4 Musical Eras

The Classical period saw harpsichords replaced with pianos and orchestras become bigger, introducing new woodwind instruments like flutes, clarinets and oboe. Composers also used a musical form called the sonata to create pieces that were simple and clear.

The 20th Century saw composers break the rules of classical music with styles like impressionism, while Arnold Schoenberg created atonality.


During the Baroque period (from about 1600 to 1700) vocal and instrumental music both took on new forms. Music became characterized by grandeur, sensuous richness, drama, movement, tension and emotional exuberance.

The harpsichord and string instruments such as the violin, viola and cello gained in popularity and importance. Instrumental harmonies became more complex, easily identifiable and emotionally charged. Musical forms such as the dance suite and opera were introduced during this era.

The Baroque era also saw the development of common-practice tonality, where a piece is written in a specific key and has a fixed melodic center or tonic. This era also saw the creation of new instrumental forms such as the concerto and sonata. Composers such as Claudio Monteverdi, George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach created liturgical music as well as secular pieces. Bach is arguably the greatest composer of the Baroque era. His works such as The Well-Tempered Klavier and The Art of the Fugue are still staples in today’s classical music repertoire.


Unlike other musical eras, where styles and instruments disappear suddenly, the Classical era gradually faded out under the pressure of other influences. One big change was the shift away from the use of the harpsichord in orchestras for basso continuo to using the cello, violin and viola. Another change was the evolution of what we know as sonata form. This form helps give a piece of music its structure and order, while other forms like concerto and symphony were developing too.

Other changes include the growing popularity of piano music and a new emphasis on virtuosity, the gradual decline of church patronage, and the growth of concert societies. Musical forms became more standardized with changes to harmonic structures such as a shift towards the major keys and less chromaticism. The combination of these changes led to a reshaping of the world of music as we know it, ushering in the Romantic era. The composers of this era included Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.


Early Romantic composers, such as Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn, pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable for Classical music. These composers believed that rules were meant to be explored and tested, rather than obeyed. They incorporated a greater range of melodic chromaticism, and created more expressive harmony. They also experimented with varying the timbre of instruments to communicate specific emotions and moods. For example, shrill and dissonant tones could convey feelings of terror, while warmer, lush tones conveyed a sense of romance.

While breaking the rules, Romantic composers still largely based their works on Classical forms, such as symphonies and operas. However, they expanded these forms by adding longer introductions and developments. They also enlarged the balance of a two-part Classical sonata form into three-part compositions by adding dramatic codas to each movement. They introduced a variety of harmonic progressions and even employed dissonance, which creates tension by using notes that are close together.


During the Modern era composers sought inspiration from other musical genres and new technology. This is when music started to respond to world events and became more societally driven. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima are examples of this. Jazz also came into the picture and was embraced by composers like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland.

It was during this time that composers such as Arnold Schoenberg began experimenting with atonality – in which all twelve pitches on the chromatic scale had to sound before any could repeat. The mixolydian mode which has a straight non swung feel was also popular in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Other composers experimented with aleatoric elements, where some of the composition was left to chance such as the number of beats per bar or how fast a piece is played. Composers such as Henry Cowell and John Cage used unusual instruments or would perform their pieces acoustically.

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