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 CE - 1450 CE)

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. 
  • Here is an example of some Gregorian chant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eC6OKIYXBxQ
  • 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.

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 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.


  • Claudio Monteverdi
  • Du Fay

The Baroque Era (1600 CE - 1750 CE)

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 also 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.


  • Handel
  • Bach 

The Classical Era (1750 CE - 1820 CE)

Oftentimes, all Western art music is referred to as classical music. 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 excessively fancy music of the Baroque Era, Classical musicians, like Mozart and Haydn, preferred …...

How the music developed:

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

Composers and musicians were beginning to think of themselves as artists, not merely servants to the wealthy. In addition, the industrial revolution helped create a new class of businessmen who were interested in pursuing the arts, and so more public concert halls were built to meet their demands. Many composers also found a new source of revenue giving music lessons.


  • Mozart  

  • Haydn

The Romantic Era (1820 CE - 1900 CE)

Everything in the Romantic Era was bigger and more dramatic. Musical pieces became longer, composers called for musicians to play higher, lower, and louder than ever before, and the orchestra doubled in size. Many different ideologies and movements were embraced by the composers of this era, including notions of individualism, nationalism, and emotionalism. Artists were expected to express their innermost feelings and desires through their compositions, and traditional tonal patterns and vocalist styles were modified, extended, or discarded.

Many of the most beloved composers of all time lived during this time, including Schubert, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky, who experimented with new combinations to create highly emotional music. Romantic Era melodies were exciting and dramatic, and they broke many of the rules that had become standard practice during the Classical era. Beethoven is perhaps the best example of this change. He considered himself a free agent of the arts and deliberately wrote in a personal style where his compositions were based on his own experiences and ideas.

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

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