• Alyna Ooi

An Introduction to Classical Music: The Musical Periods (Part I)

In this series, we get to learn more about classical music that was produced by the Western culture over the 800 years. In the vast and wide-ranging world of classical music, there is truly something there for everyone to discover.

In biology, evolution is the change of characteristics of a species over several generations and relies on natural selection. Evolution has been happening and species gradually change over the time. In other words, our society evolves as well and so does the style and sound of music. Music encompasses of culture, art, passion, art and ideology.

What makes this special is that the characteristics of the  music represents the time period in which the music was created as well as the people who created it. Here, we can glance back at some of the engrossing periods in the music history and how they influenced us till today.

Baroque Period (1600-1750)

The Baroque period marked the beginning of what is considerably known as classical music. This period contributed to the foundation of the next 300 years of musical expression, where the idea of modern orchestra was adapted along with the opera, the concerto, sonata and modern cantata.

During this period the rather soft strings instruments were gradually replaced by strong, bolder violin, viola and cello, and of course, the harpsichord was invented. Woodwinds and brass instruments were updated and advanced. Stronger percussion with instruments like the timpani, snare drum, tambourine and castanets were also introduced in this period. New instruments such as the oboe, bassoon and cello, contrabass and fortepiano (early version of piano) were invented. The music began to work its way into society and is being played in outdoors, parties and special function.

How to characterise:

  • complex pieces and intricate harmonies

  • counterpoint (2 or more independent melodies played together)

  • terraced dynamics (sudden loudness or softness)

  • ornaments (decoration of main note)


  • Bach

  • Handel

  • Purcell...

Classical Period (1750-1830)

The Classical Period expanded upon the Baroque period and the 'sonata' became an influential new song form. Although this period did not introduce any new instruments, the harpsichord was officially replaced by the piano. Orchestras increased in size, range, and power. This caused the instrumentation overall to become more lighter and had a more evident texture than Baroque music, making it less complicated.

Music from the Baroque period shifted towards a single melody with accompaniment creating a lighter, clearer and defined melody, making it less complicated. Harmony really defines the Classical Era. This period was also the development of the concerto, symphony, sonata, trio and quartet.

How to characterise:

  • single melody with accompaniment

  • larger variety of keys, melodies, rhythm and dynamics

  • shorter and clearer melodies

  • more emphasis on instrumental music


  • Mozart

  • Schubert

  • Haydn...

Romantic Period (1830-1920)

The Romantic Period as you can imagine, brought an increase of emotions. Just from the word itself 'romantic', this period took a classical period and added overwhelming amounts of intensity and expressions. Instrumentation became more prominent, orchestras growing to a higher number than before and brought meaning into the musical art form. Composers experimented new ways, trying out unique instrumentation combinations.

Public concerts and operas were not only available to the royalty and riches ever since and moved into the hands of the urban middle-class society to enjoy. Music from the romantic period is unique for the greater passion and expression, displaying an expansion from previous periods.

How to characterise:

  • free form and more personal expression of emotion

  • emphasis on lyrical melodies and themes

  • more modulation (change in key)

  • greater variety in pitch, dynamics and rhythm


  • Chopin

  • Mendelssohn

  • Dvorak...

Contemporary Period (1920-Present)

The Contemporary Period is the most visible period to differentiate from the previous periods due to the shift in tone. Over time, the composers have been pulling further and further away from rules and restrictions into what is ultimately  now a place without limitations.

Ever since the radio was invented, music has been changed with the help of other technologies such as recording devices, not to mention that the television and music videos also influenced the era. With these revolutionary advancements spreading throughout the culture, music flavour, tempo and form also dramatically evolved.

How to characterise:

20th century:

  • varies greatly, no dominant style

  • increased use of dissonance

21st century:

  • huge variety in style

  • written for film scores


  • Ravel

  • Debussy

  • Shostakovich...

Not The End yet...

Classical Music is now a place for ultimate experimentation, and though it might not be as popular in the 1800s, it certainly has never disappeared. Classical music has come a long way, and countless composers have contributed to making it into what it is today. One thing that classical music has taught us is that music is timeless. We still look back to the beginning from time to time and remember the beautiful things that people from the past have made. We are so thankful for their hard work and the creation of classical music that always keeps on giving.

Listening to classical music can be enlightening, inspiring or a relaxing experience, depending on your mood and what you're listening to. But you just can't play a piece and immediately understand and enjoy it like you can with pop music. Appreciating it takes time and effort and bear with me, the next article we will further discuss on this. :)


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