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Classical Era of Music: Timeline, Characteristics & Facts

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  • 0:00 What Is Classical Music?
  • 1:07 Baroque Period
  • 2:37 Classical Period
  • 3:49 Romantic Period
  • 5:03 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.

What many call 'classical music' is actually composed of three separate periods, spanning more than 300 years of music. During this time, music changed dramatically as composers and instrumentalists found new ways of using instruments that very often were just then being invented.

What Is Classical Music?

If the words 'classical music' invoke stodgy musicians at a black-tie affair playing music, then you're not giving the genre enough credit. Try listening closely to anything by Johann Sebastian Bach one of the greatest composers from the early stages of the era and compare it with something written by Richard Wagner, one of the greats from the end of the era, and you'll immediately notice how different the two pieces are.

The differences between these two pieces are entirely because of where they fall in the history of music. What many of us actually think of as 'classical' music is actually music three distinct periods: Baroque (1600-1750), Classical (1750-1820), and Romantic (1820-1910). To avoid confusion, I'll call the time period from 1750-1820 the Classical period and call all three periods collectively the Classical era, which is roughly what music historians do.

Baroque Period

As Europe emerged from the Renaissance, one of the areas with the greatest innovations was music. While instruments before had been largely drums, flutes, or simple string contraptions, the Renaissance saw the birth of more complicated ways of creating music. Principle among these was the harpsichord, which greatly expanded the number of notes that could be played. Some of the best stringed instruments in history, the Stradivari, were also made during this time.

The masters of this time were eager to take advantage of these new innovations. The Baroque period saw the birth of opera; however, it is best remembered for the contributions of the greatest composer of that time, Johann Sebastian Bach. His work helped to bridge the gap between the Baroque period and the Classical period, and as such, many music historians end the Baroque period with his death. Also of particular note are the works of Monteverdi, who helped transition into the Baroque period from the Renaissance, and Handel, who wrote his piece Messiah during the Baroque period.

On the whole, music was still oriented towards religion, and much of music was used as propaganda by competing sections of Christianity. Also, melodies were heavily emphasized, both at the highest and lowest notes. In fact, some composers even left musicians playing melodies in between high and low the freedom to improvise their work.

Classical Period

The heavy melodies and improvisation of the Baroque period was rejected by composers of the Classical period, in no small part because the harpsichord had fallen out of use in favor of the piano. Also rejected was much of the emphasis on religion - from this point on, music would have an important secular role. As a result, it was not just enough for music to sound ornamented, as Baroque music did, but instead to tell a story.

The great masters of the Classical period are known even to those who don't follow music: Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. All three remain renowned - and for different reasons. Haydn may have been one of the first composers to really show a sense of humor in music, grabbing the audience's attention with his Symphony No. 94, where a loud chord grabs the listener from a lull. The short-short-short-long initial in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony remains one of the most easily recognized pieces of music in history. Meanwhile, Mozart is known for his genius (he composed his first piece at age 5) as well as his operas, notably The Marriage of Figaro.

Romantic Period

While there had been a clear break between Baroque and Classical, the difference between Classical and Romantic is more subdued. Some have gone as far as to say that the Romantic period was simply an extension of the Classical period. However, a few notable differences set this period apart.

Technically speaking, new instruments became available during the Romantic period, especially brass instruments. Additionally, music became much more secular during this period, especially in Europe. After all, this was the time of Richard Wagner, whose operas drip with glorification of the German past. Dvorak, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky brought this nationalism to Bohemia, Norway, and Russia, respectively.

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