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Development of Musical Form Throughout History

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  • 0:02 Changing Music
  • 0:47 Medieval and Renaissance Forms
  • 2:15 Baroque Music
  • 3:25 Classical and Romantic Music
  • 5:04 Modern Music
  • 6:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

If you think that classical music has always been classic, think again - it was really just one in a line of musical forms. Western music has evolved throughout history, starting with monastic chants and continuing through today's varied styles.

Changing Music Throughout Western Civilization

While we may sometimes think that the great classical pieces of Western music are timeless, they really aren't. After all, most of what we consider to be truly classical music has only been composed in the last 500 years or so. For anything else to be considered classic, besides a car, we have to go back to the actual Classical civilizations, the Greeks and the Romans. The reason for this is relatively simple - we as a culture only seriously began regarding music as something more elevated than a child's cartoons within the last thousand years. In this lesson, we'll take a look at the evolution of musical forms throughout the past millennium.

Medieval and Renaissance Forms

Despite the fact that we've only treated music as an elevated art form for the past 500 years, a great deal can be learned in how music was treated between 500 and 1,000 years ago. Traveling minstrels certainly influenced music, popularizing such instruments as the harp, the fiddle, the flute and many others. However, it is in the highest forms of the medieval and Renaissance periods that music reached its greatest heights. Heights is actually an appropriate word, as this music was meant to be performed in the massive Gothic Cathedrals that dotted the European landscape. For us today, there is certainly a strange beauty in Monastic Chants, but for the Europeans of hundreds of years ago, it was heavenly.

In the Renaissance, music made use of new instruments to continue the act of worship. Primary among these efforts was the musical mass, a principle act of worship in the Catholic faith. Traditionally, masses had only featured the voice of the celebrants. The pipe organ had been a staple instrument of some churches, and harpsichords and pianos began to be added. Now music was used to heighten the experience for the worshipers. With the invention and evolution of new instruments, people began to think of music as something that could also be played outside of the Church.

Baroque Music

During the Baroque period, this idea of music for the sake of beautiful music reached its height with the opera. Although the form had its roots in Renaissance music, as well as the earlier traveling shows of the minstrels, it was thoroughly a Baroque experience. The combination of dancing, singing, acting, and musical instruments was simply too grand of an expense to imagine before then.

Opera was not the only form of the Baroque period. Concertos and sonatas celebrated the abilities of the new instruments, as well as the characteristic style of the Baroque Period. Both of these celebrated the abilities of one instrument, but concertos featured an entire orchestra of strings, woodwinds, brass, harpsichord and sometimes voice, while sonatas instead relied only on one instrument with a piano to accompany. After all, the name 'Baroque' itself comes from the Portuguese word for a misshapen pearl. It was as if the whole period was music that was ornamented when it served no reason to be so, just like a misshapen gemstone.

Classical and Romantic Music

However, as the 18th century began, a new style of music emerged. More somber than the melodies of the Baroque period, this new period is referred to as simply the Classical period. The latter half of this period is often called the Romantic period and stretched until the end of the 19th century. Composers began to focus more on the story that music could tell, especially its ability to create an emotional response, and less on music for the sake of sound. Instruments were placed more in concert with each other rather than in competition - pianos and violins became prominent during this period.

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