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A Complete History of Classical Music

Photograph of the blog post author, Ella Barnes

Ella Barnes


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Orchestra prepares to play classical music

It is actually surprisingly hard to define exactly what ‘classical music’ is, though we all know more or less what is being referred to by this term.

Classical music is music written in the Western tradition, distinguished from popular traditions such as folk and jazz by the long-established principles it follows and its musical complexity. To put it simply, it is ‘high-brow’ European music or the musical equivalent of literary classics.

It also refers to music from a specific period – the ‘classical’ period – however as an umbrella term it covers far more than just this era.

It is important to note that the terms ‘classical’ and ‘classic’ have very different connotations. ‘Classical’ refers to the aforementioned genre/historical movement of high-brow European ‘art’ music, written along certain principles with purposeful complexity in the interest of furthering the form.

Classic is an adjective used to refer to something that is considered an outstanding, definitive or typical example of its kind. So when we talk about classic music, we might talk about how Hank Williams’s Jambalaya is an example of classic country music, or how Bohemian Rhapsody is a classic rock song. 

This is very different to classical music! 

To give you a better understanding of this important musical tradition, we will take a look at the history of classical music, delving into key developments of each period as well as important composers and their contributions.

Roots of Classical Music

Song sheet - music notation

Classical music, also known as Western Classical music to distinguish it from other traditions, has its roots in the churches and royal courts of Western Europe. France and Italy played particularly important roles in its early development.

While heavily influenced by the musical theory of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, it stands as a separate tradition. The music notation system widely used in Western Europe today has similar roots in early Western European Church music.

Though traditionally religious in content and usage, classical music has moved away from religion over the centuries to become a secular art form in itself (though of course, religious classical music continues to be written)

Classical music can be divided into 7 key periods: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern and Postmodern/Contemporary. Certain classical music composers came to define each period by their contribution to the development of the art form.

The Medieval Period

The earliest period of classical music is the Medieval period. This can be said to have started after the fall of the Roman empire in 476 AD and lasted until the end of the 14th century when the Renaissance began.

Most of the music of this period is religious in nature, though there was also an important secular tradition that began to develop towards the end of the period.

There are 4 key stages in the development of Medieval music. The first is the creation and perfection of the monophonic chant or plainchant. This is a religious chant consisting of one voice, unaccompanied by any instruments singing a (usually very somber) melody. 

A famous example of a monophonic chant is the Gregorian chant. Hear some examples of it here:

Monophonic To Polyphonic

Naturally, the next stage of development was to move from monophonic to polyphonic (or heterophonic) chants. This involved the addition of a second voice, singing the same tune but a fifth or an eighth higher or lower than the main voice.

This then spawned the ‘motet’, a form which carried into the Renaissance period and beyond. A motet is a piece of choral music sung by multiple different voices with contrasting melodies. It is more complex than the earlier polyphonic chants in that not all the voices follow the same melody.

After the motet, more secular music began to be developed. A tradition of troubadours or trouvères started up. These musicians would travel the countryside of Western Europe, performing songs, usually about courtly love, or, in the case of the Italian madrigal, about pastoral subjects.

The final stage of medieval music’s development, and the thing that helped move it into the Renaissance, was the creation of ‘Ars Nova’. The term can be loosely translated as ‘new style’. 

Proponents of Ars Nova rejected the strict rhythmic modes employed in earlier Medieval music. They introduced complex polyphonic forms and more creative rhythms into secular music. This allowed for a greater expressiveness in music altogether. The impact of Ars Nova on music has been compared to what the introduction of perspective did to painting.

Key Composers of the Medieval Period

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen was a nun, composer, theologist, natural scientist and visionary, who wrote some of the most famous monophonic chants of the early Medieval period. Her body of work is one of the largest to have survived to the current day. She is also one of the only composers known to have written both the music and the words to her chants.

We have access to 69 of her musical compositions. Academics researching her work say that her chants push the limits of the usual Gregorian chant with their soaring melodies, marked rhetorical features and unusual use of melisma (when a syllable is sung over multiple notes, as opposed to one note per syllable which was the norm). 

Listen to one of her most famous pieces, Spiritus Sanctus Vivificans.


Léonin was a French composer who helped develop the first polyphonic chants, in a style known as Organum. He is the composer of the ‘Magnus Liber’, a large collection of organum chants. All these chants are written for two voices. It is possible that he was responsible for creating the rhythmic modes that governed Medieval composition until the advent of Ars Nova, and that he created a notation system to describe them.

Listen to Viderunt Omnes, a two part organum.

Guillaume de Machaut

This French composer is credited with being central to developing the Ars Nova style in the late Medieval period. He wrote both secular and sacred music in a variety of styles. In secular music, he mostly wrote in the styles lais, virelais, motet, ballade and rondeau. Of his sacred music, only one piece survives; The Messe de Nostre Dame, written to be performed during mass. 

He also wrote a large body of poetry, most of which were lyrics designed to be set to music. His lyrical work was important in codifying the features of these forms. 

This secular Lute piece, Douce Dame Jolie, is a great example of his work.

The Renaissance Period

The Renaissance period lasted from 1400 to 1600. A key development of this period was the introduction of more instruments, particularly bass instruments, the first of which were invented in this period.

It was also around this time that a standardized form of music notation was created. It is in the Renaissance that we find the origins of the 5 line staff system that we still use today. This increased the reproducibility and transferability of music, which previously had been related mainly orally, or with very limited notation systems that required the composer to be present.

This went hand in hand with some of the new uses of music in this period. For example, social dances were becoming more popular, so certain types of music were standardized for the performance of specific dances. Popular tunes and dances would be distributed throughout royal courts.

Renaissance composers created increasingly complex polyphonic vocal pieces; the first opera was actually written in the Renaissance by Italian composer Jacopo Peri. 

At the same time, numerous musical instruments were being invented, or refined, including the trumpet, the lyre, the harpsichord, the reed pipe, the triangle and the earliest forms of pipe organs. These technological advancements added unprecedented texture and sonic variety to renaissance music. 

Listen to a selection of Renaissance music here.

Key Composers of the Renaissance Period

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

This Italian composer is perhaps one of the most widely admired European composers ever. He left an enormous body of work including 105 masses, 68 offertories, at least 140 madrigals and more than 300 motets. 

His work is characterized by its emphasis on consonance and smooth-flowing, balanced melodies. He also employed a technique called tone painting, whereby the music reflects the lyrics that accompany it (for example, the melody would lower in the lyrics spoke about descending, and rise if ‘the heavens’ were mentioned).

Listen to an example of his religious music here.

William Byrd

William Byrd is one of England’s most important early composers. His work had a profound impact on the musical landscape both in England and on the continent. He created around 470 compositions in his lifetime, in a wide variety of styles.

Byrd is well known for mastering continental styles and synthesizing them with English styles. He also cultivated the secular madrigal, as well as various era-defining genres of English music such as the keyboard fantasia and the consort song.

Here is a beautiful piece by him called Retire My Soul.

Carlo Gesualdo

Gesualdo is as famous for his music as he is for his scandalous life. He famously murdered his wife and her lover after catching them ‘in the act’. He was haunted by this act for the rest of his life, something which is reflected in his music, which frequently deals with themes of love, pain, agony and death.

His musical output was prolific and impressive. His work is some of the most experimental and expressive of the entire period. Some of the progressions he used would not appear again until the 19th century. He mostly wrote madrigals.

The Baroque period lasted from 1600 to around 1750. During this period classical music became considerably more complex and refined. The music from this era is to this day some of the most famous classical music. 

The Baroque Period

Baroque art and music in general is distinctly over the top, with an emphasis placed on lavish expressions of beauty.

The ‘stile moderno’, or modern style, was introduced, distinguishing itself from the polyphonic style of the Renaissance. While the ‘stile antico’, the old style, was still used in sacred music, secular music moved in new directions. The stile moderno placed an emphasis on a solo voice, the use of harmony, complex tonal counterpoint (multiple interdependent, but contrasting melodies), and a ‘basso continuo’ (a continuous bass line).

With this development in classical music came a greater distinction between secular and sacred music. 

Multiple new vocal forms were developed during this time. It is in the Baroque period that the opera fully took shape. The oratorio, a large-scale composition usually tackling a sacred subject, designed for multiple voices and an orchestra, came into existence, as did the cantata, a more loosely defined piece of music written for voices.

One idea that really governed Baroque music was the importance of music in communicating emotion, a concept revived by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, who were strong believers in the power of music to arouse emotion in its listeners. Evoking emotions became a key concern of baroque composers. 

Some of the best classical music composers and the most famous classical music songs came out of this period, including Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Monteverdi. This playlist of Baroque music captures some of the highlights of the period.

Key Composers of the Baroque Period

Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach is considered to be one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music. His oeuvre is vast. He composed hundreds of cantatas, Latin church music, oratorios and motets. Bach wrote for multiple instruments from the organ, to the harpsichord to the violin and mastered counterpoint, harmonies and motifs. He also introduced foreign forms from Italy and France into German music. 

He was appreciated within smaller circles during his lifetime, but in the 19th century the ‘Bach Revival’ led him to be fully recognised for his extraordinary talents.

The Well-Tempered Clavier is one of his most recognisable pieces.

George Frideric Handel

Handel was a German-British composer. He is best known for composing operas, oratorios and organ concertos. You most likely know him for his opera ‘Messiah’, one of the most famous pieces of classical Christmas music. He was one of the most important contributors to the ‘high baroque’ style. He also brought Italian opera to its peak, created the English oratorio and organ concerto and redefined English church music. 

Though born in Germany, he became a British citizen in 1727 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Barbara Strozzi

Strozzi was a composer and singer, with the largest output of secular music of any composer in the period. She received no support from the church or any patronage, which were the common means of acquiring both funding and recognition for artists in this period.

She was first noted for her singing ability as a teenager. Later in her life, she began to publish large amounts of musical compositions with accompanying poetry. She excelled in writing arias and cantatas and her contributions to these forms were crucial to their development.

She is particularly noted for the astuteness and power with which she was able to evoke emotions through the intimate relationship between her lyrics and her music.

This album of her madrigals demonstrates her impressive abilities.

The Classical Period

Confusingly enough, there is a period of Classical music called the Classical period! These are two distinct things, of course; the classical period refers to the period that followed the baroque, lasting from the 1750s to the early 1820s.

During this period, the norms of composition, style and presentation that had started to be formed in previous centuries were rendered more concrete. The set-up of an orchestra was somewhat standardized, and chamber music and opera continued to be developed.

Many instruments were also refined and took on the form that we would now recognise today. For example, the trumpet, the violin and the oboe were all modified from baroque instruments to the instruments we use today during the classical period.

Stylistically speaking, there was an emphasis on harmony and balance in this period. The period earned its name from the return to the philosophy and ideas of classical civilisation, the Ancient Greeks and Romans. 

Much of the work written during this time used perfect harmonies and homophony to create a clean, balanced sound. It was the musical expression of similar trends in neo-classical architecture of the time, which was also returning to the plain, clean symmetry of classical architecture. 

This Classical period playlist contains work by a range of composers.

Key Composers of the Classical Period

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Alongside Bach, Mozart is one of the other composers considered to be among the greatest in Western history. A child prodigy, he began composing at the age of 5.

He was a master of basically all the most important musical forms of the time; he wrote symphonies, concertos, operas, chamber music, and choral music. He was also a master of dramatic timing and complex and interesting melodies, all of which make his music captivating to listen to.

His musical output was huge; he died at the young age of 35 having already published over 600 pieces of music. 

This Requiem in D Minor is a very famous example of his work.

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Yet another of European history’s greatest composers, Beethoven was active at a similar time to Mozart though it is not known whether the two of them ever actually met. He learnt to play at an early age, however, as he aged he began to lose his hearing. Miraculously he managed to continue composing.

He is admired for the way he expanded and improved upon every musical form he tackled. His contributions to the symphonic form are incomparable, as is his influence on the sonata, string quartet and piano concerto.

Furthermore, his work formed a bridge between the Classical and Romantic periods; his early work defined and perfected the ideas of the Classical period, but his later work moved very much into the ideas and style of the Romantics.

You will definitely recognise his Sonata 14: Moonlight and Fur Elise.

Joseph Haydn

Haydn was an Austrian composer who played an important role in the development of chamber music. He is also known as the ‘father of symphony’ because he composed over 100 symphonies. He was also important in the development of the sonata form. 

A characteristic feature of his work is his use of comedy! He often includes false endings, rhythmic illusion, or the occasional loud, unexpected chord. 

He was a friend of Mozart and he tutored Beethoven! All this makes him a key player in the history of classical music.

Listen to his oratorio The Creation, to get an idea of his style.


Many of you may be familiar with the Romantic period of literature and art in the 19th century. This of course had its musical parallel. 

The philosophy of the romantics focussed greatly on the individual, freedom from the constraints of society, worship of nature, devotion to beauty and the importance of the imagination over reason.

Composers of the classical period drew heavily on art and literature to inspire their pieces, which became increasingly theatrical and emotive. 

‘Tone poems’ became popular; these were single movement pieces which tell a story, often inspired by a story or poem. 

The Romantics began to leave behind the strict rules established in the Classical period, in favor of more inventive and creative musical structures, designed to capture a wider range of passion and emotion. 

Listen to this playlist of music from the Romantic Period to get an idea of what was going on then.

Key Composers of the Romantic Period

Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi was an Italian composer who wrote some of the most famous and impressive operas ever. His opera ‘Rigoletto’ is considered to be his finest work.

Early in his life, he lost his wife and child in quick succession and vowed never to compose again. However, he returned a few years later with a hugely successful opera ‘Nabuco’.

He wrote operas inspired by many literary pieces, including Shakespearian works such as Macbeth.

He is renowned for his restructuring of the ‘bel canto’ opera style, which placed great emphasis on demonstrating the skill of singers, and less on the dramatic unfurling of the plot. Verdi managed to create operas which both showcased the singers’ skills and had immense dramatic impact, compelling characters and tight plots. 

Wilhelm Richard Wagner

Wagner is also known primarily for his operas. He created the concept of a Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning a complete work of art, which attempted to synthesize poetry, music, art and drama in one work. 

He is also known for his use of specific motifs for each character in his operas. These short musical phrases would appear each time a specific character came on stage, helping to add to the characterisation of each figure. These could also be associated with places, ideas or plot elements.

Wagner was also a controversial political figure and he introduced topics of politics and nationalism into his musical works in a way that was unusual/unheard of until the Romantics. He was heavily involved in left-wing politics, to the point that he was exiled from Germany in 1849. 

Wilhelm Richard Wagner has come under criticism in the late 20th century for his blatant antisemitism, as expressed in his characters and non-musical writings. 

His most famous opera is Tristan Und Isolde, however, he is undoubtedly most well known for writing the Ride of the Valkyries, or the Star Wars theme tune, as you probably know it.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky is one of the most influential Russian composers in history. His music is extremely popular for its appealing melodies, impressive harmonies and emotional impact and he wrote in many different forms, from concertos to operas to ballets.

Tchaikovsky wrote some of the most well-known operas; Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and the classic Christmas music of The Nutcracker among them. 

He was heavily criticized in Western Europe in the 20th century, mostly on the basis of his character, particularly in connection to his homosexuality. However, in Soviet Russia, he was adored as a great Russian composer of whom no criticism could be made. The government went to great lengths to hide evidence that he was gay.

Tchaikovsky is now fully appreciated for the emotional poignancy of his work and his gifts for melody and orchestration.


The Modern period of music lasted from the late 19th century until around 1945, in parallel with modernism in other art forms. The same as literary and artistic modernism, it describes less of a united movement or style and is determined more by a shared sentiment and the fragmented forms of expression that different artists found to express the ‘mood’ of the modern age.

The idea that unites modernism is a rejection of rules, conventions and tradition. Modernist composers wrote very strange, very experimental pieces that destroyed boundaries and challenged traditional notions of beauty and worth. 

For example, many modernist pieces reject tonality and harmony, meaning that the music sounds discordant or ‘off’.

Running parallel to this trend is the neoclassical movement, which rose to popularity between the two world wars. Neoclassical composers sought to return to the balance and order of classical music, as an antidote to the chaos and loss of meaning brought about by the devastation of World War One. It remains popular to this day.

You can learn more about neoclassicism here

Key Composers of the Modern Period

Conductor of classical music
Béla Bartok

Bartok was a Hungarian composer, painter and ethnomusicologist. His music leads the way in two trends that came to define the Modern era; the breakdown of traditional ideas of harmony and the importance of nationalism as a musical theme.

Bartok spent a great deal of time collecting and studying Hungarian folk songs. This research led him to discover new forms of tonality as well as a great deal of Hungarian cultural heritage. He incorporated this folk music into his compositions.

Drawing on inspiration from vernacular Hungarian music also contributed to the ideas of nation that infused his compositions.

This album by the London Symphony Orchestra includes some interesting examples of his work alongside pieces by Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff.

Richard Strauss

Strauss bridged the gap between Romanticism and Modernism. He is admired for his interpretations of Wagner, Mozart and Liszt as well as his own work. 

Richard Strauss wrote incredible tone poems and operas, including a musical interpretation of Don Quixote and his famous opera Salome, inspired by the Oscar Wilde play. He was a child prodigy much like Mozart; he started composing when he was just 6 years old.

Until the 1980s he was considered conservative, even backwards-looking, however more recent study has placed him firmly as a modernist, even if he did admire tonality and orchestration in a way that was rejected by many of his peers.

His work had a large impact on cinema. Many of his pieces have been used in films, for their beautiful rich sound and emotive qualities. For example, in 2001; A Space Odyssey, the opening to Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra is famously featured.


Stravinsky was a Russian composer who revolutionized 20th-century music. His most notable achievements are his ballet scores. He was a leading figure of neo-classicism, who found new ways to reinvent the music of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Despite his interest in the classical period, Stravinsky was still extremely inventive, pushing the boundaries of music, while also looking to the past. For example, in his most famous piece ‘The Rite of Spring’, he created an entirely new concept of music which involved wildly dissonant harmonies and constantly shifting rhythms.

Postmodern Music

Postmodernism is the term used to describe the artistic movement that followed World War Two in the West. Postmodernism is characterized by scepticism towards any belief in the stability or objectivity of meaning, morality and knowledge. It rejects any binaries or categorisations. If modernists were exploring a loss of meaning after World War One, postmodernists were doubling down on this in the wake of the horrors of World War Two.

Postmodern music reflects these ideas. In keeping with the nature of postmodernism, the music of this period has no distinct style. Rather the term is used to describe the art music written in this period, in all its manifestations.

Critic Jonathan Kramar came up with some core principles of postmodern music including a sense of irony, a lack of boundaries between sonorities, challenges to the barriers between ‘high’ and ‘low’ sounds (thus challenging the very concept of ‘classical’ music), use of multiple, conflicting styles and disdain for structural unity.

Key Composers

Pierre Boulez

This French composer’s work spanned both the Modern and Postmodern periods. In his later work, he is renowned for incorporating electronic and digital instruments into his pieces, reflecting the growing importance of technology. One piece of work features a computer which generates its own sound patterns.

Boulez was also known for his interpretations of Modernist work by composers such as Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok. 

He was a leading figure in control chance music, where some element of composition was left to chance, placed in the hands of the performer.

Pierre Boulez was also a famous conductor. In the course of his 60-year career, he conducted the New York, Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Le Marteau Sans Maitre is one of his famous pieces.

Zygmunt Krauze

Zygmunt Krauze is an important Polish composer. He has written 6 operas and numerous other pieces. Most of his work is written for piano, which he himself performs. 

The idea of ‘unitary music’ is very important to his work. By this, he seeks to have all the elements of a musical piece occurring at any one time. This concept defies traditional ideas of chronology and the experience of listening. Krauze says that his ideal piece of music would be one where ‘the music were continually present, the listener came at the time that he or she felt convenient and left when the right moment right to do so was found’.

He has also worked with architects to produce musical space compositions/installations. He writes music for theatre too and has a long-term collaborative relationship with Jorge Lavelli, an Argentinian director.

One of his famous pieces is this folk music arrangement for orchestra.

Luciano Berio

Berio was an Italian composer known for his experimental work and his contributions to electronic music. One famous example of his work included a recording of his wife, the soprano Cathy Berberian, reading from Joyce’s Ulysses. 

Berio cut up the recording and rearranged it, in order to create a track that expressed pure emotion without any recognisable words. This is credited as being one of the first examples of an electroacoustic recording – one in which a recording of a human voice is altered and added to by technological means.

He also composed pieces for traditional instruments such as the cello, flute, piano, trombone and viola. His early work was heavily inspired by Stravinsky.

His Sinfonia is perhaps his most famous work.

And there you have it! A rundown of the history of classical music, from its origins to the present day. Now, when you are listening to classical music radio, you’ll be able to recognise some of the classical music artists and styles they play. 

To round things off, let’s have a look at some of the interesting research that has been done on the effects of classical music on the brain. These show some cool ways that listening to classical music can benefit your well-being.

Classical Music in Science

Can music help you study? Or sleep? Apparently so! There has been a lot of research into the positive impacts of listening to classical music. Let’s run through the key ideas now.

Classical Music for Studying

Various papers have been published that suggest that there is a link between improved concentration and listening to classical music. One study carried out in France showed that students scored higher on a quiz after listening to a lecture with classical music playing in the background than those who listened to the same lecture without classical music.

It is suggested that classical music places your brain in a heightened state of emotion and therefore makes you more receptive to new information.

There is also evidence that classical music can lessen anxiety levels, which is definitely helpful for revision. However, you need to choose wisely of course. This article from the University of Southern California recommends Elizabethan consort music, Mozart sonatas and classical piano music from Debussy and Poulenc!

Listen to 24 hours of Classical study music here:

Classical Music for Kids

There have also been studies into the benefits of listening to classical music for babies and children. Apparently, experiencing live classical music calms children down and provokes positive emotions.

It also improves their concentration skills enormously!

It has been suggested that playing classical music in the classroom could therefore be an extremely useful tool for teachers to help create a calm atmosphere where their students are fully concentrated on their learning.

Classical Music for Sleep

Listening to relaxing classical music is a very good way to help you fall asleep. When you listen to music with a slow beat and gentle harmonies, there is evidence that your heart rate drops. A rate of 60-80 bpm has been suggested as the optimum rhythm to listen to to help you become calm before bed.

It has also been suggested that listening to classical music slows your thoughts by giving your brain something to concentrate on that isn’t too overwhelming and, crucially, doesn’t have words. 

Why not try some of these classical music songs for sleep:

You can search for a BPM to understand more by using the BPM Tapper tool on Music Gateway. Try it today.


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