Western Music: History & Timeline

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  • 0:02 What Is Western Music?
  • 0:39 Music of the Ancient World
  • 1:40 The Medieval…
  • 4:19 The Baroque & Classical Eras
  • 6:25 The Romantic Era/The…
  • 8:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Alisha Nypaver

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

Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

Have you ever wondered what exactly Western music is, or how it has changed over time? This lesson will answer both of these questions and more as we explore the history of Western music.

What Is Western Music?

The term 'Western' refers to European traditions and social structures and has come to include societies that were established and shaped primarily by European immigrants, such as those in the Americas. Thus, Western music may be defined as organized instrumentation and sound created and produced in Europe, the United States, and other societies established and shaped by European immigrants. This includes a wide assortment of musical genres, from classical music and jazz to rock and roll and country-western music. In this lesson, we'll outline the evolution of music from the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans through all six eras of artistic history.

Music of the Ancient World

The history of Western music is primarily rooted in Greek and Roman antiquity, though music existed in virtually every culture long before this. Nevertheless, music was an important part of the lives of the ancient Greeks. Greek philosophers wrote about the power of music, the mathematician Pythagoras explored the mathematics behind musical sounds, and well-known Greek playwrights, such as Sophocles and Aristophanes, used music in their tragedies and comedies.

The Greeks and Romans had many musical instruments, including the lyre, harp, and the cornu horn, which were used in a variety of ceremonies and festivals. The Greeks also developed different systems of music notation, such as the more general harmonia and the more specific Dorian or Lydian, which were names after specific tribes and based upon unique modes, or the specific ordering of musical tones and their corresponding notes. All of these helped music to thrive, and it probably would have evolved in a different way if it hadn't been for two major factors: the birth of Christianity and the fall of Rome.

The Medieval Era (500 CE - 1450 CE)

Sieges, famine, and internal disputes caused the ancient world to crumble, giving way to the Middle Ages. Almost all technological advances vanished when Rome fell. Without effective leaders to organize such complex societies, many people grew poor and lived in relatively isolated villages. Life was difficult, and the primary focus was survival. Few people had the time or desire to make music. However, one bright spot in the dark world of the Medieval Era was the stability provided by the Church.

Church leaders recognized the power of music and began using it in as a tool for meditation and prayer. This religious music was called plainchant, and it consisted of a single melody sung in Latin, the language of the church. Because musical instruments were associated with the pagan culture of the Greeks and Romans, Church leaders did not approve of their use. Therefore, all plainchant was unaccompanied vocal music, which became known as a cappella, a term that basically means 'in the style of the chapel.'

The most famous type of plainchant in this era was Gregorian chant, developed under Pope Gregory the Great and sung by Gregorian monks. Gregorian monks also created one of the first standards for musical notation known as neumes, or symbols and shapes meant to represent specific pitches. These notes are the forebearers of today's musical notation systems. It wasn't until late in the Medieval Era that music began to get more complex than this, with the rise of polyphony, or when two or more melodies are played at the same time to create a unified sound.

The Renaissance Era (1450 CE - 1600 CE)

Renaissance means 'rebirth,' and in the Renaissance Era, people rediscovered the ideas and technologies of the ancient world. Society developed into more distinct social classes, and educated citizens were expected to be proficient in music. The advent of printing allowed music to become increasingly accessible, and a wide variety of styles and genres of music emerged as composers started sharing ideas. Renaissance composers developed the single-melody plainchant by combining several complex melodies at once, and some upper-class citizens hired musicians and composers as resident members of their courts. Secular music thrived during this era and was often played by small groups of musicians known as consorts.

Polyphonic sound thrived during this time period as well, which can be seen in the multi-melodic work of Du Fay. However, music meant for the church continued to be popular, and composers like Monteverdi wrote religiously inspired yet polyphonically conservative pieces such as the famous Vespers for the Blessed Virgin.

The Baroque Era (1600 CE - 1750 CE)

The Baroque Era was characterized by an obsession with decorations and added frills to just about everything, and music was no exception. It became more elaborate, complex, and difficult to perform. Musicians, such as Bach, would improvise on already complex melodies, adding musical embellishments that showed off their skills.

In fact, Bach and Handel are perhaps the most important composers of this era, with the former's sacred compositions, including masses and passions, becoming quite famous, and the latter's more secularized operas and cantatas being equally well known. Opera was also born during this era, and the Renaissance consort grew into a small orchestra. The dramatic spirit of the Baroque Era also saw the creation of the sonata and concerto, two instrumental styles of Western music that are heavily reliant on the violin and cello. These popular styles and their specific instrumentation also influenced the sound of the orchestra.

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Additional Activities

Western Music Writing Activity

Short-Answer Essay Questions

For this activity, respond to one or more of the following short-answer questions. These short-answer questions should be sufficiently answered in 2-3 well-developed paragraphs. Although your response(s) may be relatively short, it is important to answer thoroughly and as specifically as possible.


  1. How did technology affect Western music? Explain with specific examples.
  2. Explain how religion and the fall of Rome changed the course of Western music.
  3. Choose one of the major historical eras (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, or Modern), and explain the major musical aspects from this time.

A possible answer to Question #1:

The Classical era, which lasted from 1750 CE to 1820 CE, brought forth some of the most popular Western music of all time. The simple and balanced music of this era was like a breath of fresh air after the more complex and ornate music from the Baroque era. Besides a more simple structure and less complex melodies, this era is also known for its creation of the symphony.

Also, since the music of the Classical era was more 'user-friendly,' more people participated in the creation of music. Before, music was mostly enjoyed only by the rich. However, during the Classical era, more people from varying social classes enjoyed, produced, and composed music. During the era, everyone was invited to enjoy the lovely and uplifting sounds of Classical music.

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