculpture and architecture.

Isn't all old music Classical?

Well, no. As the writer and curator for @classical-radio, I'm starting to realise that some people also consider Bee-gees and Elvis to be "Classical" Music. However, to answer the question, it is important to really separate out the differences in the history of Western historical music. Music had evolved a lot over the last four hundred years and so it doesn't make sense to lump everything under the single term "Classical" music, especially when the term "classical" refers to a specific era in the long swathe of musical history.

As an illustration of how much musical styles and fashions can change over a much shorter time frame (one hundred years), see this video below.

Renaissance Music (1400-1600)

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This era of the Renaissance is generally classified to cover the two centuries from 1400 through to 1600 and it generally accepted to end around the life of Monteverdi. It was the era that bridged the divide between the Middle Ages and the Baroque, and most notably it was the first time that written information about music (via the invention of the printing press around 1423) was more easily accessible to the contemporary population (and more importantly, to future generations of musicians and musicologists).

The music of this era was dominated by what was known as polyphony. This was the practice of have completely independent musical parts (voices) that would overlap and intertwine whilst creating a pleasing combination. This would be in stark contrast to later styles that employed homophony, where there was a single important line that was supported by the other voices.

This was also a time for great experimentation and exploration of both musical ideas in rhythm, harmony and notation as very little had been set down in the Middle Ages and earlier. It was the time when the primitive relations of what we consider to be our modern acoustic instruments were developed and also the time when the old church modal harmonies and scales began to give way to newer ideas of major and minor tonality.

Musical Examples of the Renaissance

Baroque Music (1600-1750)

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Let me start off this section by saying that I can't be objective about this era of music. This is the area of my specialisation, and needless to say, I chose it because it really is the moment in music that most speaks to my heart and mind!

The Baroque era was most associated with the idea of ornamentation and improvisation. If you look upon the art and architecture of the time, the basic structure was always elaborately ornamented and decorated. As music and all art forms imitated and influenced each other, the same ideas of ornamentation and elaboration upon a basic structure also was front and centre in the music from this time.

Widely held to have begun around the time of Monteverdi's "Orfeo" and to have finished around the time of the death of JS Bach, the Baroque era was one that was dominated by rival national traditions and tastes in music making. In addition, the rapid development of styles over time, makes it difficult to pin down a definitive style for the entire period. Much of the early Baroque differs quite wildly with music from High Baroque, and likewise, the Italian and French schools (and later the German) were completely contrasting in character and taste.

This was also the earliest era of professional musicians documenting their actual performance practices for widespread reading, and thus, we have much evidence (indirect, due to the ephemeral nature of music) about the techniques and tastes of the time. In this time, the person of the composer was the same as the performer, all musicians were expected to learn the practice of composition in addition to the practice of performance. Thus, there was a much greater understanding of musical harmony and structure in comparison to the specialised professions of later ages.

Improvisation was also a key characteristic of the age, in fact, the basso continuo served a similar purpose to the current day jazz rhythm/bass sections, a harmonic support that was almost wholly improvised. The upper melodic lines were expected to improvise according to taste (which was something that was defined by national style and the compositional affect), both small scale ornamentation (like divisions and trills) or large scale reworkings of a harmonic skeleton.

In the above excerpt, from Corelli's Opus 5 sonatas, the top line is an embellished version of the skeleton middle line. As you can see, it is incredibly ornate in comparison to the basis. The bottom line is the continuo line, with only a harmonic structure indicated by the figured bass (numbers), upon which the keyboardist was supposed to create a completely improvised right hand.

Another key idea of this period was the tying together of the ancient ideas of rhetoric and music. Music was considered an extension of language, and thus the ideas of rhetorical argument were considered appropriately applied to music as well. This idea of rhetoric in music was felt most strongly in the German school of music, however, it was still applicable to the other national schools of music as it was a prevailing idea at the time.

Musical Examples of the Baroque

Classical Music (1750-1820)

Wikimedia Commons

This is the "real" Classical Music, the era that musicians refer to when they talk about Classical Music. It was an era born from the reaction to the over excesses of the previous Baroque era of music. Featuring cleaner harmonies and lines, often having a single melodic line supported by harmonic accompanying voices, it is a much less complex sounding era of music than the example from the earlier Baroque age.

However, this simplicity has an elegance and beauty that can be a pleasure to the ears of the listener. Take for example this French country house that was designed and built in the 18th century, there is an a simple elegance in it's simplicity, no complex and ornate embellishments to distract from the smooth clean lines of it's basic structure.


Wikimedia Commons

Some of the greatest giants of historical music hail from this era of music. Household names like, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven have their compositions either firmly planted or straddling this era of musical style.

This era saw a greater consolidation of instruments, many instruments saw their demise in the decades leading up to this era (or during the era). Some of them, would not be heard again until the rise of the contemporary Early Music revival. Instruments such as the harpsichord, viola d'amore, viola d'gambas, recorders and sackbutts to name a few either completely fell out of favour or evolved into different instruments.

The instruments that did survive were forced to evolved with the changing demands of the composers, which required a much wider range of keys and a greater equality between different keys. The harpsichord gave way to the fortepiano, the wind instruments either developed a more complex finger key system (oboes and flutes) or evolved completely (clarinets from the Baroque chalumeau) and the string instruments developed stronger more consistent bows and internal/external structures.

A certain level of standardisation that carried through to the modern era was born in the Classical age. The structure of the orchestra, with the string section (1st/2nd/viola/cello/bass), winds (flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon), brass and percussion was formalised and has held mostly constant through to the present day. The development of the string quartet and the piano taking a foremost role in many chamber ensembles also developed in this era and continued to stay dominant.

Musical Examples of the Classical

Romantic Music (1780-1900)


Wikimedia Commons

The earlier eras of music were defined by the "lack of self" in the music. In the Baroque, the music and affects were considered the universal emotions, from religion or those that were the pure affects that were considered part of the natural order of things. The Classical, likewise was concerned with the events and emotions that were not tied to the composer/performer but were more looking in upon a story.

The Romantic era shifted this idea, and the music was concerned more with the personal emotions and reflections of the composer (and in part the performer). It was an age where music was considered as more of an "artistic" venture rather than the almost "craft" ideas from the Baroque.

The music ranged much further in to harmonies that were hinted at during the close of the previous Classical era, with composers like Beethoven, CPE Bach and Schubert straddling the genre divide. The fortepiano developed further into the more modern pianoforte with a greater power and brilliance available to a fully metal bound monster. New instruments were experimented with, such as the saxophone (which didn't stay) and a wide and larger percussion section (such as xylophones, celestas and non-timpani drums, which did continue).

In addition, the wind section evolved considerably to adapt to more adventurous harmonic demands of the composers, developing much more complex key mechanisms that carry through to the modern day instruments. They also started to standardise the concept of having much larger (like contrabassoon) and smaller (like piccolo) instruments as permanent members of the wind section.

It was also a period of size inflation for the orchestra. Baroque orchestras tended to be around 15 people at a maximum, Classical would be around 40 whilst a Romantic orchestra would begin to peak over 80 musicians. Needless to say, it was a time that a more central authority to co-ordinate the mass of musicians would be needed, and so sadly, it was an era that heralded the rise of the conductor.

Musical Examples of the Romantic

20th Century Music (1900-present)


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This is a particularly tricky period to encompass into a single overarching category. By the 20th century, the speed of communication and travel was many orders of magnitude easier and faster than previous centuries and was growing exponentially, thus, the dissemination of ideas and styles was progressing at a faster and faster pace. This can be seen quite dramatically in wide variety of music styles, ranging from 12-tone to neo-Classical through to avant-garde (otherwise known as squeaky gate music).

Another development was the retreat of Western historical music from the idea of entertainment for the masses, and it became the entertainment of the elite. Thus, other genres of music developed into the more popular forms of music that we have today. Another unexpected development of this introspection was the rise of interest in historical music in the first place. In previous eras, only the music that was freshly composed was being listened to, it was exceedingly rare for musicians to perform music of the past, and for audiences to demand it!

As the music and forms became more and more esoteric, it became the preserve of academics and elites, and lost traction with the wider public. However, the death knell of historical music has been sounded for well over a century, and it is still alive, if limping slightly...


Wikimedia Commons

It was also an era when the divide between performer and composer became larger and larger as each retreated into it's own specialisation. Thus, the desire for the composer to retain control of the performance of their works became more and more draconian. Greater amount of markings and an increasing amount of specialised symbolism to ensure that performers followed their compositional wishes.

If it wasn't apparent, it is not an era of music that I have great sympathy or attachment to. However, that said, there were many developments in the earlier parts of the 20th century that were quite phenomenal before the split with popular music.

History will show if our current situation is the beginning of the decline of historical music, or the necessary retreat before the phoenix-like renewal.


[Wikimedia Commons] ()

Musical Examples of the 20th Century


I hope this whirlwind tour of Western historical music was informative, and I hope it helps you understand why the term "Classical music" is slightly misleading and a bit annoying to "Classical" musicians. However, that is really a nit-picky point for music devotees, my primary point, is that when people say that they do not like Classical music, my response would be, which tiny little bit have you been exposed to, and why did you not like that!

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Hi @bengy,

Thank you for your high quality contribution to Steem's classical music community. I enjoyed reading it, and have bookmarked the link so I can work my way through the youtube embeds.

I know you already saw this, but for future readers' benefit, I wanted to leave a comment to note that your post has been shared by the Steemit's Best Classical Music Facebook page and included in our roundup issue, Steemit's Best Classical Music Roundup [Issue #34]. You and the other featured authors will receive a share of that post's rewards.

As a general music lover I found this article very interesting and informative.
Certainly, with all the technology and wide availability of digital storage at disposal today, I would really like to know which, if any, of the contemporary music will be listened to, or taken in consideration, in 500 years time.

Thanks for reading!

I also wonder how much and what music will survive through the centuries. What will be the representative artist? And style? Would it be based on the most record sales, the most popular?

Indeed.... Maybe in our next lives we'll find out.... ;p

Ha, I'm hoping to get a few centuries under my belt!

Omg wow! This is a lot! I like classical music but I haven't thought of the era and such. Haha.

Thanks, it is easy to forget that Western historical music covers over 400 years worth of music. Tastes and Styles changed dramatically and not every part of it will speak to everyone!

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Exceptional piece of work!! I do enjoy classical composers from all the eras, although, like you, I have my favorites. I know the purists rave about the talent and technical / mathematical precision of Bach and Mozart, but the Romantics do it for me. Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Sibelius, J. Strauss. To me their melodies are much richer and more appealing than that of the earlier composers. (To me, a lot of Bach's work especially is kind of jittery and nervous. Sacrilege I know.)

And by the time you get to the Impressionists ... OMG!! Ravel wrote some of the most sensual music on the planet! And Debussy ... he's just beyond words. (Like "impressionist" itself suggests!) Art that is different every time you hear it.

I'll have to brush up on my Baroque period composers, maybe, since you seem so taken with them -- to better get where you're coming from. I know a few, of course, but not all that many.

Just don't get into opera, ok? I mean the music is great. Srsly it is. Those howling voices ... not so much.

Sometimes, I feel that the impression that the wider audience has of some of the composers (such as Bach and Mozart) come via the older "traditional" performances of their works. There is a good deal of compositional talent behind both those composers, but Bach has the most emotionally moving music in some of his arias and cantatas, whilst Mozart is just full of devilish wit! The Early Music revival of these composers, with a conscious realisation of their intentions for performance goes a long way to taking these composers out of their stuffy boxes!

I understand about the Bach seeming jittery, there is often a lot going on, especially in the instrumental works, but some of the slow movements and the arias are divine! (Check the 2nd movement of the a minor violin concerto, if you get a good performance of it!)

Anyway, I'm considering putting up the occasional post of lesser known composers. It's always good to remind people that there are better things than Mozart, Beethoven and Bach!

I'm with you on the opera though, Romantic opera is really not my thing. Although, Baroque and Classical opera, performed in a stylistically appropriate manner (those howling voices are a 20th century development that is best forgotten...) are really quite amazing! Especially the French Baroque operas of Rameau!

Glad you enjoy the later Romantic and Impressionist composers! To tell the truth, it has been some time since I've heard much of that repertoire, as I'm a specialist in the earlier Baroque and Classical fields..... Maybe, it is time to rekindle my interest!

Totally agree, except I also adore Bach and Mozart too. I didn't even know any of Sibelius's music until a few weeks ago, when a friend gave me a ticket for a Sibelius concert that she couldn't attend. It was incredible.

Damn that was an ambitious post. I will reshare!

Thanks for resteem, it was a post that I started drafting a couple of weeks ago, and it slowly grew as I added more bits to it! I will probably do better detailed ones later, there was just too much to cover!

I know the drill. Hard to limit yourself when there is so much to tell and teach. I like your examples - Stockhausen was so much better than Pierre Boulez' serialism. That would have put people off, helicopters on the other hand!

Absolutely magnificent. Being a musician and somewhat a musicologist myself, I can definitely appreciate the explanations provided here; I took a music appreciation course in college, actually, and some of the examples you provided took me right back there; polyphony, for instance. If you want further back from the renaissance, Sister Hildegard of Bingin is a great place to start; somehow, some of her beautiful works remain. And don't forget the masses ...

Yes, her works are great! It was pretty hard to limit myself to only 4 choices to represent each period. I will need to do more detailed posts later!

Thanks, but what about the monochord? ;-)
I personally like going back further, to medieval music and plainchant, though, as you mention, I'm not sure how much of it was written down.
Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet made me smile; listened to it as a teenager - random selection from the local music library.

Further back is way beyond my area of expertise! But yes, we also run into the problem of lack of documentation. There is notation but no real clues on performance.

That is so helpful! Firstly to know that the correct term to encompass all of it is Historical music, and then to see how the different eras tie in together. I'm sure I would find examples I like from all eras, but from dipping in here I would currently say - I like Renaissance and Baroque best, and from then on like it less and less, till I wouldn't like much at all in 20th century historic music. @enchantedspirit mentioned the impressionists like Ravel and Debussy. Where would they fit in, because I think I might like them?

And I'm fascinated to know how opera ties in with all of this too. Voice really is my thing, and although I love some music that doesn't have voice, voice makes it better for me. The first one, with the gorgeous interplay of the voices, was what I liked best in the Renaissance section. I know I only like some opera, but have no idea which type! Maybe one day I'll have to give you a list of some arias I like and see what you think.

Thank you!

The Impressionists belong to the 20th century, but being only able to have 4 choices made it pretty hard to represent everyone! Definitely, they are in my preferred end of the more modern era. I will be going back and doing more detail in each era, this was a whirlwind overview that made it hard to pick out any details.

Opera is completely tired in with this. Although, again I have a preference for the earlier time periods. Monteverdi Orfeo is considered the first real opera. But the secular operas in that period are very very closely linked to the sacred oratorio and other forms.

In addition, there is still a conflict of performance style (the stereotypical screaming giant vibrato version of the Opera singer) that clouds what people think of opera.

As a child & teenager, I certainly thought Dad's opera was a bunch of ghastly caterwauling. But then later, I began to identify specific arias that I liked a lot. I don't have a massive playlist (yet) but have started looking and find I have things from all periods. I was listening to a couple by Handel last night - Dove Sei & Ombra Mai Fu - sung by Andreas Scholl. OMG, that man's voice is such an exquisite instrument.

wow great info and it kept me reading and looking at the videos. well done.

Reminded me of this video I saw the other day.

Thanks, glad you enjoyed it!

Omygosh there is so much here! Kudos to you for bringing musical knowledge to the platform. 💖

Haha, yes. I think next time I really need to keep in a bit more of a digestible chunk!

this was very informative! Also, it's nice how you explained the musical sheet part, otherwise I would not really have known where to look there. X3 But as I read where you pointed, I found it to be enlightening, kinda like "ooohh, he's right. so that's how it is." I actually kinda do like the classical music (by this post's definition), it is the earlier ones that I am not so familiar with. Overall, I really learned a lot from this post. :3

Thanks in happy you found it useful, and that you found some eras of earlier music that appeals to you! Some of those embellishments could quite crazy at times, and there is evidence that some people would find it too much at times, that the performer would just destroy the music and atmosphere in an attempt to add their mark!

This is a brilliant post. I love listening to "classical" music on the radio, and trying to work out what era music that I'm unfamiliar with comes from. It might be interesting to make an analogy with books. I tend to read non-fiction, and I only rarely read modern fiction. I think it's because a while ago I read quite a few modern fiction books that I just found a bit dull. However I do like reading "the classics". I think this is not just because I enjoy history, but because the best books are the ones that stay popular throughout the centuries. There were bad books in the old days too, but they've been forgotten about. The good books from the contemporary era will also have staying power - I'm just too lazy to trawl through all the dross!
I think the same can be said for "classical" music - the best stuff sticks around for hundreds of years and the rubbish is forgotten about.

I think I would take you up on that last point. Definitely there is a lot that survived that is great (and some trash), but a lot of the stuff that got forgotten is also potentially good and a victim of circumstance. Music scores were not as widespread as books and so wars (especially modern ones) took their toll on many libraries in Europe.

Also, partly it was due to the 'in the moment' nature of music. You can read a book several decades later, where as to hear a piece of music years later there is much more effort needed by a great number of people to have that chance, and if anything, the concert organisers (both historical and contemporary) were notoriously conservative in their programming. Also, the idea of listening to music from the past was only a recent phenomenon that only began from Mendelssohn.

You're right - some excellent material gets forgotten. Vivaldi was almost forgotten. I've always loved history, and I find that old music by artists like Palestrina can make you feel transported back in time. Although that fantastic music by Valente, whom I'd never heard of, sounded quite modern!
I find that classic novels can transport me to an earlier time and place too.

I guess people do think that Elton John and the Bee Gees wrote classical music. But it's supposed to be Classic Rock, lol. Shoot, some stations that claim Classic Rock will bust out Imagine Dragons. Classic these days just means cool or really good. :)

I do like your favorite choice of the times. One of my few learned pieces on piano is JS Bach Prelude in C Major. The progression of chords is nothing short of spectactular.

Ah yes, a classic piece that one! Harmony was king at that time!

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