Characteristics of Romantic Era Music: Emotion & Dynamic Contrast

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

Music in the Romantic era used several techniques to evoke an intense emotional response from its audience. Explore the characteristics of Romantic music, and discover how composers used emotion and dynamic contrast to maximum effect. Updated: 10/13/2021

Music in the Romantic Era

Music of the 19th century, a period of time also called the Romantic era, was remarkably different from the music that preceded it. The Romantic era was all about making a big splash, overwhelming audiences with intensely emotional music that included extremes of every kind, including contrasting dynamic levels.

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  • 0:00 Music in the Romantic Era
  • 0:23 Emotion
  • 2:26 Dynamic Contrast
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Romantic composers loved a good story. In the past, opera had been the main musical story-telling genre. But in the Romantic era, some composers wanted to communicate with their audiences on a deeper level through instrumental music and began to focus on telling musical stories without a singer or lyrics. To successfully do this, composers needed to create highly emotional music to successfully convey the general moods and plot points of a story without having the benefit of lyrics.

One way that Romantic composers created musical stories was by using flexible forms. Music of the previous century often followed strict musical rules that governed how the music should be structured. Without these restrictions, Romantic composers were able to rapidly transition between starkly contrasting melodies, as Hector Berlioz did in his 'Symphonie Fantastique.' In the fourth movement of this work, Berlioz moves from an ominous death-march to an up-beat tune that portrays the jubilant shouts of an enthusiastic crowd to a poignantly sad melody of a lost loved one. The wide variety of contrasting emotions in a single movement would have been unheard of in a symphony that used the rigid forms of the previous century.

Romantic composers were very focused on melody. Many of these melodies are so catchy that they are still popular today, such as the passionate and tear-jerking 'Love Theme' from Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky, the sneaky and suspenseful 'In The Hall of the Mountain King' by Edvard Grieg, and Rossini's exuberantly jaunty 'William Tell Overture,' to name a few.

Even though they were written over a hundred years ago, the emotions that these melodies portray are still universally recognized by audiences today, which is why Romantic-era music is often used in the background of films, commercials, and television shows.

Dynamic Contrast

Romantic composers often pushed musical elements to the extreme to get the emotional impact they wanted, but one element that especially interested them was playing with the musical dynamics, or volume of the music. In music, a loud sound is indicated by the term forte, and a really loud sound is called fortissimo. A soft sound is indicated by the term piano, and a really soft sound is pianissimo.

However, really loud and really soft weren't extreme enough for some dynamic composers. For example, Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi wrote a 'Requiem Mass,' music for a funeral service, that rapidly moves from a whispery triple piano, or pianississimo, to a thunderously pounding quadruple forte, fortissississimo!

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