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From Medieval Chant to Contemporary: Classical Music Eras Overview

Classical music, or Western art music, has a long and rich history, beginning after the fall of the Roman Empire and continuing to progress today! Let's take a look at the evolution of this genre of music, through a crash course overview of the standard historical era divisions. Each era represents the artistic tastes, political and social changes, and the general characteristics of Western societies at different times in history; music has always been a reflection of humanity!


Early Music (500-1600 AD)

The Early Music period is largely associated with religious music, in particular "chant" styles, from simple monophonic (one voice) chants of the Medieval Era, evolving into intricate polyphonic (many voices) compositions. Secular music, such as the music of the troubadours, folk songs, and more, were also common, but we have fewer surviving musical scores and other sources of information to enable us to perform this music now. In the Renaissance Era, music began to become more complex as the Early Music period drew to a close.

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Baroque Era (1600-1750)

The Baroque Era marked the beginning of the Common Practice period, where music began to really be codified and to follow rules of tonality (having a "home" key) and what we know as traditional music theory. Baroque music reflected the architectural tastes of the time, with ornate compositions, dynamic contrasts, and the popularisation of purely instrumental music. Following on from the Renaissance Era, the relationships between notes and musical phrases were very important, following strict rules of "counterpoint".

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Classical Era (1750-1830~)

The tastes of the Classical Era were quite the opposite of the Baroque. Music was characterised by clarity and structure, and beauty was found in simplicity and lightness. The influence of Antiquity was evident, both in the artistic styles and in the values and stories artists sought to share through their art. This was the time during which the early piano became the dominant keyboard instrument, and musical forms such as symphonies and string quartets were popularised.

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Romantic Era (1830~-1900)

The Romantic Era takes us on an emotional rollercoaster (not only involving love), with passionate expression and sweeping melodies. Composers were began to explore the horizons beyond tonality, telling stories through a diverse range of both vocal and instrumental musical forms. Music was being performed on a much grander scale, with works being composed for large-scale operatic forces and expanded orchestras (as well as works for smaller instrumental and vocal groupings, such as art songs for solo voice and piano).

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20th Century

The 20th Century heralded the start of the "new music" era, where conventions and rules were being shattered as composers sought to find the possibilities and limitations of music. Technological advancements, war, globalisation, and many other shifts civilisation was going through inspired the arts. Multiple artistic (including musical) movements were occurring at once, from the highly experimental and avant-garde works, through to minimalist works.

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21st Century

In the 21st century, classical music continues to evolve and develop alongside humanity and our discoveries and advancements. Composers take inspiration from the past and all it has taught us so far, and forge new paths as the future unravels its possibilities. How will the music of this century be remembered?

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Bear in mind that the era divisions are not exact; some historians place the beginning and end dates differently. This is because society is never in 100% agreement about what is good or trendy at any given time, and classical music era divisions are based on what was generally in vogue in many different Western countries!

Take some time to explore each era further and to discover the composers and works which resonate with you! If you would like to dive deeper, check out the Introduction to Classical Music online course, or book a 1:1 Classical Music Immersion session (online or in Paris) with classical singer and music educator Kayla Collingwood! What will you listen to next?


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