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Instrumental Music in the Classical Era

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  • 0:08 What is a Genre?
  • 0:58 Genres in the Classical Period
  • 1:56 Movements of a Symphony
  • 4:20 Concerto Genre
  • 5:07 Domestic Music Genres
  • 6:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

During music's Classical period, instrumental music was popular entertainment in both the concert hall and the home. In this lesson, we'll look at four popular genres of Classical-era instrumental music: symphony, concerto, string quartet, and sonata.

What Is a Genre?

What's your favorite movie genre? If you like sci-fi, you might watch a lot of time-traveling aliens or heroes saving the universe with technology. Maybe you prefer watching things blow up in action films, or watching couples find, lose, and find each other again in romance movies. Every film genre has its own variety of story for filmmakers to play with.

A genre is an art-form type that comes with a set of traditional conventions. There are genres in music too, with their own sets of conventions. Musical genres are usually determined by what kind of instruments the composer selected, what the music's purpose is, and how the music is organized.

Genres in the Classical Period

We're going to look at four genres from music's Classical period. The Classical period lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century. It was a time when composers wanted music to sound natural, well-structured, and attractive to the average listener.

During the Classical era, there was a boom of new genres in instrumental music, which is music for instruments only, without singing. Most of these instrumental genres were separated into three or four movements, that is, separate, free-standing sections. You can think of a Classical-era instrumental piece as a three or four-course dinner, with movements for courses. Classical composers were like expert chefs who created tasty meals full of balance and contrast.

The Movements of a Symphony

During the 18th century, public concerts became popular for the first time. Before the Classical period, most concerts were private, invitation-only affairs hosted by wealthy aristocrats. But with the rise of the middle-class market in the 18th century, orchestras began to put on accessible concerts that were funded by selling tickets. The symphony is a genre for orchestra that came into its own during the public concerts of the Classical era.

A classical symphony has four movements. The first movement is usually fast, and written in a structure called sonata-allegro. Sonata-allegro form is structured around the interaction of two contrasting melodies. It's an exciting form that often challenges the brain a bit. The opening movement is the meat-and-potatoes of a symphony.

The second movement of a classical symphony is called the slow movement because it's (surprise!) slower than the first movement. Slow movements often sound lyrical and songlike, and they usually tug at an audience's emotions. You could think of the slow movement as the symphony's warming soup course.

The third movement of a classical symphony is the mid-tempo minuet and trio. It's a stylized version of the minuet, a popular social dance from the 17th and 18th centuries. Just like rock music is fun because it uses a dance beat, audiences enjoyed the beat of a symphony's minuet and trio, even though they didn't get up to dance at concerts! You could think of the minuet and trio as a symphony's refreshing salad.

The last movement of a Classical symphony was often a fast one. Sometimes, composers wanted to end with a bang, and wrote a wild closing movement. Sometimes, they wanted to end on a serious or dramatic note, and wrote a grand finale in sonata-allegro form. Whether it's fluffy like mousse, or substantial like apple pie, the fourth movement rounds out a symphony like a dessert.

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