The Classical Music Period: An Overview

The Classical music period vs classical music. It’s confusing but the word “Classical” (capitalised) refers to the specific 90-year period that we are covering in this post, while “classical” (non-capitalised) refers to the whole western art tradition (which also includes the Baroque and Romantic periods, for example).

This blog post will take a look at the main features, stylistic and technological advances and key composers of Classical music, to hopefully give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of the period.

When Was The Classical Music Era?

Things got a little lighter and more elegant in the Classical Period, which spanned 1730-1820.

There was a move towards simplicity, and some incredible, beautifully memorable melodies were written by the likes of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who is, for many, the greatest composer of them all.

Important developments included the invention of the piano and the birth of the string quartet which we’ll cover later.

The Classical period came after the Baroque era, with the Galant style briefly linking the two periods.

It preceded the Romantic era, making it the fourth of the six major periods of Western classical music.

Here are the others along with their dates:

The Transition from Baroque to Classical

The Baroque era is generally considered to have ended in around 1750, whilst the Classical period began in approximately 1730.

The period between them both saw a style called Gallant music.

Galant Music

This crossover can in part be attributed to the Galant style, which was in fashion from the 1720s to the 1770s, and in which composers consciously dialed down the complexity of the Baroque period in favour of a simpler approach that anticipated Classical music.

The word “galant” derives from French, and a galant homme was someone who was cultured, elegant and virtuous.

Johann Christian Bach (son of Baroque composer J.S. Bach), the late work of Georg Phillip Telemann and early Mozart pieces all arguably utilise the graceful Galant style.

Melody and Style

Lots of music in the Baroque period was characterised by complex, layered polyphony (meaning that it contained multiple independent lines weaving in and out of each other).

In the Classical period, however, music became much clearer and simpler, with melody now the order of the day.

Composers like Mozart and Haydn were real tunesmiths who wrote memorable, singable melodies, many of which are still familiar today.

Pieces tended to be organised into neat, balanced phrases, and the dominant texture was now homophony.

This means that there is a clear melody line, and a subordinate accompanying part, often playing chords.

There was also more of a compositional focus upon chord sequences.

One example of a typical Classical accompaniment is the Alberti bass, where an accompanying part (usually the left hand of a piano part) plays chords that are broken up into arpeggio-type figures.

Whilst a densely polyphonic Baroque composition might have multiple parts that all seem to be of approximately equal importance, there could be no doubt that an Alberti bass part was playing an accompanying role to the piece’s more prominent melody.

This is in keeping with the fact that Classical music tends to have a much clearer, lighter and more ordered texture than other styles.

Instrumentation and the Expansion of the Orchestra

Orchestras grew in size considerably during the Classical period, becoming closer to the ensembles that we see perform today.

Whilst Baroque orchestras would feature a harpsichord or organ playing a basso continuo part, this role fell out of favour, and instead proper, self-contained woodwind sections became the norm alongside the existing string sections.

In spite of the move towards simpler music and clearer textures during the Classical period, the increasing size of orchestras during this time gave them a bigger, more powerful sound.

Whilst in the Baroque period a wide range of bowed string instruments had been used, including various types of viol (a fretted string instrument), the string section was now standardised and limited to the four main instruments that we see in orchestras today: violin, viola, cello and double bass.

Woodwind and brass sections by this point shared some common ground with modern orchestras, but there were some instruments played then which are now rarely seen.

For example:

  • Basset horn – a larger, curved member of the clarinet family.
  • Chalumeau – a member of the woodwind family and a predecessor to the clarinet with eight tone holes.
  • Buccin – a distinctive looking relative of the trombone, with a serpent or dragon’s head-shaped bell.
  • Ophicleide – a narrow, keyed relative of the tuba.

Whilst in the Baroque period players were expected to improvise their own dynamics and ornaments, the Classical period saw players given more detailed performance directions.

Invention of the Piano

The Pino

The twanging harpsichord was one of the defining sounds of the Baroque era, but its method of sound production – with strings plucked by a quill – meant that it could only be played at one volume.

In around 1700 an Italian named Bartolomeo Cristofori invented an alternative keyboard instrument which utilised a hammer mechanism to hit the strings, meaning that the note only sounds as loudly as its corresponding key is pressed by the player.

This instrument was initially known as the fortepiano (literally meaning loud-soft), then the pianoforte (although these two terms are often used interchangeably), then simply the piano, as it is known today.

The first music written specially for the piano appeared in the 1730s, and it replaced the harpsichord as the dominant keyboard of the Classical period.

Unlike the harpsichord, its ability to play at different dynamic (volume) levels, meant that music could become much more subtle and expressive.

Here is a Sonata by Muzio Clementi, played on a pianoforte, which is smaller than a modern piano, and a little different-sounding:

Muzio Clementi – ‘Sonata’ In C Major Opus, 2/1′

The Birth of the String Quartet

The String Quartet

The string quartet, one of the most prominent forms of chamber music, and a format that most major composers would write for over the following centuries, was born in the Classical Period.

Writing for a quartet of two violins, viola and cello is still considered a classic test of a composer’s artistry and technical skill.

Austrian composer Joseph Haydn is known as the “Father of the String Quartet”.

Here is one of the 68 quartets he wrote:

‘String Quartet, Op. 76, No. 1’ by Joseph Haydn

Popular Types of Composition

The Classical era saw a development of other new types of musical form as well as extensive writing and development of existing types.

The popular ones included:

  • Symphony – an extended, large scale orchestral piece. Like the string quartet, this was a significant new type of composition that all of the major composers of the next few centuries would tackle.
  • Sonata – a piece for solo instrument with piano accompaniment, or for solo piano.
  • Concerto – concerti grossi, where a group of soloists were accompanied by an orchestra, were popular in the Baroque period. Now concertos for a single soloist became the norm.

String quartets, symphonies, sonatas and concertos all tend to have similar structures made up of three or four movements: the first movement would be in sonata form (a common three-part form comprising exposition, development and recapitulation sections).

The second movement would be slow, while the first and last movements would be faster.

Mozart and Opera

As well as being the defining voice of the Classical period, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is perhaps the most famous composer of all time.

An incredibly gifted prodigy, he was proficient on the violin and keyboard as a young child and began composing when he was just five years old.

He wrote symphonies, concertos, chamber music, operas, choral music and more, all before his death at just 35.

Here is the Queen of the Night Aria from his opera The Magic Flute:

Mozart’s Opera: The Magic Flute – ’Queen of the Night’

Opera – a mix of theatre, vocal music, staging and sometimes dance – had begun in the Baroque era, but it reached new heights of popularity in the Classical period, also becoming lighter and often comic as public tastes changed.

Beethoven and the Transition to the Romantic Era

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) bridges the gap between the Classical and Romantic eras, with his music spanning both periods.

While his early work was heavily influenced by the likes of Mozart and Haydn, he later began to write grand scale works, expanding upon the previously strict symphonic rules established during the Classical period, and writing increasingly grand and emotive content, thus anticipating the Romantic era.

This piano trio showcases his early Classical style:

Gryphon Trio – ‘Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat Major’

Composers Of The Classical Era

In addition to Mozart and Beethoven, the major composers of the Classical period included:

The Classical period is sometimes referred to as the era of Viennese Classicism because Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert all worked in Vienna at various times.

Summary

So, that concludes our guide to the Classical era.

We’ve learned all about some of the greatest composers of all time, about the invention of the piano and the birth of the string quartet, as well as the development of various important compositional forms and the expansion of the orchestra.

We hope that you’ve enjoyed listening to and learning about some of the elegant, timeless melodies of the Classical period.

Dan Farrant

Dan Farrant

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.

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