Western Classical Music



"Classical Music" is a bit of a blanket term that we use to describe "old" music, but there is a whole load of fascinating styles and periods hiding inside - let's get familiar with them!


What is Western Classical Music?


  • Western music is music composed/created in Europe, the United States, and societies that were shaped by European immigrants. 
  • It has taken many forms over the years and the time that it was written determines how the music sounds. 
  • Each musical time period has musical characters of the time which means we can quite easily recognise what musical period a piece was written in. 


Here is a rough timeline of the periods of music: 

These periods don’t just relate to music but to art, literature and architecture too. It is interesting to compare the different art forms of each period - can you see how they are all interlinked and often quite similar?


The Medieval Era (500 - 1450)

Music in the medieval era was centred around the church. Church leaders saw the power of music and began to use it for meditation prayer.  

This religious music was called plainchant:

  • A single line melody sung in Latin, the language of the church. 
  • Musical instruments were not then approved of by the Church  as they were associated with the pagan culture of Romans and Greeks
  • This meant that 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:

  • This was sung by Gregorian monks. 
  • Gregorian monks also created one of the first standards for musical notation known as neumes ( symbols and shapes meant to represent specific pitches). 

It wasn't until late in the Medieval Era that music started branching out to more than one melody line. This was called polyphony - when two or more melodies are played at the same time.

Musical Example:

The Renaissance Era (1450 - 1600)

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 people were supposed to be accomplished musicians!

How the music developed:

  • Printing allowed music to become more accessible
  • A wide variety of styles and genres of music emerged as composers started sharing ideas. 
  • Composers developed the single-melody plainchant by combining several complex melodies at once
  • The upper class started hiring musicians and composers as resident members of their courts. 
  • Secular music (non-religious) thrived during this era and was often played by small groups of musicians known as “consorts”.

Famous composers:

  • Guillaume DuFay (1397 - 1474)
  • Thomas Tallis (1501 - 1585)
  • William Byrd ( - 1623)
  • Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643)

Musical example:

Claudio Monteverdi: Magnificat 

The Baroque Era (1600 - 1750)

The Baroque Era was characterised 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. 

How the music developed:

  • Musicians would improvise on already complex melodies, adding musical embellishments that showed off their skills.
  • Sacred compositions such as masses and passions (much larger works) were created
  • Opera was born 
  • The Renaissance “consort” grew into a small orchestra. 
  • 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.

Famous composers:

  • George Friedric Handel (1685 - 1759)
  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)
  • Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741)

Musical examples:

George Friedric Handel: Water Music 

Johann Sebastian: Air 

The Classical Era (1750 - 1820)

Often, all Western art music is referred to as classical music, but it is also an era as well as a genre. This comes from the fact that a large amount of music from this era has remained popular up to today. 

As a reaction to the super fancy music of the Baroque Era, Classical musicians, like Mozart and Haydn, preferred balanced phrases, structure and organisation.

How the music developed:

  • Composers created rules for music that provided a framework for compositions. This included - balanced structures, clear organisation & simple melodies.
  • The symphony was created - a four-movement orchestral piece 
  • Opera continued to be built upon and was greatly improved. 
  • The modern orchestra also took shape
  • The piano became the preferred keyboard instrument - the harpsichord was popular until now

Composers and musicians were beginning to think of themselves as artists, not just servants to the wealthy. 

Also, the industrial revolution helped create a new class of businessmen who were interested in the arts, and so more public concert halls were built to meet their demands. 

Famous composers:

  • Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
  • Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828)
  • Gioachino Rossini (1792 - 1868)

Musical examples:

Have a listen to how the music of these composers changes over time - compare Beethoven’s symphony no. 1 to no. 9 - and you will hear how this era morphed into the Romantic era. You can see that some of the composers above lived through the transition of both musical periods. 

Beethoven 1:

Beethoven 9: 

The Romantic Era (1820 CE - 1900 CE)

Everything in the Romantic Era was bigger and more dramatic. Many different movements were embraced by the composers of this era:  individualism, nationalism, and emotionalism. 

Artists were expected to express their innermost feelings and desires through their compositions.

How the music developed:

  • Musical pieces became longer
  • Musicians had to play higher, lower, and louder than ever before!
  • The orchestra doubled in size
  • Traditional tonal patterns and vocalist styles were modified, extended, or discarded.
  • Music for ballet became increasingly popular 

Famous composers:

  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
  • Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828)

(both these composers were apart of the transition from Classical to Romantic)

  • Frederic Chopin (1810 - 1849)
  • Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869)
  • Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856)
  • Pyotr Ill-yich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
  • Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883)

Music examples: 

Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique 

Pyotr Ill-yich Tchaikovsky: Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from the Nutcracker


Phew! Who knew there were so many different eras to get stuck into? Which era sounds most exciting to you?