A Brief History of Classical Music

A Brief History of Classical Music

Music has been around as long as humans have been able to make it. It’s in our blood, it’s in our bodies, and it has been a part of us much longer than we’ve been writing it down and performing it on a stage. Music and dance in some form have been a part of every single human culture we can observe.

The broad and deep history of music extends far beyond what we tend to hear in the concert hall, and far beyond the scope of this article. Today, we will focus only on music of the Western tradition. This is the classical canon originating in Europe and is the source of most of what orchestras play, since the symphony orchestra is also a product of western traditions.

Early Music:

Music notation as we know it today has been around for less than 2,000 years, but music in one form or another has been seen in nearly every past and present culture on the planet. The oldest musical instrument we have found is a flute carved from bone, dating from about 43,000 years ago, and remnants of percussion and string instruments also abound in archaeological records. What we are calling “Early Music” is really just everything that existed before music was written down.

So, what did it sound like? What little we know about music of the past comes from these instruments, from what others wrote, and from what we can see around the world. As well, there were probably not specific styles or genres of music like we have today. We can guess that people used music for rituals, entertainment, dancing, and social gatherings.

The notes available on the ancient flute mentioned above do give us a hint, though. They make up the pentatonic scale. This collection of notes seems to have a special connection with humanity, as we can find it in nearly every musical tradition of the past and the present. The pentatonic scale consists of 5 notes and can be recreated by playing only the black keys on a piano. Watch singer Bobby McFerrin show the power of the pentatonic scale.

For most of history, music was transmitted orally, probably sung, with percussion or other instrument playing along. The oldest complete piece of music that we have is called the Epitaph of Seikilos, and this has only survived because it was written to honor a loved one and literally carved into their gravestone. It consists of only a melody and word, but we can guess that some other instruments would be played to accompany it.

Epitaph of Seikilos, performed by Marcus Harvey

Early Music in the Concert Hall:

You shouldn’t expect to hear any early music in the concert hall. We’re not completely sure of what it sounded like, but the idea of early music inspired many pieces.

Composers often use the pentatonic scale to evoke folk or tribal music. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring depicts the beginning of history as man crawled from the primordial goo.

Medieval Music:

The Medieval era lasted from the fall of the Roman empire in 476 A.D. to the beginning of the Renaissance in 1400.

The music notation that we have today started to evolve in the Medieval period. The churches in Europe wanted to ensure that all congregations were singing and praying in the same way, so they invented a way to easily share the music between towns. Notation made it much easier to send along sheet music and instructions for each song rather than traveling and teaching it to the staff in each location.

Early music notation
Early Music Notation

Notation allowed composers to create larger works than they could ever before, as it allowed the music to grow beyond the limitations of human memory. Composers wrote dramas based on religious texts and scenes from the bible.

There were composers and songwriters writing before and during these advancements in notation, but we don’t have this music because it wasn’t written down. Traveling singers called Troubadours composed secular songs and ballads, but many existed only in oral tradition. This is why the majority of Medieval music is church-related.

Medieval Music in the Concert Hall:

Just like Early music, you’re not likely to hear medieval music in the concert hall. But you probably have an idea of what it sounds like if you’ve heard a “Gregorian Chant.” This is just one example of types of music that churches would share between each other.

Some composers imitate these chants in modern works to connect the music with the church. One of the most famous is in the Russian Easter Overture by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In this piece, you can hear a traditional Russian Orthodox chant in the introduction.

Russian Easter Overture, performed by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra

Renaissance Music:

Renaissance means rebirth, and this period from about 1400 to 1600 was a true rebirth and revolution in the worlds of science, art, and music. The world of notated music fully embraced something that we today take for granted: polyphony.

Polyphony means that multiple sounds are happening at the same time. This was the first time that many composers would think about what happened when two people sung different things at the same time. They wrote incredible new music, now for both the church and secular events.

This music was more flowing and expressive. Earlier rules about form and content were tossed aside and composers focused more on expression of lyrics and intent than on service to a purpose. Their music was written to be performed and enjoyed by an audience.

The music of this time was almost entirely vocal, made of two to six different musical lines. Sometimes instruments would join them, but composers didn’t write specific instruments into the music very often. Near the end of the Renaissance, these vocal and song forms, plus more standardized use of various instruments by composers, led to the early seeds of opera.

The invention of the printing press in 1501 also aided in the dissemination of music and incentive for composers to write more and more to be sold and shared.

Renaissance Music in the Concert Hall:

Renaissance Music won’t often be heard in a symphony concert hall, but many choirs and vocalists will still perform pieces from this era.

Just like Rimsky-Korsakov used a theme from the Russian Orthodox church to enhance his Russian Easter Overture, the composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams used a theme by Thomas Tallis, one of the most prominent English composers of the Renaissance, as the basis for his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

Vaughn-Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, performed by the U.S. Army Band strings

Baroque Music:

The next innovations in music happened between 1600 to 1750, a period of time that we call the baroque era. “Baroque” comes from a French word describing an imperfect or flawed pearl. Baroque architecture, art, and music were a reaction to the simplicity of Protestantism during the renaissance period. They featured ornate and complex features. While renaissance art was idealized, baroque art was grounded in reality.

Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola
Baroque architecture
in the Church of Saint
Ignatius of Loyola

This manifested in music becoming more hierarchical. If the music of the renaissance was made of flowing lines of independent voices weaving in and out, the baroque era solidified the relationships between different parts of the music and added much more structure and instruments. Now some lines would take precedence over others, rather than all voices being equal.

For the first time, composers would write a composition asking for a specific instrument, whether to accompany a vocal line, play by itself, or as part of a larger ensemble. The harpsichord, organ, and violin rose as the first important solo instruments, and the other instruments of the orchestra began to work together to accompany them. These were the beginnings of the symphony orchestra. Concertos for solo instruments became popular (Vivaldi wrote over 400), and instrumental music began to dominate the world.

And as instrumental music rose, so did the concept of music without words. Before this, music was not written unless there were words to be sung. With only instruments playing, composers were creating music for the sake of music.

The late Renaissance and Baroque periods also saw the invention and rise of opera, and the fusing of music and dramatic elements as we know it today.

Baroque Music in the Concert Hall:

You’re likely to hear Baroque music in the concert hall on occasion. Since much of the music from this time was written for smaller orchestras than we use, it’s not common to hear it at a standard symphony concert. Early Music groups or choral groups around the world will often perform baroque masterpieces instead.

The two baroque works you’re most likely to hear in the concert hall are the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Classical Music:

The Classical era is the shortest era, ranging from the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750 to about 1800. But this short era saw the invention of the symphony, the string quartet, the piano, and many of the forms that music is still written in today.

The “classic” in classical refers to the ancient ideals of the Greeks, and in classical music we see a turn away from the flowing music of the Renaissance and Baroque towards a new interest in balance, proportions, and elegance. Think powdered wigs and a string quartet in the background of a fancy party.

It was during the classical era that Franz Joseph Haydn solidified the form and function of the symphony (he wrote 104, after all). After him, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart continued to develop the genre. Then a composer by the name of Ludwig van Beethoven decided to take everything to the next level.

Classical Music in the Concert Hall:

Classical Music is a staple in the concert hall. Any symphony or concerto by Mozart or Haydn (and some by Beethoven) counts.

Mozart’s 40th Symphony, performed by the Fulda Symphonic Orchestra

Romantic Music:

The Romantic period lasts from about 1800 to 1900, and some say that it marks the height of the symphony orchestra. Most of the music that one hears in an orchestra concert may come from this era, and rightly so. Composers of the Romantic era were walking in the footsteps of Ludwig van Beethoven, who showed the world that music can be more than pretty and fine. It can, in fact, delve into the deepest recesses and emotions of the human soul.

Caspar David Friedrich’s
“Wanderer above the
Sea of Fog”

Composers wrote emotional music during the Romantic period; music grand or small to express both beauty and pain. They asked for more instruments and bigger orchestras. The orchestras got so big that they could no longer be led by one of the violinists or a pianist, so the conductor was born. Composers wanted to express the sounds of their homelands, so nationalistic music was born. Composers wanted to represent poetry, stories, and paintings in their music, and so programmatic music and tone poems were born.

The Romantic era was also the first time in history that a new composition would be played more than once. Beethoven was the first composer to write music and expect that somebody besides himself would play it in the future. Because of this, composers became even more creative and spent much more time and attention on each piece that they produced. While Haydn wrote 104 symphonies and Mozart wrote 41, few composers in the Romantic Era and beyond them have written more than 9.

Romantic Music in the Concert Hall:

Romantic Music is the bread and butter of the symphony orchestra. You will always be able to find symphonies, concertos, overtures, and tone poems by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Liszt, or Verdi on just about any orchestra’s season.

20th Century and Today:

The 20th century and the music of today is characterized by experimentation and variety. The exploration of new sounds and forms stemmed from the 20th century’s rejection of everything that came before it. Late Romantic composers were bored with the same formulas and chords that had been used for hundreds of years, so they started experimenting. By the early 20th Century, tonality had been totally thrown out the window by some composers. The same happened with rhythm.

While some composers turned away entirely from beauty and expression and towards cold mathematics and electronic sounds, others continued to write tonal music. But it was all expressive in its own way.

At the same time, jazz was invented, pop and rock music dominated the radio, and film scores drew us to a different kind of theater. The hallmarks of the 20th century are experimentation and variety. After two world wars, new technologies, globalism, and the invention of recordings, the only rules were that there are no rules.

Still today, in the 21st century, music is more varied and unexpected than before. Composers each have their own specific language, there are more genres and styles than can be counted, and non-classical music has a greater influence on classical music than ever.

Nkeiru Okoye’s “Voices Shouting Out”

20th Century and Contemporary Music in the Concert Hall:

20th Century and Contemporary Music is not easy to categorize because it is defined by variety and individuality, so each composer’s music is different. Some have become part of the standard orchestral repertoire, such as Gershwin, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Bernstein, Holst, Barber, Britten, and even John Williams. But other important composers are rarely performed live, such as Arnold Schoenberg, Iannis Xenakis, Pierre Boulez, Philip Glass, or John Cage.

Partly this is because they didn’t write nearly as much music for symphony orchestra. Partly it’s because their music can be more difficult to perform. And partly it’s because their music may be be less “friendly” to audiences. Regardless, every composer of the 20th century and those living today has made an impact on the history of music, whether we perform their music often or not. The great thing is that most of it has been recorded and is still available online for you to explore even if it’s not being performed live.


There are thousands more composers that we didn’t mention, many of them composers of color and female composers. These two groups were historically marginalized and continue to be. But we are making progress. The FCS and orchestras around the world are changing this narrative. We feature music by an underrepresented composer on every single Signature Concert so that diversity is the rule, not the exception.

The world of classical music is a big world. We just covered its entire history in only a few thousand words, and we didn’t even touch on anything that you won’t often hear a symphony play in the concert hall.

When you find a new piece of music that you like, find it on Wikipedia and learn more about the era it came from. With time, you will easily recognize the stylistic sounds through the eras of music history.