Musical foundations: the different music periods and how to identify them

Most piano pieces can be categorised into four different periods – no doubt many of you are familiar with them. They consist of the Baroque period, from about 1600 to 1750, the Classical period (early 1700s to early 1800s), the Romantic period (19th century) and the 20th Century to present. It’s important to have a firm grasp on the style of music produced in each era, and important composers in each period, especially for general knowledge sections of exams.


Historical context

The word baroque originated from the Portuguese word barroco, which referred to a imperfect or rough pearl. Originally, it was used as a derogatory term to refer to the new music that was emerging in the 1600s – music that was quite detailed and included elements that many people viewed as unnecessary and messy.

Wikipedia’s Baroque page says: “in an anonymous satirical review of the première of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie in October 1733, which was printed in the Mercure de France in May 1734, the critic implied that the novelty in this opera was “du barocque“, complaining that the music lacked coherent melody, was unsparing with dissonances, constantly changed key and meter, and speedily ran through every compositional device“. This was in contrast to the relatively “clean” and straightforward music of the renaissance period that came before.

Musical features

Baroque music often heavily features polyphonic texture and counterpoint – meaning that the pieces often have two or more separate, simultaneous melodies which might be “discussing” the same musical material. Fugues, with their multiple voices going at the same time were considered the ultimate expression of counterpoint.

This polyphonic texture and featuring of multiple simultaneous melodies was in contrast to the later music of the Classical and Romantic periods, which were usually homophonic, meaning that they featured a melody and an accompaniment. This is why most Baroque pieces aren’t very catchy or singable – because they have multiple melodies and you don’t know which one to focus on.

The Baroque period also saw the creation of new musical forms such as the concerto, which became the backbone of baroque music, and the sonata and the opera, along with other vocal forms such as cantata and oratorio.

Influential composers

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Georg Phillip Telemann
  • George Frideric Handel
  • Henry Purcell
  • Antonio Vivaldi
  • Domenico Scarlatti
  • Alessandro Scarlatti

Recognisable traits:

  • Two or more similar melodies playing simultaneously
  • A consistent mood, i.e. constantly fast and busy or only slow
  • Sudden dynamic changes (not gradual change)
  • No rubato, but flourishes such as trills and tremolos, which acted as rubato
  • Relatively constrained range (the harpsichord, clavichord and organ were the main instruments of this period – they had significantly smaller than ranges than the modern day piano)
  • The rhythm is very driven and measured – no changes.


Historical context

The Classical period in music was from about early 1700s to the early 1800s, and was developed as a simplistic alternative to the complex, often confusing Baroque music. The term “classical” came about in this period as composers tried to emulate the symmetry and balance of classical architecture of the Greeks and Romans. The newly invented piano eventually came into music as the preferred medium, replacing the harpsichord.

Music was beginning to go from something reserved for Church occasions to something that was to be consumed by the general public as a form of entertainment, and with the advent of the Classical period came the rising prominence of public concerts.

Musical features

Classical music was much simpler than its predecessor, Baroque music. Rather than featuring many intertwining melodies, it saw the use of mostly homophonic texture, with one main melody and an accompaniment. There was a very controlled use of chromaticism, and the musical expression was refined and subtle. Nothing was extreme or exaggerated, in contrast to the music that would come after it in the Romantic period. Although there is still rhythmic drive in Classical music, it tends to be a lot lighter than Baroque music.

Influential composers

Unlike the Baroque period, which saw many prominent composers, the Classical period was almost completely dominated by three major composers:

  • Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Recognisable traits

  • Simplistic and balanced, with quite a clean, refined feel
  • Largely homophonic textures
  • Easily recognisable and clear forms (such as Sonata form)
  • Not as many ornaments as in the Baroque period
  • Dynamics were not terraced – included crescendo and decrescendo
  • Emotionally restrained


Historical context

The Romantic period, extending throughout the nineteenth century, was characterised largely through emotion, and lots of it. The previously refined, restrained and somewhat objective musicality of the Classical period was done away with, and replaced with vivid, dramatic, emotionally charged pieces as composers drew inspiration from art and literature.

Composers were no longer concerned with structure or balance, and instead, were more focussed on how the music sounded. Impressionism was based around using notes to create musical paintings or scenes, and experimentation was the backbone of this era.

Eventually, music became so experimental that it marked a new period – the modern era.

Musical features

Romantic music is marked by emotion, and lots of it. The forms were not necessarily as important as they had been in the Classical period, and there was a significantly greater use of chromaticism, along with the loosening of previously strict, inflexible harmonies. The piano became the preferred medium of expression, and the rise of musicians such as Franz Liszt and Nicolo Paganini saw a new type of highly virtuosic music.

The orchestra became significantly larger, and large, dramatic orchestral works became a hallmark of the Romantic period.

Influential composers

  • Robert Schumann
  • Franz Liszt
  • Fryderyk Chopin
  • Johannes Brahms
  • Felix Mendelssohn
  • Edvard Grieg

Recognisable traits

  • Very emotionally unrestrained
  • Extreme range – up to both far ends of the piano
  • Virtuosic, or very technically demanding music
  • Quite free rhythm with a lot of rubato
  • More dissonant harmonies, as composers used notes that weren’t necessarily in the major or minor chords
  • Freedom of form
  • Use of the sustain pedal
  • Although the music was still largely homophonic, the accompaniments became more complex, with more notes being played at once.

20th Century

Historical context

The “20th century to present” era of music covers a large variety of music – everything from jazz and Gershwin to the familiar, huge film scores that we’ve all grown up with, like John William’s Harry Potter pieces. As the Romantic period came to an end, people began to struggle with building upon old music and working with concepts that had already been done to death, and so they began to experiment even more wildly than they had in the Romantic period.

This led to a lot of different pieces, from composers that the world had never seen before, like John Cage (creator of 4’33”, for 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence) and using instruments in ways that they were not designed to be used. New genres such as minimalism, pioneered by the likes of Phillip Glass and John Adams, were created.

Musical features

A lot of 20th century music is not in major or minor keys, but uses many different systems of pitch organisation, including but not limited to a tonal centre on a certain note. Dissonance is seen a lot more, such as in the works of Prokofiev, and is a feature of the piece, and it did not always need to resolve. Use of rhythm was greatly varied, with some composers not even including bar lines and some changing the time signature and meter mid-piece.

A lot of music also tended to sound almost Romantic – not all pieces were dissonant with weird rhythms and time signatures – take movie scores from John Williams over the last few decades which have tended to be quite harmonic and romantic in character – so while music can be dissonant and “weird”, it’s not always like that.

(A very small selection of) Influential composers

  • Sir Edward Elgar
  • Peter Sculthorpe
  • John Williams
  • Hans Zimmer
  • Anthony Webern
  • Sergei Prokofiev
  • George Gershwin
  • John Cage
  • Phillip Glass
  • Steve Reich
  • Claude Debussy
  • Maurice Ravel

Recognisable traits

  • May have great use of dissonance
  • Not necessarily in the major or minor scales
  • Sometimes quite a free rhythm that could be prone to changing
  • Perhaps it might not have a form
  • An instrument used in a way that it is not designed for, or a prepared piano (a piano that has been altered to sound different, perhaps with the addition of nuts, bolts and screws or other objects placed inside the piano or on the strings)
  • Basically, anything goes! If it doesn’t sound “traditional”, or it just sounds really weird and experimental, it’s probably 20th Century to Present.

Touch the Bear

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