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Classical Music and the Music of the Classical Era

Module by: Catherine Schmidt-Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: For those new to music history, a discussion of the meaning of the term "classical music", and an introduction to the Western art music of the second half of the eighteenth century.

Introduction: What is Classical Music?

The term Classical music has a general meaning and a specific meaning. As a general term, it is used in opposition to the ideas of popular music and folk music. Popular and folk music both tend to feature works that are immediately appealing and "understandable", even to people who have little musical training or knowledge. This immediate appeal usually comes from an underlying simplicity; folk and popular musics often feature short or repetitive forms, driving rhythms that encourage movement and dance, and melodies and harmonies that are comfortably within their traditions. One does not need to study music to appreciate a popular song, and in fact, studying that song would probably not increase one's appreciation of it very much.

Classical music, by this definition, is music that is inherently more challenging, with elements that cannot be grasped or appreciated without careful attention. The form might be very long, or the rhythm very subtle. The harmony might be very complex, or there might be multiple melodies occurring at the same time. Repeated listening and study increases appreciation of these more complex pieces of music, and people who are not interested in careful or repeated listening may not appreciate such music at all. Classical music traditions usually develop with the encouragement of an educated elite that has plenty of leisure time to devote to such challenging music.

By this definition, there are multiple classical music traditions; the classical music of India is one of the more widely known examples. However, most Westerners (those raised in the European, European-American or related cultures) who speak of "classical music" are referring to the music of one specific tradition. This tradition began in Europe at the end of the middle ages. It developed and spread in the following centuries with the spread of European culture across the world; and in more recent times, many of its composers, performers, and devotees have belonged to European-influenced cultures on other continents. Along with American popular musics (which also borrowed much of their "musical vocabulary" from the European tradition), this "classical" music continues to be adopted, explored, and adapted in many cultures, and some of its composers are among the most-recognized names in the world of music: Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, for example.

Within this tradition, however, there is a much more specific use of the term "Classical", and this may lead to some confusion. The Classical period was only one short era in the history of this tradition. Although not in common use, the term art music is more accurate as a general description for challenging music. It can be used to describe the more challenging works in popular genres (such as jazz and rock), as well as new efforts in the "classical" tradition, without sounding contradictory. It can also describe, without confusion, challenging music from any era in the Western tradition. For example, knowledgeable musicians might object to someone referring to the work of J. S. Bach as "classical music", since his music is Baroque, not Classical, in style.

And yet, "classical" remains popular as a general term, branding the entire Western art music tradition with the appellation of a single era that wasn't even particularly long. (The Baroque and Romantic eras, for example, were both considerably longer.) Why name the entire tradition for one short era? No doubt, part of the reason is the general use of "classic" or "classical" to refer to things from another era (as in "classic cars" or "classical languages"). But another part of the reason may be the conscious attempts by composers of that period to develop a musical style with universal appeal.

Classical Ideals

The Classical period in Western Music was relatively short, lasting from about 1750 to about 1800.


In art, architecture, and literature, ancient Rome and Greece are considered to be the Classical period, and the late eighteenth century is often referred to as the neoclassical. As if that weren't confusing enough, the term neoclassical in Western music refers to twentieth-century pieces that were strongly influenced by eighteenth century ideals.
Archaeological discoveries in the eighteenth century were increasing Europeans' awareness and appreciation of ancient masterpieces, and many of the artists and writers of the time were very strongly influenced by Classical architecture, sculpture, and poetry.

We have no "Classical" music from ancient Greece and Rome, because no written music from ancient times has ever been discovered. In most cultures across the world and throughout history, the musical "literature" is passed on from teacher to student aurally, without any written music being necessary. Music notation only became common in Europe in the middle ages, when the Catholic church used it to standardize music practices across a large area. So eighteenth-century composers interested in classical ideas did not have any ancient music to learn from or imitate. Nevertheless, they were very strongly influenced by neoclassical ideals.

This period in Europe is often called the “Age of Enlightenment”. The leading thinkers of the Enlightenment sought to improve endeavors such as philosophy and politics, by using the same kind of careful reasoning and observation of nature that had already led to significant advances in science. Metaphysics and mysticism were rejected in favor of a more secular morality that was believed to be derived from nature and common sense. Rule-bound formality and privileged authority were seen as inferior to practical actions, liberation and egalitarianism. Nationalism was also rejected, in favor of celebrating the universal aspects of human nature.

Although the ancients had left no examples of music, they had written extensively about music theory. Some eighteenth-century composers tried to incorporate musical concepts from ancient times into their works, but most were more inspired by the Enlightenment ideals of rationalism and egalitarianism that seemed to be reflected in the naturalistic sculpture and austere architecture of ancient Greece and Rome.

Inspired by these ideals, the composers of the Classical era sought to craft music that would be universal in its appeal. In spite of the fact that they were working within an art music tradition largely supported by the upper class and the church, they (and their Enlightenment-era audience) felt that the highest type of music would have a simplicity and "naturalness" that would appeal even to the uneducated. Underlying this feeling of natural simplicity, however, would be a formal structure that reflected the same dedication to functionality, symmetry and balance exhibited by the architecture of a Greek temple.

The Music of the Classical Period

Influences and Directions: Rejecting the Baroque

The Classical period of European music was preceded by the Baroque period and followed by the Romantic era. The music of the Baroque tended to be fairly complex; it is still best known for its use of counterpoint, in which multiple simultaneous melodies compete for attention. By the standards of the Enlightenment, the music of the late Baroque was too complex, particularly the elaborate counterpoint. A single, clear melody supported by a pleasant harmony was considered more “natural” and egalitarian, requiring no musical training to enjoy it.

Baroque melodies also have a tendency to run on breathlessly for any number of measures. The ideals of neoclassicism, on the other hand, called for balanced, well-proportioned structures, so the ideal Classical melody was built from an even number of phrases, of the same length (often two or four measures). These phrases were often clearly arranged in pairs, with the second phrase of a pair having a strong feeling of answering or completing the idea from the first phrase. (Read about antecedent and consequent phrases for more about this.) This kind of composing not only gives a very balanced structure, it also leads to melodies that are easy for the average person to sing and to remember. Many folk and popular songs have this same phrase structure.

Harmony was also affected by the goals of clarity and simplicity. The basic rules for harmony that have governed Western music for centuries were set in the Baroque period; Classical composers continued to use the same chords, harmonic progressions and cadences as Baroque composers. To create a feeling of simpler, clearer harmony, however, they generally changed chords less often (for a slower harmonic rhythm), and used less chromaticism (notes and chords outside the key). When they did change keys within a piece, it was usually with a very clear modulation using a standard chord progression, in a spot in the music where the form calls for a key change (for example, in the development section of the sonata form).

This emphasis on clarity and simplicity within a balanced structure does seem to have had the effect that these composers of the Enlightenment were seeking - an art music with an unusually universal appeal - and the results have been far-reaching. The composers of the Romantic era, for example, did not reject Classical composition techniques in the way that Classical composers rejected the Baroque; instead, they explored and developed them, gradually adding more and more complexity and difficulty until the general consensus was that all of the possibilities inherent in the tradition had been explored. Popular Western music, meanwhile, using the same "vocabulary" of scales and chords as Classical music, and using them in very similar ways in constructing melodies and chord progressions, has spread in popularity throughout the world, both on its own and in hybrid styles such as jazz and world music. Furthermore, the Western art music tradition itself has also been adopted in numerous places; Western-style orchestras can be found all over the world now, and in some places are more popular than local music traditions. Perhaps the term for this era is used so often to refer to the entire tradition precisely because the Classical style is more accessible to the average listener than most art music.

Classical Forms

Form was very important to the Classical composer, and the period also had a lasting effect in this area, particularly on instrumental music forms. It was during the previous period - the Baroque - that composers began to pay close attention to the capabilities of the various instruments. They began to write not only solo music for specific instruments, but also music for mixed ensembles with specified instruments: the beginnings of the modern orchestra. But the most common instrumental music forms of the Baroque - the toccata, fugue, concerto grosso, for example - were largely replaced by forms that matured in the Classical period. The most influential of these are the symphony, the concerto, and the sonata. While each of these forms had important precursors in earlier times, it is the Classical version of the form that has been most influential through the Romantic and modern eras, and is still widely recognized by art-music audiences and performers today.

The symphony may be the form that comes automatically to most people's minds when they think of Western "Classical" music. The form is so popular that many an orchestra calls itself a "symphony orchestra", signaling that it specializes in playing symphonies. The standard symphony has four movements; the inner two usually include a slow movement and a movement based on a dance form or having a dance-like quality. There are several popular choices for the forms of the outer two movements, but some version of sonata form is the most common.

Music for smaller chamber groups such as string quartets and wind quintets, also often follow this four-movement form.

When a solo instrumentalist is featured playing with an orchestra, the most common form on offer is the concerto. A concerto is typically a three-movement piece, with a slow inner movement and two fast outer movements. Again, for each movement, there are many forms that a composer can choose from - dance forms, theme and variations, fugue, rondo - but sonata form is very common, particularly for the first movement.

Like the concerto, a sonata is typically a fast-slow-fast three-movement piece, but the sonata is typically played by a soloist alone, or by a much smaller group of instruments: a soloist with piano accompaniment is very common. As mentioned above, sonata form is found in concertos and symphonies as well as sonatas. In fact, sonata form is used so often in the first movement of multi-movement works that it is sometimes called first-movement form. As with any music-theory term, composers do not feel bound to follow the rules of a form exactly, and there are many standard variations of sonata form. In the most general terms, there are three main parts (leaving aside the possibility of short introduction or ending sections) to a sonata form, which a careful listener can learn to distinguish even without formal musical training. The exposition introduces the main melodic ideas that are the themes for the movement. During the development, these melodic ideas are explored in a variety of different ways, often including taking them through a variety of key changes as well as changes in rhythm and harmony. In the recapitulation the themes return in the original key and in a form close enough to the original to make the listener feel that they have "returned home" after the "wandering" of the development section.

The Composers

Although the Classical period is generally identified with the second half of the eighteenth century, not every piece written during that period was Classical in style, nor were all Classical-style pieces written during those years. Some composers of that period were not interested in the new style, and continued to compose in the Baroque style.

Drawing a clear line between the Classical and Romantic eras is even more difficult. Ludwig van Beethoven is generally considered to be the most prominent founder of the Romantic style; his early works are considered to be clearly Classical, while his later compositions (the Third Symphony is sometimes used as a dividing line) are considered to be the inspiration for later Romantic composers. Some of those composers were more "Romantic" than others, however. Many popular nineteenth-century composers ignored many of the implications of the Romantic style, and wrote compositions that were essentially Classical.

The earliest composers in the Classical style, such as Johann Stamitz, are very important to music history, but their compositions tend to sound a bit too simplistic to the modern ear, and recordings and performances of their works are uncommon.

Of the strictly-Classical-era composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is widely held in the highest esteem. His hundreds of compositions include symphonies, concertos, operas, string quartets and other chamber music, instrumental serenades and divertimenti, and masses. This large body of work includes many masterpieces and is a good place to start for anyone wishing to get acquainted with the sound of the Classical style.

Franz Joseph Haydn is the other very famous Classical-era composer. He wrote more than one hundred symphonies, as well as numerous string quartets, concertos for a variety of instruments, and vocal works such as masses and oratorios.

Many of Ludwig van Beethoven's most famous works (the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, for example), are clearly Romantic in character, but earlier works, including the first two symphonies and the earlier string quartets, piano concertos, and piano sonatas (including the "Moonlight" and "Pathetique") are from his earliest, most Classical-sounding period.

Moving on to the Romantic Era

The end of the Classical era was not marked by a rejection of the style, as its beginning had been a rejection of the Baroque. Instead, as composers gained confidence and inspiration, they began to explore, expand, and develop the forms, ensembles, and melodic and harmonic vocabulary of Classical music. Given the impetus towards individualism, innovation and exploration of the nineteenth century, many composers pushed very hard to expand the limits of what was acceptable, and their music has a very different sound than eighteenth-century music, although it is still clearly within the same tradition. Other composers stayed closer to Classical-era ideals, however: Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, and Gioachino Rossini are among the popular nineteenth-century composers whose music remained largely rooted in the Classical tradition.

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