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Classical music

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Classical music

Montage of some great classical music composers. From left to right:
Top row: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven;
second row: Gioachino Rossini, Felix Mendelssohn, Frédéric Chopin, Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi;
third row: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Antonín Dvořák;
bottom row: Aram Khachaturian

Classical music is art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western music (both liturgical and secular). It encompasses a broad period from roughly the 11th century to the present day.[1] The central norms of this tradition became codified between 1550 and 1900, which is known as the common practice period. The major time divisions of classical music are the early music period, which includes Medieval (500–1400) and Renaissance (1400–1600), the Common practice period, which includes the Baroque (1600–1750), Classical (1750–1830) and Romantic (1804–1949) periods, and the modern and contemporary period, which includes 20th century (1900–2000) and contemporary (1975–current).

European music is largely distinguished from many other non-European and popular musical forms by its system of staff notation, in use since about the 16th century.[2] Western staff notation is used by composers to prescribe to the performer the pitch, speed, meter, individual rhythms and exact execution of a piece of music. This leaves less room for practices such as improvisation and ad libitum ornamentation, which are frequently heard in non-European art music and in popular music.[3][4][5] Another difference is that whereas most popular styles lend themselves to the song form, classical music has been noted for its development of highly sophisticated forms of instrumental music.[6]

The term "classical music" did not appear until the early 19th century, in an attempt to distinctly canonize the period from Johann Sebastian Bach to Beethoven as a golden age.[7] The earliest reference to "classical music" recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is from about 1836.[1][8]


  • Characteristics 1
    • Literature 1.1
    • Instrumentation 1.2
    • Form 1.3
    • Technical execution 1.4
    • Complexity 1.5
    • Society 1.6
  • History 2
    • Roots 2.1
    • Early period 2.2
    • Common practice period 2.3
      • Baroque music 2.3.1
      • Classical period music 2.3.2
      • Romantic era music 2.3.3
    • 20th-century, modern, and contemporary music 2.4
  • Significance of written notation 3
    • Modernist view of the significance of the score 3.1
    • Criticism of the modernist view 3.2
    • Improvisation 3.3
  • Relationship to other music traditions 4
    • Popular music 4.1
    • Folk music 4.2
  • Commercialization 5
  • Education 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11


Given the extremely broad variety of forms, styles, genres, and historical periods generally perceived as being described by the term "classical music," it is difficult to list characteristics that can be attributed to all works of that type. Vague descriptions are plentiful, such as describing classical music as anything that "lasts a long time," a statement made rather moot when one considers contemporary composers who are described as classical; or music that has certain instruments like violins, which are also found in other genres. However, there are characteristics that classical music contains that few or no other genres of music contain.[9]


The most outstanding characteristic of classical music is that the repertoire tends to be written down in musical notation, creating a musical part or score. This score typically determines details of rhythm, pitch, and, where two or more musicians (whether singers or instrumentalists) are involved, how the various parts are coordinated. The written quality of the music has, in addition to preserving the works, enabled a high level of complexity within them: Bach's fugues, for instance, achieve a remarkable marriage of boldly distinctive melodic lines weaving in counterpoint yet creating a coherent harmonic logic that would be impossible in the heat of live improvisation.[10]


The Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra performs Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony.

The instruments used in most classical music were largely invented before the mid-19th century (often much earlier), and codified in the 18th and 19th centuries. They consist of the instruments found in an

  • Historical classical recordings from the British Library Sound Archive (available only to users in the member countries of the European Union)
  • Chronological list of recorded classical composers

External links

  • Copland, Aaron (1957) What to Listen for in Music; rev. ed. McGraw-Hill. (paperback).
  • --"-- (1988) --"--; with an introduction by William Schuman. McGraw-Hill ISBN 0-07-013091-4
  • --"-- (2002) --"--; with a foreword and epilogue by Alan Rich; with an introduction by William Schuman. New American Library ISBN 0-451-52867-0 (reissued 2009 with new appreciation by Leonard Slatkin)
  • Grout, Donald Jay; Palisca, Claude V. (1996) A History of Western Music, Fifth edition. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-96904-5 (hardcover).
  • Hanning, Barbara Russano; Grout, Donald Jay (1998 rev. 2009) Concise History of Western Music. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-92803-9 (hardcover).
  • Johnson, Julian (2002) Who Needs Classical Music?: cultural choice and musical value. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514681-6.
  • Kamien, Roger (2008) Music: an appreciation; 6th brief ed. McGraw-Hill ISBN 978-0-07-340134-8
  • Lihoreau, Tim; Fry, Stephen (2004) Stephen Fry's Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music. Boxtree. ISBN 978-0-7522-2534-0
  • Scholes, Percy Alfred; Arnold, Denis (1988) The New Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-311316-3 (paperback).
  • Schick, Kyle (2012). "Improvisation: Performer as Co-composer", Musical Offerings: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 3. Available at
  • Sorce Keller, Marcello (2011) What Makes Music European. Looking Beyond Sound. Latham, NJ: Scarecrow Press (USA).
  • Taruskin, Richard (2005, rev. Paperback version 2009) Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press (USA). ISBN 978-0-19-516979-9 (Hardback), ISBN 978-0-19-538630-1 (Paperback)
  • Gray, Dr. Anne; (2007) "The World of WOMEN in Classical Music", Wordworld Publications. ISBN 1-59975-320-0 (Paperback)

Further reading

  • Grout, Donald J.; Palisca, Claude V. (1988). A History of Western Music. Norton.  
  • Johnson, Julian (2002), Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value. Oxford University Press, 140pp.
  • Katz, Adele (1946; reprinted 2007), Challenge to Musical Tradition – A New Concept of Tonality. Alfred A. Knopf/reprinted by Katz Press, 444pp., ISBN 1-4067-5761-6.
  • Kennedy, Michael (2006), The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 985 pages, ISBN 0-19-861459-4


  1. ^ a b "Classical", The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music, ed. Michael Kennedy, (Oxford, 2007), Oxford Reference Online. Retrieved July 23, 2007.
  2. ^ Chew, Geffrey & Rastall, Richard. "Notation, §III, 1(vi): Plainchant: Pitch-specific notations, 13th–16th centuries", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed July 23 2007), (subscription access).
  3. ^ Malm, W.P./Hughes, David W.. "Japan, §III, 1: Notation systems: Introduction", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed July 23 2007), (subscription access).
  4. ^ IAN D. BENT, DAVID W. HUGHES, ROBERT C. PROVINE, RICHARD RASTALL, ANNE KILMER. "Notation, §I: General", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed July 23 2007), (subscription access).
  5. ^ Middleton, Richard. "Popular music, §I, 4: Europe & North America: Genre, form, style", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed July 23 2007), (subscription access).
  6. ^ a b Julian Johnson (2002) Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value: p. 63.
  7. ^ Rushton, Julian, Classical Music, (London, 1994), 10
  8. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary (2007). "classical, a.". The OED Online. Retrieved May 10, 2007. 
  9. ^ Kennedy, Michael (2006), The Oxford Dictionary of Music, p. 178
  10. ^ Knud Jeppesen: "Bach's music grows out of an ideally harmonic background, against which the voices develop with a bold independence that is often breath-taking." Quoted from Adele Katz (1946; reprinted 2007)
  11. ^ a b c d Kirgiss, Crystal (2004). Classical Music. Black Rabbit Books.  
  12. ^ Burgh, Theodore W. (2006). Listening to Artifacts: Music Culture in Ancient Israel/Palestine. T. & T. Clark Ltd.  
  13. ^ Grout, p. 28
  14. ^ Grout (1988)
  15. ^ a b Grout, pp. 75–76
  16. ^ Grout, p. 61
  17. ^ Grout, pp. 175–176
  18. ^ Grout, pp. 72–74
  19. ^ Grout, pp. 222–225
  20. ^ Grout, pp. 300–332
  21. ^ Grout, pp. 341–355
  22. ^ Grout, p. 378
  23. ^ Grout, p. 463
  24. ^ Swafford, p. 200
  25. ^ a b c Swafford, p. 201
  26. ^ Grout, pp. 595–612
  27. ^ Grout, p. 543
  28. ^ Grout, pp. 634,641–2
  29. ^ a b "Music Schools Turning out Robots?" by Harold C. Schonberg; Daytona Beach Morning Journal – October 19, 1969
  30. ^ Kelly, Barbara. L. "Ravel, Maurice, §3: 1918–37", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed July 23 2007), (subscription access).
  31. ^ See, for example, Siôn, Pwyll Ap. "Nyman, Michael", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed July 23 2007), (subscription access).
  32. ^ Notable examples are the Hooked on Classics series of recordings made by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the early 1980s and the classical crossover violinists Vanessa Mae and Catya Maré.
  33. ^ Yeomans, David (2006). Piano Music of the Czech Romantics: A Performer's Guide. Indiana University Press. p. 2.  
  34. ^ Stevens, Haley; Gillies, Malcolm (1993). The Life and Music of Béla Bartók. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 129.  
  35. ^ Hickman, Roger (2006). Reel Music: Exploring 100 Years of Film Music, p. 77. W. W. Norton & Company.
  36. ^ Vancour, Shawn (March 2009). "Popularizing the Classics: Radio's Role in the Music Appreciation Movement 1922-34.". Media, Culture and Society 31 (2): 19.  
  37. ^ Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature 400 (August 26, 1999): 827.
  38. ^ Ross, Alex. "Classical View; Listening To Prozac... Er, Mozart", The New York Times, August 28, 1994. Retrieved on May 16, 2008.
  39. ^ Goode, Erica. "Mozart for Baby? Some Say, Maybe Not", The New York Times, August 3, 1999. Retrieved on May 16, 2008.
  40. ^ "The Impact of Music Education on Academic Achievement". Retrieved February 2012. 



See also

In 1996–1997, a research study was conducted on a large population of middle age students in the Cherry Creek School District in Denver, Colorado, USA. The study showed that students who actively listen to classical music before studying had higher academic scores. The research further indicated that students who listened to the music prior to an examination also had positively elevated achievement scores. Students who listened to rock-and-roll or country had moderately lower scores. The study further indicated that students who used classical during the course of study had a significant leap in their academic performance; whereas, those who listened to other types of music had significantly lowered academic scores. The research was conducted over several schools within the Cherry Creek School District and was conducted through University of Colorado. This study is reflective of several recent studies (i.e. Mike Manthei and Steve N. Kelly of the University of Nebraska at Omaha; Donald A. Hodges and Debra S. O'Connell of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; etc.) and others who had significant results through the discourse of their work.[40]

During the 1990s, several research papers and popular books wrote on what came to be called the "music education programs."[39]

Throughout history, parents have often made sure that their children receive classical music training from a young age. Some parents pursue music lessons for their children for social reasons or in an effort to instill a sense of self-discipline. Some believe that knowledge of important works of classical music is part of a good general education.


Shawn Vancour argues that the commercialization of classical music in the early 20th century served to harm the music industry through inadequate representation.[36]

Similarly, movies and television often revert to standard, clichéd snatches of classical music to convey refinement or opulence: some of the most-often heard pieces in this category include Night on Bald Mountain (as orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov), and Rossini's William Tell Overture.

Several works from the Golden Age of Animation matched the action to classical music. Notable examples are Walt Disney's Fantasia, Tom and Jerry's Johann Mouse, and Warner Bros.' The Rabbit of Seville and What's Opera, Doc?.

Certain staples of classical music are often used commercially (either in advertising or in movie soundtracks). In television commercials, several passages have become clichéd, particularly the opening of Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra (made famous in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey) and the opening section "O Fortuna" of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, often used in the horror genre; other examples include the Dies Irae from the Verdi Requiem, Edvard Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt, the opening bars of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre, Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee, and excerpts of Aaron Copland's Rodeo.

Poster for the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation where Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries was used as a leitmotif for the Ku Klux Klan [35]


Composers of classical music have often made use of folk music (music created by musicians who are commonly not classically trained, often from a purely oral tradition). Some composers, like Dvořák and Smetana,[33] have used folk themes to impart a nationalist flavor to their work, while others like Bartók have used specific themes lifted whole from their folk-music origins.[34]

Folk music

Numerous examples show influence in the opposite direction, including popular songs based on classical music, the use to which Pachelbel's Canon has been put since the 1970s, and the musical crossover phenomenon, where classical musicians have achieved success in the popular music arena.[32]

Classical music has often incorporated elements or material from popular music of the composer's time. Examples include occasional music such as Brahms' use of student drinking songs in his Academic Festival Overture, genres exemplified by Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, and the influence of jazz on early- and mid-20th-century composers including Maurice Ravel, exemplified by the movement entitled "Blues" in his sonata for violin and piano.[30] Certain postmodern, minimalist and postminimalist classical composers acknowledge a debt to popular music.[31]

Popular music

Relationship to other music traditions

The primacy of the composer's written score has also led, today, to a relatively minor role played by improvisation in classical music, in sharp contrast to the practice of musicians who lived during the baroque, classical and romantic era. Improvisation in classical music performance was common during both the Baroque era and in the nineteenth, yet lessened strongly during the second half of the 19th and in the 20th centuries. During the classical period, Mozart and Beethoven often improvised the cadenzas to their piano concertos (and thereby encouraged others to do so), but they also provided written cadenzas for use by other soloists. In opera, the practice of singing strictly by the score, i.e. come scritto, was famously propagated by soprano Maria Callas, who called this practice 'straitjacketing' and implied that it allows the intention of the composer to be understood better, especially during studying the music for the first time.

Its written transmission, along with the veneration bestowed on certain classical works, has led to the expectation that performers will play a work in a way that realizes in detail the original intentions of the composer. During the 19th century the details that composers put in their scores generally increased. Yet the opposite trend – admiration of performers for new "interpretations" of the composer's work – can be seen, and it is not unknown for a composer to praise a performer for achieving a better realization of the original intent than the composer was able to imagine. Thus, classical performers often achieve high reputations for their musicianship, even if they do not compose themselves. Generally however, it is the composers who are remembered more than the performers.

Improvisation once played an important role in classical music. A remnant of this improvisatory tradition in classical music can be heard in the cadenza, a passage found mostly in concertos and solo works, designed to allow skilled performers to exhibit their virtuoso skills on the instrument. Traditionally this was improvised by the performer; however, it is often written for (or occasionally by) the performer beforehand. Improvisation is also an important aspect in authentic performances of operas of Baroque era and of bel canto (especially operas of Vincenzo Bellini), and is best exemplified by the da capo aria, a form by which famous singers typically perform variations of the thematic matter of the aria in the recapitulation section ('B section' / the 'da capo' part). An example is Beverly Sills' complex, albeit pre-written, variation of Da tempeste il legno infranto from Händel's Giulio Cesare.


  • "... one of the most stubborn modern misconceptions concerning baroque music is that a metronomic regularity was intended" (Baroque Interpretation in Grove 5th edition by Robert Donington)
  • "The history of this particular idea is littered with dead ends and failed projects. It is high time these misconceptions are addressed with academic rigour." History of Metaphysics by Andrew Pyle
  • "Too many teachers, conditioned to 20th Century ideas, teach Bach and other Baroque music exactly the wrong way. This leads to what musicologist Sol Babitz calls 'sewing machine Bach'."[29]
  • "... tendency to look alike, sound alike and think alike. The conservatories are at fault and they have been at fault for many years now. Any sensitive musician going around the World has noted the same thing. The conservatories, from Moscow and Leningrad to Juilliard, Curtis and Indiana, are producing a standardized product.
    [...] clarity, undeviating rhythm, easy technique, 'musicianship'. I put the word musicianship in quotes, because as often as not, it is a false kind of musicianship – a musicianship that sees the tree and not the forest, that takes care of the detail but ignores the big picture; a musicianship that is tied to the printed note rather than to emotional meaning of a piece.
    The fact remains that there is a dreadful uniformity today and also an appalling lack of knowledge about the culture and performance traditions of the past." ("Music Schools Turning out Robots?"[29] by Harold C. Schonberg)

Some quotes that highlight this criticism of modernist overvaluing of the score:

Some critics express the opinion that it is only from the mid 19th century, and especially in the 20th century, that the score began to hold such a high significance. Previously, improvisation, rhythmic flexibility, improvisatory deviation from the score and oral tradition of playing was integral to style of music. Yet in the 20th century, this oral tradition and passing on of stylistic features within classical music disappeared. Instead, musicians use the score to play music, yet even given the score, there is considerable controversy about how to perform the works. Some of this controversy relates to the fact that this score-centric approach has led to performing styles that emphasize metrically strict block-rhythms (just as the music is notated in the score).

Criticism of the modernist view

The written score, however, does not usually contain explicit instructions as to how to interpret the piece in terms of production or performance, apart from directions for dynamics, tempo and expression (to a certain extent). This is left to the discretion of the performers, who are guided by their personal experience and musical education, their knowledge of the work's idiom, their personal artistic tastes, and the accumulated body of historic performance practices.

The modernist views hold that classical music is considered primarily a written musical tradition, preserved in music notation, as opposed to being transmitted orally, by rote, or by recordings of particular performances. While there are differences between particular performances of a classical work, a piece of classical music is generally held to transcend any interpretation of it. The use of musical notation is an effective method for transmitting classical music, since the written music contains the technical instructions for performing the work.

Modernist view of the significance of the score

Significance of written notation

Modernism (1905–1985) marked a period when many composers rejected certain values of the common practice period, such as traditional tonality, melody, instrumentation, and structure. Composers, academics, and musicians developed extensions of music theory and technique. 20th century classical music, encompassing a wide variety of post-Romantic styles composed through the year 1999, includes late Romantic, Modern and Postmodern styles of composition. The term "contemporary music" is sometimes used to describe music composed in the late 20th century through to the present day.

Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso collaborated on Pulcinella in 1920.

20th-century, modern, and contemporary music

European cultural ideas and institutions began to follow colonial expansion into other parts of the world. There was also a rise, especially toward the end of the era, of nationalism in music (echoing, in some cases, political sentiments of the time), as composers such as Edvard Grieg, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Antonín Dvořák echoed traditional music of their homelands in their compositions.[28]

The family of instruments used, especially in orchestras, grew. A wider array of percussion instruments began to appear. Brass instruments took on larger roles, as the introduction of rotary valves made it possible for them to play a wider range of notes. The size of the orchestra (typically around 40 in the Classical era) grew to be over 100.[25] Gustav Mahler's 1906 Symphony No. 8, for example, has been performed with over 150 instrumentalists and choirs of over 400.

In the 19th century, musical institutions emerged from the control of wealthy patrons, as composers and musicians could construct lives independent of the nobility. Increasing interest in music by the growing middle classes throughout western Europe spurred the creation of organizations for the teaching, performance, and preservation of music. The piano, which achieved its modern construction in this era (in part due to industrial advances in metallurgy) became widely popular with the middle class, whose demands for the instrument spurred a large number of piano builders. Many symphony orchestras date their founding to this era.[25] Some musicians and composers were the stars of the day; some, like Franz Liszt and Niccolò Paganini, fulfilled both roles.[27]

The music of the Romantic era, from roughly the first decade of the 19th century to the early 20th century, was characterized by increased attention to an extended melodic line, as well as expressive and emotional elements, paralleling romanticism in other art forms. Musical forms began to break from the Classical era forms (even as those were being codified), with free-form pieces like nocturnes, fantasias, and preludes being written where accepted ideas about the exposition and development of themes were ignored or minimized.[24] The music became more chromatic, dissonant, and tonally colorful, with tensions (with respect to accepted norms of the older forms) about key signatures increasing.[25] The art song (or Lied) came to maturity in this era, as did the epic scales of grand opera, ultimately transcended by Richard Wagner's Ring cycle.[26]

Romantic era music

Wind instruments became more refined in the Classical period. While double reeded instruments like the oboe and bassoon became somewhat standardized in the Baroque, the clarinet family of single reeds was not widely used until Mozart expanded its role in orchestral, chamber, and concerto settings.

The Classical period, from about 1750 to 1820, established many of the norms of composition, presentation, and style, and was also when the piano became the predominant keyboard instrument. The basic forces required for an orchestra became somewhat standardized (although they would grow as the potential of a wider array of instruments was developed in the following centuries). Chamber music grew to include ensembles with as many as 8 to 10 performers for serenades. Opera continued to develop, with regional styles in Italy, France, and German-speaking lands. The opera buffa, a form of comic opera, rose in popularity. The symphony came into its own as a musical form, and the concerto was developed as a vehicle for displays of virtuoso playing skill. Orchestras no longer required a harpsichord (which had been part of the traditional continuo in the Baroque style), and were often led by the lead violinist (now called the concertmaster).[23]

Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) c. 1770

Classical period music

During the Baroque era, keyboard music played on the cantata and oratorio became more common.[21] Vocalists began adding embellishments to melodies.[11] Instrumental ensembles began to distinguish and standardize by size, giving rise to the early orchestra for larger ensembles, with chamber music being written for smaller groups of instruments where parts are played by individual (instead of massed) instruments. The concerto as a vehicle for solo performance accompanied by an orchestra became widespread, although the relationship between soloist and orchestra was relatively simple. The theories surrounding equal temperament began to be put in wider practice, especially as it enabled a wider range of chromatic possibilities in hard-to-tune keyboard instruments. Although Bach did not use equal temperament, as a modern piano is generally tuned, changes in the temperaments from the meantone system, common at the time, to various temperaments that made modulation between all keys musically acceptable, made possible Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.[22]

Baroque music is characterized by the use of complex tonal counterpoint and the use of a basso continuo, a continuous bass line. Music became more complex in comparison with the songs of earlier periods.[11] The beginnings of the sonata form took shape in the canzona, as did a more formalized notion of theme and variations. The tonalities of major and minor as means for managing dissonance and chromaticism in music took full shape.[20]

Baroque instruments including hurdy gurdy, harpsichord, bass viol, lute, violin, and baroque guitar

Baroque music

The common practice period is when many of the ideas that make up western classical music took shape, standardized, or were codified. It began with the Baroque era, running from roughly 1600 to the middle of the 18th century. The Classical era followed, ending roughly around 1820. The Romantic era ran through the 19th century, ending about 1910.

Common practice period

[19] had emerged by the 16th century, as had a wider variety of brass and reed instruments. Printing enabled the standardization of descriptions and specifications of instruments, as well as instruction in their use.viol began to appear. Stringed instruments such as the harpsichord and clavichord instruments like the keyboard Later in the period, early versions of [18] Typical stringed instruments of the Early Period include the harp,

It is in this time that the notation of music on a staff and other elements of musical notation began to take shape.[16] This invention made possible the separation of the composition of a piece of music from its transmission; without written music, transmission was oral, and subject to change every time it was transmitted. With a musical score, a work of music could be performed without the composer's presence.[15] The invention of the movable-type printing press in the 15th century had far-reaching consequences on the preservation and transmission of music.[17]

The Medieval period includes music from after the fall of Rome to about 1400. Monophonic chant, also called plainsong or Gregorian chant, was the dominant form until about 1100.[15] Polyphonic (multi-voiced) music developed from monophonic chant throughout the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, including the more complex voicings of motets. The Renaissance period was from 1400 to 1600. It was characterized by greater use of instrumentation, multiple interweaving melodic lines, and the use of the first bass instruments. Social dancing became more widespread, so musical forms appropriate to accompanying dance began to standardize.

Johannes Ockeghem, Kyrie "Au travail suis," excerpt
The chanson Belle, bonne, sage by Baude Cordier, an ars subtilior piece included in the Chantilly Codex.
A musician plays the vielle in a fourteenth-century Medieval manuscript.

Early period

Burgh (2006), suggests that the roots of Western classical music ultimately lie in ancient Egyptian art music via cheironomy and the ancient Egyptian orchestra, which dates to 2,695BCE.[12] This was followed by early Christian liturgical music, which itself dates back to the Ancient Greeks. Development of individual tones and scales was done by ancient Greeks such as Aristoxenus and Pythagoras.[13] Pythagoras created a tuning system and helped to codify musical notation. Ancient Greek instruments such as the aulos (a reed instrument) and the lyre (a stringed instrument similar to a small harp) eventually led to the modern-day instruments of a classical orchestra.[14] The antecedent to the early period was the era of ancient music from before the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD). Very little music survives from this time, most of it from Ancient Greece.


The prefix neo is used to describe a 20th-century or contemporary composition written in the style of an earlier period, such as Classical or Romantic. Stravinsky's Pulcinella, for example, is a neoclassical composition because it is stylistically similar to works of the Classical period.

The dates are generalizations, since the periods overlapped and the categories are somewhat arbitrary. For example, the use of counterpoint and fugue, which is considered characteristic of the Baroque era, was continued by Haydn, who is classified as typical of the Classical period. Beethoven, who is often described as a founder of the Romantic period, and Brahms, who is classified as Romantic, also used counterpoint and fugue, but other characteristics of their music define their period.

The major time divisions of classical music are the early music period, which includes Medieval (500–1400) and Renaissance (1400–1600), the Common practice period, which includes the Baroque (1600–1750), Classical (1750–1830) and Romantic (1804–1910) periods, and the modern and contemporary period, which includes 20th century (1900–2000) and contemporary (1975–current).

Periods of
Western classical music
Medieval c. 500–1400
Renaissance c. 1400–1600
Common practice
Baroque c. 1600–1760
Classical c. 1730–1820
Romantic c. 1780–1910
Modern and contemporary
Modern c. 1890–1975
20th century 1901–2000
Contemporary c. 1975–present
21st century 2001–present


Classical music regularly features as background music for movies, television programmes, advertisements and events. "Nessun dorma" from Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot for example was the theme tune for the 1990 FIFA World Cup.


Works of classical repertoire often exhibit artistic complexity through the use of counterpoint, thematic development, phrasing, harmonization, modulation (change of key), texture, and, of course, musical form itself. Larger-scale compositional forms (such as that of the symphony, concerto, opera or oratorio, for example) usually represent a hierarchy of smaller units consisting of phrases, periods, sections, and movements. Musical analysis of a composition aims at achieving greater understanding of it, leading to more meaningful hearing and a greater appreciation of the composer's style.

Professional performance of classical music repertoire demands a significant level of proficiency in sight-reading and ensemble playing, thorough understanding of tonal and harmonic principles, knowledge of performance practice, and a familiarity with the style/musical idiom inherent to a given period, composer or musical work are among the most essential of skills for the classically trained musician.


Along with a desire for composers to attain high technical achievement in writing their music, performers of classical music are faced with similar goals of technical mastery, as demonstrated by the proportionately high amount of schooling and private study most successful classical musicians have had when compared to "popular" genre musicians, and the large number of secondary schools, including conservatories, dedicated to the study of classical music.

Technical execution

Classical composers often aspire to imbue their music with a very complex relationship between its affective (emotional) content and the intellectual means by which it is achieved. Many of the most esteemed works of classical music make use of musical development, the process by which a musical idea or motif is repeated in different contexts or in altered form. The sonata form and fugue employ rigorous forms of musical development.

Whereas most popular styles lend themselves to the song form, classical music has been noted for its development of highly sophisticated forms of instrumental music:[6] these include the concerto, symphony, sonata, suite, étude, symphonic poem, opera, and others.


While equal temperament became gradually accepted as the dominant musical temperament during the 18th century, different historical temperaments are often used for music from earlier periods. For instance, music of the English Renaissance is often performed in meantone temperament. Keyboards almost all share a common layout (often called the piano keyboard).

None of the bass instruments existed until the Renaissance. In Medieval music, instruments are divided in two categories: loud instruments for use outdoors or in church, and quieter instruments for indoor use. The Baroque orchestra consisted of flutes, oboes, horns and violins, occasionally with trumpets and timpani.[11] Many instruments today associated with popular music filled important roles in early classical music, such as bagpipes, vihuelas, hurdy-gurdies, and some woodwind instruments. On the other hand, instruments such as the acoustic guitar, once associated mainly with popular music, gained prominence in classical music in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Electric instruments such as the electric guitar and the ondes Martenot appear occasionally in the classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Both classical and popular musicians have experimented in recent decades with electronic instruments such as the synthesizer, electric and digital techniques such as the use of sampled or computer-generated sounds, and the sounds of instruments from other cultures such as the gamelan.

A youth concert band in performance

. double bass families of instruments. The concert band, another ensemble that plays classical music, consists of members of the woodwind, brass, and percussion families. The concert band generally has a larger variety and a larger amount of woodwind and brass instruments than the orchestra, but does not have a string section. However, many concert bands use a percussion, and brass, woodwind, string and includes members of the [11]

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