Classical music is a phrase used to refer to music created since the medieval period, scored for a wide range and sometimes a large number of acoustic (non-amplified) instruments.
Broadly speaking, the term is commonly used as a misnomer, as music is divided into eras, not necessarily different styles or genres which exist in all eras. Strictly speaking, "Classical music" refers to the time period roughly from 1750 - 1800.
The history is broken into several major divisions:
- Low Baroque (1600-1650)
- Middle Baroque (1650-1700)
- High or Late Baroque (1700-1750)
- Early Romantic (1803-1857)
- Late Romantic (1857-1927)
- Electric age (1927-present)
Although there are not strict temporal divisions, each period has tended to reflect other things that were going on in society and civilization at the time. Each period has a handful of better known composers who represent the style in people's minds.
The Baroque era takes its name from architectural styles of the period. The word baroque literally means "grotesque," a label bestowed on the era posthumously in the Classical period.
The Classical era borrowed its name from the literary styles of the day.
The Romantic era is born out of the revolutionary age of the French Enlightenment, is much more expansive than the hard-and-fast rules of the Classical period, encompasses the entire 19th century and basically died in the First World War.
The Electric age begins with the end of acoustic recordings and beginning of motor-driven, electric recordings. Amplification and radio also played a large part. Stylistically, due to America's standing in the world after the First World War, jazz and blues became popular worldwide, although harmonically speaking, jazz and blues have their roots in the late Romantic.
The term classical music also include music systems from non western cultures as well. This includes Indian Classical Music, Chinese Classical music and Japanese traditions.
Baroque music is principally church music, as most surviving manuscripts were written for the church.
Stylistically, baroque music often observes a strict or unvarying rhythm, and marked by an absence of modulation - the subtleties of crescendo and diminuendo. In this sense, baroque and hip hop have much in common. And extensive use of counterpoint - two or more music lines played against each other simultaneously, which is the defining characteristic of Western music. Counterpoint sets apart Western music from Far Eastern, Indian, and African traditions which are characterized by a more complex rhythmic system and a less developed harmonic system.
The Classical period occurred at a time of a rising middle class and intellectual enlightenment, and ended in the flames of the French Revolution. Music was no longer just the purview of the nobility and the church. With the rise of the publishing business, common people began to engage in amateur music making for an evenings entertainment after a meal, Affordable theatre tickets helped insure that music was no longer just the past time of the idle rich. What's more, music making, music education, the publishing and distribution business, orchestras and ensembles in virtually every town, and manufacturing instruments meant jobs.
The enlightened thinkers of the classical period rejected much of the cultural contributions of the previous generation, but not all. From the Baroque era Franz Joseph Hadyn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart borrowed sonata form and made it the regimental structure of Classical music. Sonata form survived well into the Romantic era, despite Romantics sometimes seeing it as old fashioned or against the revolutionary spirit of Romanticism. Another is the classical age's strict meter - the metronome was invented in this time period to teach music students to observe strict meter.
Classical composers retained counterpoint, and built on it with new subtleties such as crescendo and diminuendo for dramatic effect.
The Romantic Era begins with Ludwig van Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, the Eroica. One of the most common fallacies is that Beethoven was a classical composer. Classical music ended with Beethoven. Beethoven's innovations were so revolutionary that he gave birth to an entire new age that followed after him.
Romanticism, in contrast to the Classical period, is much more expansive. It appeals to the emotions, not the intellect as Classic music was designed. It sometimes dispenses with the four-beat measure, its melodic lines are lengthier, it allows for syncopation or changing rhythm. It often uses progression or crescendo and glissando to heighten emotion.
Expanded melodic lines also gave fresh opportunities for expanded use of counterpoint, sometimes making the music increasingly complex.
Beethoven invented a new genre of music with his Symphony No. 6, the Pastoral. Instead the using traditional Italian markings, such as allegro, adagio, or andante for each movement, Beethoven tried to create a picture of a day in the country with markings such as Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside, Scene by the brook, Merry gathering of country folk, Thunder Storm and Shepherd's song. Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm. Thus from the absolute music of the Classical era Beethoven created program music, or music with a literary basis.
Beethoven was a hard act to follow, but his revolutionary ideas laid the foundation for what came after.
Program music became increasingly popular after Beethoven with many people believing there was nothing more to be said in the symphonic genre after Beethoven's mighty 9th Symphony. Although symphonies continued to be written after Beethoven, the tone poem, a form of program music, became increasingly popular.
- A short example of the lengthier melodic lines with contrapuntal harmonies is this excerpt from Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Shateten (The Woman without Child}. Symphonic Fantasy from 'Die Frau ohne Schatten': Langsam.