Music During the Enlightenment Period

Music During the Enlightenment Period
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  • 0:03 Enlightened Music
  • 0:49 The Enlightenment
  • 1:39 The Enlightenment & Music
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Enlightenment was a period that introduced many immense changes in Europe. These changes impacted the role and styles of music in society. In this lesson, we'll explore how music came to reflect the new attitudes of the era.

Enlightened Music

You can often tell a lot about people by the music they listen to. People who listen to country music tend to have different interests than people who listen to emo music. But people's interests can change, and as their interests change, musical styles and tastes change as well. One place where we see this on a massive, historical scale is during the Enlightenment, a period that introduced major intellectual, social, and artistic changes in the 17th and 18th centuries. These weren't just minor shifts in social attitudes. The changes of the Enlightenment were literally revolutionary, eventually leading to the Industrial Revolution and French Revolution. The Enlightenment changed a lot of things, and people needed musical styles that fit the times.

The Enlightenment

Before we can talk more about music, we need to discuss the Enlightenment a little more thoroughly. The Enlightenment was brought on by changing philosophical attitudes. For centuries, Europeans had looked to their traditions and religion as the source of truth, but Enlightenment philosophers had a different idea. They claimed that individual reason was the source of truth and that universal truths could be deduced by individuals. There are a few important implications here. For one, it meant that all people are inherently equal because all humans are capable of rational thought. It also meant that nothing should be accepted simply because it is traditional. Together, these ideas promoted a belief in democracy, liberty, and equality. If these ideas sound familiar, it is because the American Revolution was very strongly influenced by the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment and Music

So, how do these ideas translate into music? Well for one thing, the Enlightenment changed how people saw music. Before this, fine music was mostly reserved for the highly educated, the nobility, and the wealthy. The common people were traditionally assumed to be unable to appreciate fine arts. However, Enlightenment scholars challenged this tradition. They claimed that since all humans are inherently equal, all people can appreciate fine music and more people should have access to such music. During the Enlightenment, the number of amateur musicians skyrocketed as musical learning was opened to more than just the wealthy. Composers also felt they had a moral obligation to provide fine music for the common people.

This idea, and the general concept that the Enlightenment could challenge tradition, opened up composers to a much greater range of artistic freedom. Rather than just creating music for the educated elite, they strove to create compositions that were more universal in their appeal. Whereas Baroque music, the dominant style of the previous era, was filled with complex melodies and exaggerated ornamentation, music of the Enlightenment was technically simpler. Instead of focusing on showing off skill and refinement, this new music was focused simply on enjoyment and was meant to be pleasing.

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