Recognizing and understanding the different eras of classical music is important for piano students (students learning any type of music, really), says Marie Dvorkin owner of PianoForte Music School.
The different musical periods feature unique sounds and techniques — even different versions of instruments. And being familiar with the different composers and their methods within those musical periods helps students “know the spirit” of each piece, according to Marie.
Students also learn how to perform the music more accurately when they understand why the music was written in a certain way.
Some techniques were used during some eras of classical music while they weren’t in others. But why? The reasons are many, including that instruments changed and the older techniques weren’t possible to perform.
Regardless of the reason, each of the musical periods has distinct characteristics that separate it from other period music.
Why Has Music Changed?
Like humans and every animal species that has, does and will exist on the planet, music has evolved throughout time.
What we now call music started with human voices and has grown to include all types of instruments, techniques and conventions. Scholars have used those characteristics to define the eras of classical music.
While some scholars identify up to seven or more musical periods, the latter four are agreed upon across the board and across time.
Those four periods are: Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Contemporary. Let’s discuss a bit about each of the eras of classical music.
The Baroque Period (1600-1750)
Before 1600, most music was written as a single melody, known as monophonic. Harmonies didn’t start to appear until right before and at the start of the Baroque period.
Polyphony, which means many voices, became popular. Marie said Baroque period music was challenging to play and she compared the process of learning the music to a science experiment.
“You could listen to each voice individually, but then you’d have to play them together,” she said. “That could be very difficult.”
Another thing to remember about the Baroque musical period is that there were no pianos as we know them today. Instead, keyboardists played the clavichord and later the harpsichord.
Because of the way the clavichord and harpsichord made sounds, there was no way to account for dynamics, the volume of the sound being produced.
The Baroque period witnessed the development of musical composition in keys, and the period music was generally associated with complex rhythms and complicated harmonies.
The concept of an orchestra was developed during this era of classical music. So were opera and concerto, a piece written for solo instruments accompanied by an orchestra.
Modern-day violins, violas and cellos were developed around this time, and the minuet was a popular dance during the Baroque musical period.
Composers from the Baroque era of classical music were Johann Sebastian Bach, Girolamo Frescobaldi, George Frideric Handel, Johann Pachelbel and Georg Phillipp Telemann.
During this period, music gradually became an integral part of societal life as it was performed during dinner parties or other social events.
The Classical Period (1750-1820)
Classical period music is most famous for developing the sonata-allegro form, a piece for smaller ensembles of instruments with three movements. The first movement is allegro (brisk), the second, adagio (slow) and the third, rondo, which means a melody is repeated throughout the movement.
Melody was the main component of music during the Classical era. Simple melodies and highly elegant melodies were put together to create pleasant tunes. The complex Baroque period music compositions were not popular during this era of classical music.
Also, during the Classical period, the Alberti Bass accompaniment technique was developed. This technique consists of the three notes in a traditional chord being played at a steady pace in a specific order: lowest, highest, middle, highest.
But probably the most significant development was the birth of the predecessor to the modern-day piano.
Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori figured out how to strike the piano strings with a hammer instead of plucking them the way a clavichord or harpsichord worked. He called his creation a harpsichord that can play soft and loud noises: clavicembalo col piano e forte. The name was later shortened to simply “piano.”
With this new instrument, composers could designate when their compositions would get louder and then softer, something they couldn’t do with the clavichord or harpsichord.
The minuet was still the favored dance.
The most famous of the composers during the Classical musical period were Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Ludwig van Beethoven’s work finished the Classical era and ushered in the next great era of classical music: the Romantic Period.
The Romantic Period (1820-1900)
Romantic period music was more emotional and passionate. Melodies were often longer and more complex. Romantic music was known for its expressive melodies and dramatic orchestration.
Romantic period composers incorporated a lot of folk music in their creations. Waltz was the most popular dance. Chord progression continued to develop and the piano pedal was used more effectively.
Also, during the Romantic period, music became more accessible to the masses. More people learned to play piano or another instrument because the public had more access to instruments and written music. “There was just more of everything,” Marie said.
Notable composers included Johannes Brahms, Frederic Chopin, Antonin Dvorak, Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Giuseppe Verdi.
The Contemporary Period (1900-present)
Contemporary classical music is defined by its innovative approach to composition.
History and politics of the 20th century inspired a variety of musical styles during this time. The music shows the progress that music and technology have made, some of which incorporate jazz and rock sounds.
French composers brought impressionism to the music world. Arnold Schoenberg pioneered atonality, a type of music that does not use a tonal center or key.
Composers during this era didn’t feel the need to conform to traditional European classical music techniques. Composers embraced individuality and rejected traditionalism.
“This gave composers more freedom to express themselves and create distinctive sounds,” Marie said.
Advancements in technology helped record classical and jazz, leading to a rise of internationally influenced artists like Luciano Pavarotti and Maria Callas.
Composers like John Adams and Stephen Reich embraced minimalism and overcame musical boundaries to build their popularity.
Many composers during this era are still alive and continue to write music. Other notable contemporary classical composers include John Cage, Philip Glass, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Dmitri Shostakovich.
That’s a Wrap!
So, there you have it! The four eras of classical music. Stay tuned for future blog posts in which we will explore each period in more detail.
In the meantime, why not contact Marie today to find out how you can learn more about music and how to play the piano?
As part of your education, you’ll delve into the eras of classical music and learn how those musical periods impacted the world of classical music.