An Overview of Music History

Understanding classical music requires a working knowledge of the last 500-plus years of music history. It might sound overwhelming to become familiar with that much music, but it’s not as difficult as seems. Begin by keeping things simple and focusing on the general characteristics of a few significant historical eras. Then, as your listening repertoire increases, your knowledge of music history will begin to grow exponentially.

This page is designed to get you started. Take a look at my unadorned overview of music history, and then follow the links to hear examples of what music sounded like during each era. There’s obviously much more to know than what I’ve provided here, but I’ve given you enough to get started. The rest will come with a little research and a lot of listening.

Baroque Era, 1600-1750
The word “baroque” is derived from the Portuguese word
barroco, which refers to a misshapen pearl. Initially, the term “baroque” was used in the late 1700s and early 1800s as a derisive way to describe an earlier time when artistic styles were overly ornate. Today, the term is used to describe an era in which music and art were highly detailed or ornamental.

Developments in Music during the Baroque Era
  • Opera and Oratorio. Think of these genres as a combination of theater and music. Operas and oratorios provide continuous singing with instrumental accompaniment to dramatize a story.
  • Instrumental Music. Composers began creating music without singing, music performed by instruments only.
  • Musical Form. Composers developed ways of bringing order and structure to instrumental music. Musical “forms” provided listeners a way of understanding what was happening in a piece of music that provided no lyrics, a piece of purely instrumental music.
  • Polyphony. Music that featured two or more melodies played simultaneously (i.e., “polyphonically”) developed into a sound that became characteristic of the Baroque era.
  • Homophony. Music that contains a single melodic line played over a bass line and the harmonies implied by that bass line is described as “homophonic.” In other words, homophony is a melody with an accompaniment.
  • Tonal Harmony. Twelve major and minor keys and the “rules” for how those keys were used began replacing the musical modes of earlier music.
  • Nationalism. Musical styles that possessed a unique national style (primarily German or Italian) served as a characteristic of Barque era music.
Significant Composers of the Baroque Era

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Classical Era, 1730-1820
Classical era music was a product of the Enlightenment, a time when European philosophers began promoting ideas about the pursuit of happiness and a good quality of life in this world. During this era, music was viewed primarily as a form of entertainment, serving the emerging middle class as their principal leisure-time activity.

Developments in Music during the Classical Era
  • Melody. Good melodies became one of the most important elements of music, and homophony replaced Baroque era polyphony, making music more tuneful.
  • Pianoforte. As a replacement for the Baroque era harpsichord, the fortepiano provided musicians with keyboard instruments that could change dynamics.
  • Modern Orchestra. Orchestras began increasing in size, beginning a trend that continued into the twentieth century.
  • Sonata Form. Not to be confused with the “sonata” as a genre of music, sonata form was a way of creating tension and conflict in music through the use of two or more primary themes in different keys. The conflicting keys normally find resolution in the end.
  • Internationalism. National differences in music were downplayed in favor of creating a single musical language for all the nations of Europe.
  • Absolute Music. Composers generally avoided using instrumental music that represented ideas or stories beyond the music. In other words, music was “just” music and provided no meaning outside the music.
Significant Composers of the Classical Era

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1820)

Romantic Era, 1820-1910
The word “romantic” was used to describe the “storm and stress” that began appearing in literature, painting, and music in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The driving force of romanticism was emotionalism and the search for individual freedom. Music, like all art, was based on a belief that self-expression and originality should be the goal of the artist.

Developments in Music during the Romantic Era
  • Emotionalism. Music abandoned the rationality and balance of the Classical era and transformed into an art form designed to tug at the heartstrings of its listeners.
  • Evolution of the Classical Style. A general continuity in the language of music from 1770–1910 meant that the differences between the Classical and Romantic eras were less significant than the differences between the Classical and Baroque eras.
  • Historicism. A general romanticizing of the past led to a desire for the public performance of music that was composed during previous eras.
  • Program Music. Music became a means of telling a story, painting a picture, or expressing a philosophy of life through programs that described what pieces of music were about.
  • Nationalism. Composers rejected the internationalism of the Classical era and returned to creating music characterized by distinct national styles.
  • Composers as Icons. In an era that valued freedom and self-expression, composers become known for their individudal styles of composition.
  • Genius and Virtuosity. In an era that treated musicians as cultural icons, much value was placed on musical genius and virtuosity.
Significant Composers of the Romantic Era

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1839)
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840)
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Modern Era, 1900-1945
The beginning of the twentieth century not only gave the world dramatic changes in technology and science, it also gave the world a new generation of artists and musicians who wanted to break all barriers and reject the artistic traditions that had developed over several hundred years. As the composer Claude Debussy said, “The century of the airplane has a right to its own music.”

Developments in Music during the Modern Era
  • Rejection of the Past. Modernist composers attempted to break from the rules of the past, reflecting the general idea that technology and science had destroyed traditional beliefs and introduced dramatic changes in lifestyles and culture.
  • Atonality. Composers began abandoning the desire to create music centering a primary tone or key.
  • Polytonality. Composers created music that provided two or more different keys played simultaneously.
  • Polyrhythm. Composers created music that provided two or more different rhythms or meters played simultaneously.
  • Neo-Romanticism. Running parallel to so-called modernist noise was music that adhered to the Classical and Romantic style of composition.
Significant Composers of the Modern Era

Claude Debussy

Igor Stravinsky
Arnold Schoenberg
Jan Sibelius
Sergei Rachmaninoff
Maurice Ravel
Sergei Prokofiev
Dmitri Shostakovich
George Gershwin
Aaron Copland

Postmodern Era, 1945 to the Present
Postmodernism is characterized by the absence of a single unifying force in society. In the postmodernist age, composers create all types of music and no unifying theme can describe what has happened to music in the postmodernist age.

Developments in Music during the Postmodern Era
  • Quite simply, anything goes!
Significant Composers of the Postmodern Era
Although it’s difficult, if not impossible, to know what music from the Postmodernist era will survive into another age, I have provided a few links that should give you a sample of the diversity of the postmodern sound.

John Adams
Leonard Bernstein
Elliot Carter
John Corigliano
Phillip Glass
Henryk Górecki
Adam Khachaturian
György Ligeti
Olivier Messiaen
Arvo Pärt
John Tavener
Eric Whitacre
All links on this page connect to YouTube videos. For longer works I have linked, when possible, to a single movement or short section of the work. If any of the links are not working or the videos have been removed from YouTube, contact me via Twitter (@NMJim), and I will update the list.