Music History

The Short Version...very short.

There are 6 periods of musical history:

Medieval (everything before the year 1400)

Renaissance (1400 - 1600)

Baroque (1600 - 1750)

Classical (1750 - 1830)

Romantic (1830 - 1920)

Contemporary (1920 - present)


Read the small sections below, then click on the links (WITH HEADPHONES) to watch the videos. Then, fill out the google form. That form is how you will be graded for today's work. You will probably not have time to watch all of the videos from start to finish. Some are quite long, so listen for a few minutes to get the idea and then move on to the next one.

Medieval (everything before the year 1400)

MEDIEVAL MUSIC: There were two main types of music - secular and religious. Secular music was made up of folk songs and ballads, many of which were sung by wandering musicians called troubadours. These were mostly song about love or great valor in battle. The secular musicians sang and accompanied themselves with all kinds of instruments. Religious music was performed without instrument accompaniment. It was sung or chanted by monks. This music is called plainchant or Gregorian chant.

MEDIEVAL MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS: The lute was a popular instrument used by medieval musicians. Percussion instruments, drums, cymbals, bells were important. Organs were used in many churches. There were also some wind instruments, horns and flutes. Some of these instruments are the Hurdy-Gurdy, Zither, Recorder, Babypipes, Cornamuse, Bladderpipe, Doleimer, Zink, and the Serpent.

Cantiga de Santa Maria
Chant of Corsica - Tantum ergo

Renaissance (1400 - 1600)

Renaissance music is European music written from about the year 1400 to 1600. This section of time is called the Renaissance, a word which means “rebirth”. The Renaissance comes between the Middle Ages and the Baroque times.

Putting music into time sections does not mean that there were quick changes of type. Music changed slowly. Early Renaissance music was similar to Medieval music. Slowly music-writers started to try new ideas. A lot of medieval church music had become very hard with lots of rules about rhythms and clashes of notes to make dissonances. A lot of Renaissance composers wrote music which was smoother and more gentle. The music was still polyphonic with each voice having a share of melody. Music was starting to become less modal and more tonal. By the time the Baroque period started composers were using a system of major and minor keys like we do today.

Renaissance Music in a Castle. Ancient Music in the Loire Valley.
Italian Renaissance Music for Viola da Gamba Consort,La Gamba

Baroque (1600 - 1750)

The Baroque was a time when people liked large spaces and a lot of ornamentation. This can be seen in the architecture of famous buildings such as St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, or St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. They were built at this time. In Venice there were churches with galleries on either side of the church. Composers liked to write music for two groups of musicians placed in opposite galleries.

The idea of two contrasting groups was used a lot in Baroque music. Composers wrote concertos. These were pieces for orchestra and a solo instrument. Sometimes a concerto contrasted a group of soloists with the rest of the orchestra. These are called by the Italian name "Concerti Grossi. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are good examples.

Organs, and some harpsichords, had at least two manuals (keyboards). The player could change from one manual to the other, contrasting two different sounds.

Baroque music was often a melody with a bass line at the bottom. This could be, for example, a singer and a cello. There was also a harpsichord or organ that played the bass line as well, and made up chords in between. Often the composer did not bother to write out all the chords (harmonies) but just showed some of the chords by figures, leaving it to the performer to decide exactly which notes to play. This is called “figured bass” or “basso continuo”. The soloist, who played or sang the melody on top, often put in lots of ornamental notes. Again: the composer did not write this all down but left it to the performer to improvise something nice around the notes he had written.

Corelli Violin Sonata Op. 5 No. 3 in C Major
Sollazzo Ensemble

Classical (1750 - 1830)

We’ve got classical music, and now we’ve got the classical period. What’s all this about? This is confusing! Classical music was music from the classical period—just like baroque music is music from the baroque period.

It is important to note that the classical period ended before Beethoven died. This is because Beethoven was the one who ended it! At the end of his life, Beethoven’s music was so new that it had to be called something completely different. Other famous composers of the classical period include Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Schubert.


Here are some of the common features you will hear in music of the classical period:

  • A tune! Most music of the classical period has a clear tune. There is little of the weaving together of different tunes that you get in baroque music. This means that music from the classical period often sounds much simpler than baroque music.
  • Loud one second, quiet the next (but not as much as romantic music). Music from the classical period keeps changing volume. It keeps changing in many other ways as well. You will notice these as changes of mood.
  • The name! The same names keep coming up over and over again in music of the classical period. For example, you will see lots of symphonies, sonatas, and concertos. Each of these is a style all of its own!
Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, I. Allegro | New Century Chamber Orchestra
Haydn, Symphony No. 94 in G Major (Surprise) Second Movement: Andante

Romantic (1830 - 1920)

Haven’t people always tried to express feelings in music? Well, yes. What is different about romantic music is how strong the feeling are. The whole reason for writing the music is also different. Earlier music (such as baroque, or music from the classical period) was often written for the church or simply for entertainment. If this music happened to express feelings as well, then all the better! On the other hand, many romantic composers were not too worried about entertaining (or the church for that matter). They simply wrote their music to express their feelings, and that was it. The audience was left to take it or leave it!

Beethoven wrote the first romantic music. Beethoven wrote the first music where he didn’t really care what the audience thought. And the audience was shocked! It’s hard to imagine now, but they really were. Beethoven’s first piece like this was his Symphony No. 3, commonly called the Eroica Symphony (heroic in Italian).

BEETHOVEN - Symphony no. 3 "EROICA" - Leonard Bernstein (1)
Wagner Götterdämmerung - Siegfried's death and Funeral march Klaus Tennstedt London Philharmonic

Contemporary (1920 - present)

Modern classical music is easy to describe, but not always easy to listen to. The number one rule of modern classical music is this: There are no rules!

Modern classical music is about breaking rules. It’s about being different. Whatever you think music should sound like, I am sure there is some modern classical music that doesn’t sound like that at all!!

Modern music didn’t really get going until about 1920. Two composers are responsible for this. They are:

  • Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971),
  • Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951).

Both of these composers wrote a piece of music around 1910 that was very different from anything before. Stravinsky’s was a ballet called Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) and appeared in 1913. And Schoenberg’s was his String Quartet No. 2 of 1908.

In both cases audiences were shocked. Stravinsky’s music even caused a riot. The audience started fighting and the police had to come and sort it out. Who said classical music was boring??

Many grown-ups will tell you that most modern classical is rubbish. But I would ignore them and find out for yourself. Don’t be put off by strange sounds. Think of it as an adventure into sounds you’ve never dreamed of.

Stravinsky: Rite of Spring (Live 4.24.13)
Ann Moss and The Hausmann Quartet: String Quartet #2 Opus 10 (Arnold Schoenberg)

Now, fill out the assignment below. This part is for a grade.

Information came from the sites below. Click on them for more information about a specific time period!