Eras in Music History


This article is meant to briefly describe the chronological history of the major epochs in music history.

Polyphonic Era 1200-1650

Music during the Polyphonic Era consisted mainly of several different melodies flowing simultaneously, with each melody independent of the others but of equal importance. A musical piece usually consisted of choral works with four or five parts. These choral pieces were originally sung without any instrumental accompaniment, and were performed as church music.

Gothic Period (1200-1550): During this time the first primitive forms of polyphonic music were developed.

Ars Nova (14th century): New techniques were created in order to increase expressiveness and emotion about the subject of polyphonic music, namely man's relationship towards God. It is these new techniques and forms which paved the way for the first musical schools.

Polyphonic Schools (15th and 16th centuries): Schools of music appeared first in the Netherlands, Venice, and Rome which helped develop musical art into a more vibrant and consistent form.

Dufay (1400-1474)
Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612)
Gibbons (1583-1625)

Homophonic Music 17th Century

The homophonic style emphasized a dominant melody with others melodies only serving to produce a harmony for the main one. It is this style that made possible the emergence of the opera. During this time some of the earliest instrumental music appeared for the organ and violin.

Baroque Period (17th and 18th centuries): During the Baroque period musical forms became more elaborate, and even more attention was paid to dramatic effects. Choral music began to be accompanied by instruments. New church forms were created including the oratorio, passion, and the cantata.

J.S. Bach (1685-1750)
Handel (1685-1759)
Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Classical Period 18th and Early 19th Centuries

It was during the Classical Period that instrumental music achieved its dominant position, replacing choral polyphonic music. Forms that had originated in the pervious era were fully developed into the sonata, concerto, and overture. The symphony and string quartet were new musical forms developed during this time. The Classical Period emphasized precision, restraint, and structure. Adhering to standard forms was generally more important than freedom of expression.

Haydn (1732-1809)
Mozart (1756-1791)
Beethoven, his first phase (1770-1827)

The Romantic Period 19th Century

The Romantic Period sought to push the boundaries of expressiveness and emotion. It pushed as far as it could to capture the entire spectrum of the human experience. Melody was emphasized, harmony made more expressive, rhythm was greatly varied, and instrumentation grew richer as composers sought to make music ever more elaborate. The older musical forms of the symphony, sonata, and concerto were shattered as a matter of principle. Shorter pieces were written for the piano and violin, frequently in solo.

A new from was created as a means to express emotion to its fullest and most emotional extent: the opera. The Italian school which glorified bel canto, "beautiful song", was pitted against the German school which emphasized dramatic values and gave great importance to the orchestra. The German approach culminated with the "Music of the Future." the term that Richard Wagner gave to his concept of music drama.

Beethoven, middle and last phase (1770-1827)
Schubert (1797-1828)
Schumann (1810-1856)
Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Chopin (1782-1849)
Liszt (1811-1886)
Brahms (1883-1897)
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Rossini (1792-1868)
Verdi (1813-1901)
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Dvorak (1841-1904)
Humperdinck (1854-1921)

The Modern Era 20th Century

Reaction against the extremes of the Romantics combined with experimentation brought about many new musical styles. Some Modern composers carried over the traditions of Romanticism, while others explored the more structured styles of Classical period.

Impressionism: Emphasis was placed not on the subject of a piece, but on the emotions or sensations aroused by the subject. Nuance, color, mood, and atmosphere gained precedence over form and substance.

Expressionism: The essence of a musical subject was arrived at through abstraction. A basic key was generally avoided.

Debussy (1862-1918)
Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Originally published

  The Home Book of Musical Knowledge by

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Eras in Music History


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