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Musical Periods

by Sherry Li

Many people enjoy listening to classical music but do you know the history behind them? In this article, we will discuss the different musical periods and famous composers during that time.


Being the first documented and the longest classical era, medieval music has a distinct sound. There are five main differences in medieval music: monophony, music notation, instruments, Troubadours/Trouvères, and rhythm. Monophony means music with only one melody line. One example is the Gregorian chant, where monks and nuns sing a single vocal melody line oftentimes not accompanied. 

During the early times, there wasn’t a notational system. People shared music through singing and memory. Romans introduced signs called neumes written above the lyrics or chant. The purpose of these symbols is to show the rise (acutus) and fall (gravis) of the voice. Eventually, these symbols became neumatic notation. By the 9th century, it was the primary musical notation. It became “ligatures,” where the signs have two or more characters. Common instruments during this time is the Medieval flute (holes instead of keys), dulcimer, lyra, recorder, and lute. These medical instruments are often played in cathedrals and monasteries and at courts of wealthy noblemen and royals. Troubadours and trouvères are traveling musicians or poet-musicians that perform at courthouses and help spread music. Another characteristic of Medieval music is the rhythm/modes. Medieval music was not as rhythmically organized and had patterns called “modal scales.” Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian were most commonly used. Aeolian, Locrian, and Augmented Ionian weren’t used as frequently. The music also emphasized the pattern of whole-and-half steps rather than a regular pulse. One popular composer from this time was Hildegard von Bingen.


Polyphonic music was emerging through the late stages of the Medieval era and paved the way for Renaissance. Characteristics of Renaissance music include polyphony, tonal music, and an increase in risk-taking. Music during this time emphasized multiple voices singing in a polyphonic style which adds dimension to the music. In the Renaissance era, vocal music remained modal but newer forms like the English madrigal and the Italian madrigal used tonal music that places strong emphasis on cadences at the end of sections or entire pieces.

Italian and German Acappella music employed a style called musica reservata, which included many chromatics and ornaments. Instruments in the Renaissance era included Lute, Rebec, Lyre, Guitar, Recorder, Trumpet, Tambourine, and much more. Composers like Josquin des Prez, Gesualdo, and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina were very famous during this time.


Baroque was a period when many famous composers came to be such as JS Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Corelli, Monteverdi, Telemann, Scarlatti, Couperin, and much more. Contrast, such as the differences between loud and soft, solo and ensemble, and different instruments, and timbres all play an important role in many Baroque compositions. Composers also began to be more precise about instrumentation, often specifying the instruments on which a piece should be played instead of allowing the performer to choose. 

The trumpet and violin also grew in popularity during the Baroque period. The concept of “melody” and “harmony” begin to become popular and composers started focusing less on the complicated polyphony that was used during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and more on a single voice with a simplified accompaniment, or monody. The harpsichord was the primary keyboard instrument and instruments important in the Renaissance era like the lute and viol, still continued to be used. String instruments like the violin, viola, and cello also became popular and used gut strings instead of metal strings today. Baroque scores contain little information about articulation, ornamentation, or dynamics, so modern ensembles make their own performance choices. 


The classical era has some of the most well-known composers including Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Rossini, Paganini, Boccherini, and much more. In contrast to Baroque music, this music used basic melodies and big ensembles to sustain them. This made the music feel softer and more pleasant. Composers started to put more emphasis on form and function. They used unique, catchy, single-line melodies and simple tonal harmony.

To get new variations, composers used familiar melodies from folk music. Additionally, they modified the tonality, speed, and dynamics and removed the sense of surprise associated with Baroque music. In the Classical period, the number of public concert halls with audiences grew. It became an important source of income for composers and artists and made Classical music more accessible and popular than Baroque music. Classical music is developed to incorporate big contrasts, sometimes even within the same theme. During the classical period, the orchestra took the shape that you can still see today. Symphony orchestras and string quartets were more popular. Many instruments played during this time are modern instruments seen today in orchestras.


Composers such as Shubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Mahler, and Strauss were during the Romantic era. The romantic period is very similar to the classical era but more dramatic. Characteristics such as freeform and design of the music, longer melodies, use of chromatic harmonies, exaggerated use of dynamics and articulations, intense energy and passion, and dramatic operas distinguish the romantic from the classical era. Several improvements were made to the piano such as more keys, and a metal frame as opposed to wood. 

The piano also gained a richer sound, and the sustaining pedal began to be used to a much wider extent. Famous piano composers wrote sonatas, waltz, polonaise, and mood and character pieces such as impromptu, prelude, nocturne, ballad, intermezzo and rhapsody. Changes were made to the form of the Concerto during the Romantic period. Instead of a double exposition, there was now a single exposition, usually with the soloist entering immediately, playing with the orchestra. There’s a growth of virtuoso and more excitement and drama. Piano and violin became the main concerto instruments.


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