The Middle Ages 450-1450


Characteristics of Music


          Music comes from the Ancient Greek muses, who were the nine goddesses of art and science.  Music actually began around 500 B.C. when Pythagoras experimented with acoustics and how math related to tones formed from plucking strings.  The main form of music during the Middle Ages was the Gregorian chant, named for Pope Gregory I.  This music was used in the Catholic Churches to enhance the services.  It consisted of a sacred Latin text sung by monks without instrumentation.  The chant is sung in a monophonic texture, which means there is only one line of music.  It has a free-flowing rhythm with little or no set beat.  The chants were originally all passed through oral tradition, but the chants became so numerous that the monks began to notate them. 

Music in Society


Towards the end of the Middle Ages, about the 12th and 13th centuries, music began to move outside of the church.  French nobles called troubadours and trouveres were among the first to have written secular songs.  Music of this time was contained among the nobility, with court minstrels performing for them.  There were also wandering minstrels who would perform music and acrobatics in castles, taverns, and town squares.  These people were among the lowest social class, along with prostitutes and slaves, but they were important because they passed along information, since there were no newspapers.

Links to Composers of the Middle Ages


Queen Blanche of Castile (1188-1252)

Comtessa Beatiz de Dia (attested 1212)

Herrad of Landsberg (1167-1195)

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

Leonin (1163-1190)

The Renaissance 1450-1600


Characteristics of Music


          During the Renaissance Period, vocal music was still more important then instrumental.  A humanistic interest in language created a close relationship between words and music during this time.  Composers began to write music to give deeper meaning and emotion to the words in their songs.  They wrote in a style referred to as word painting, where the music and words combine to form a representation of poetic images.  Renaissance music is very emotional music, although to us it seems to be much calmer.  This is because the emotion is expressed in a balanced way, without extreme contrasts of dynamics, tone color, and rhythm.  Renaissance music has a mostly polyphonic texture, which means there are many lines of music being played at the same time.  As opposed to medieval times, this music has a more full sound, because the bass register was used, expanding the range of music to about four octaves.  Each line of melody has rhythmic independence, giving Renaissance music a more flowing rhythm and not a sharply defined beat.  The melodies are also easy to sing because they move along scales with few large leaps.

Music in Society


          Music was becoming more popular during this time.  Much of this was due to the invention of the printing press, which could circulate copies of music.  The number of composers also began to increase.  The Renaissance had the ideal of the “universal man” and believed that every educated person was to be trained in music.  Musicians still worked in the churches, courts, and towns.  The size of church choirs grew.  But unlike the Middle Ages where just a few soloists performed in the church, an entire male choir would now sing.  Music was still important in the church, although it has shifted more to the courts.  The kings, princes, and dukes were all fine composers.  One court alone might have had ten to sixty composers consisting of vocalists and instrumentalists.  There was a music director for each court that would compose and direct the court’s performers.  The town musicians would perform for civic processions, weddings, and religious services.  Musicians now had a higher status in society with better pay, and they wanted to be known and sought credit for their work.

Links to Composers of the Renaissance


Antoine Brumel (1460-1520)

Jean de Castro (1540-1611)

John Dowland (1563-1626)

Thomas Morley (1557-1602)

Claudin de Sermisy (1490-1562)


The Baroque Age 1600-1750


Characteristics of Music


          Unlike the previous two periods in music, the Baroque Age was a time of unity.  Most musical pieces of this time expressed one mood throughout the whole piece.  These moods were conveyed through a musical language with specific rhythms and melodic patterns.  One exception to the unified mood is vocal music.  There would be drastic changes in emotion, but they would still convey one mood for a long period in the piece.  One thing that helps the unity of mood was the continuity of rhythm of this time.  The rhythm is maintained throughout the entire piece creating a drive and feel of forward motion that goes uninterrupted.  Along with mood and rhythm, the melody is also continuous.  The melodies tend to be varied throughout the piece and many are elaborate and difficult to sing or remember.  They do not give an impression of balance and symmetry; many times a short opening phrase is followed by a longer one with a flow of rapid notes.  Dynamics are in the same category with the other characteristics; they are usually continuous.  The dynamics in Baroque music have a term called terraced dynamics.  This means that the dynamics usually stay the same for a while, but shift suddenly.  Much of the Baroque music was played in a polyphonic texture with multiple melodic lines.  People of this time believed that music could move the listener in more ways than one.  Opera was a major ideal for this belief.

Music in Society


          There was a new demand for music now.  Churches, aristocratic courts, opera houses, and municipalities wanted music.  Composers were pressured to write new music because audiences did not want to hear pieces of music in the “old-fashioned” style.  The composers of the courts were paid well and more prestigious, but they were still considered a servant of the court.  They could not quit nor vacation without the patron’s permission.  The demand for music in the church was greater so they employed musicians, although they were paid less and had less status than the court musicians.  In the Baroque Age, a person became a musician usually by being the son of a musician or an apprentice.  An apprentice would live in the musician’s home and in return for instruction the young boy would do odd jobs for the musician.  Orphanages would give thorough musical training to both the boys and girls who lived there.  The word conservatory, which today means a music school, originated from the Latin word for orphans’ home.  Musicians usually had to pass a difficult test in order to receive a job.  The test was usually performing and submitting compositions, but sometimes the test consisted of nonmusical requirements.  The musician might have had to contribute to the town’s treasury, or marrying the daughter of a retiring musician.  The Baroque Age began the sprout of music in society, and it continued to blossom further.

Links to Composers of the Baroque Age


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Wilhelm Friedman Bach (1710-1784)

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)

Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)

Antonin Vivaldi (1678-1741)


The Classical Period 1750-1820


Characteristics of Music


          The Classical Period of music differs from the Baroque Age in that is does not value the fluidity and smoothness of the individual elements of music.  There are contrasts of mood; many of the pieces in classical music will convey numerous moods.  The moods may be a gradual change or a sudden change, depending on the composer, but the composer always has a firm control.  Rhythm is another element that is varied in classical music.   Unlike the Baroque Age of fluid rhythm that rarely changes, classical composers used unexpected pauses, syncopations, and frequent changes in length of the notes.  The texture in classical music in mainly homophonic, meaning there is a main melody backed with a progression of chords, although, like the rhythm, it can also change unexpectedly.  The melodies in classical music have an easy tune to remember.  Although they may be complex compositions, there is usually a basic melody to follow.  They are often balanced and symmetrical with two phrases of the same length.  The widespread use of dynamic change comes from the composer’s interests in expressing their different layers of emotions.  The crescendo and decrescendo became increasingly used to get the audience more involved.  The gradual shift from using a piano instead of the harpsichord came from this desire to have more dynamic changes.  Unlike the harpsichord, the piano allows the player to adjust the dynamic by pressing harder or softer on the keys.  Most classical composers began to want to control their own music, not make music according to what someone else wanted.

                               Music in Society


          During the eighteenth century, the economy began rising and people starting making more money.  The prospering middle class could afford larger homes, nicer clothes and better food.  They also wanted aristocratic luxuries such as theatre, literature, and music.  The middle class had a great impact on music in the Classical Period.  The palace concerts were usually closed to the middle class, so public concerts were held.  Many people were not satisfied with always going to concerts to listen to music; they wanted it in their homes as well.  They wanted their children to take music lessons and play as well as the aristocratic children.  Many composers wrote music to appease the public and their music was often easy enough for amateur musicians to play. 

Ludwig von Beethoven

Links to Composers of the Classical Period


                            Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827)

                              Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

                        Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

                             Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)

                                Carl Philip Stamitz (1745-1801)


The Romantic Period 1820-1900


Characteristics of Music


          The Romantic Period was a time when emotion was poured into the music.  Each composer had an individual style and expression.  Music lovers could quickly decipher the composer of a piece of music because of its style.  Many of the compositions convey nationalism and exoticism.  Nationalism is expressed when a composer writes in the style of their native homeland.  Exoticism was a style of music in which the composer was fascinated with a foreign land and would create music to sound like it.  Composers used exoticism to keep up with their obsessions with remote, picturesque, and mysterious things.  Program music was a huge part of the Romantic Period.  This is when the composer would write music to follow a story, poem, idea, or scene.  The instruments would represent the emotions, characters, and events of a particular story; it would also convey sounds and motion of nature.  One of the greatest program music composers was Hector Berlioz, who wrote the Symphonie fantastique, a story about an artist who overdoses on opium.  Timbre, or tone color, was used more now than ever before.  It was extremely important to the composer to obtain their specific mood or atmosphere that they wanted the audience to feel.  Along with new tone colors, composers also sought new harmonies for greater emotional intensity.  They began using the chromatic harmony, which uses chords from the twelve tone scale as opposed to the major and minor eight tone scales.  By doing this they could use more tension and release methods.  They would play extremely dissonant chords, and then release it with a more stable consonant chord to create feelings of yearning, tension, and mystery.  To follow the expansion of timbre, and harmonies, dynamics, pitch, and tempo were also expanded.  Composers used extreme dynamics ranging from pppp to ffff, which is extremely soft to extremely loud.  Composers experimented with new instruments, such as the piccolo and contrabassoon to expand the pitches of the orchestra.  The other thing they varied was tempo.  Accelerandos and ritardandos were used more for variety along with the rubato, a hesitation or pushing of the tempo. 

Music in Society


          In the earlier periods of music, composers had specific jobs, such as writing for churches or courts.  In the Romantic Period, more composers became freelancers; Beethoven was one of the first.  He inspired many others to freelance and compose for their own pleasure.  Much of the music of this time was written for the middle class because they prospered due to the industrial revolution.  Because of this demand from the middle class, public orchestras and operas became more popular.  Conservatories began forming in the first half of the nineteenth century throughout Europe.  The United States also welcomed conservatories in Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, Ohio, and Philadelphia during the later nineteenth century.  Music became a big part of the home; many families had pianos of their own.  Much of the orchestra music was transcribed for the piano for private use.  Many composers did not have financial wealth; only a few had money to support them in their suffering times.

        Felix Mendelssohn

Links to Composer of the Romantic Period


                                 Arrigo Boito (1842-1918)

                    Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

                     Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)

                      Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

                      Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)

                      Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

                Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

The Twentieth Century 1900-1945


Characteristics of Music


          During the Twentieth Century, tone color became more important than ever before.  Many techniques that were considered uncommon before were being used during this time.  Many composers used noiselike and percussive instruments.  The glissando, a rapid slide up or down the scales, was used more.  The percussion instruments became a major part of twentieth century music.  They helped give variety of rhythm and tone colors.  The music did not blend as well as it did during the Romantic times because the composer often wrote for each different section of the orchestra to have a different tone color.  Prior to 1900, chords in music were either considered consonant of dissonant.  Dissonant chords were becoming just as common as consonant chords.  The composer was no longer tied down to using traditional chords; what they did was up to them and what sound they wanted to achieve.  Another key element of the Twentieth Century was the sway from the traditional tonal system.  From the 1600’s up to the 1900’s, songs had a central tone, and were based on a major or minor scale.  Many composers now were getting away from the major and minor scales, and would sometimes have more than one central tone.  Just as composers were expanding their tonal abilities, they expanded their rhythmic patterns.  Many emphasized irregularity and unpredictability.  The different rhythmic patterns were drawn from all over the world.  The time signature would often change in the middle of piece.  Accents and other rhythmic irregularities would come unexpectedly.  Composers also wrote polyrhythmic music, where more than one rhythm would be played at the same time by different sections.  With all the different tone colors, tonal systems, and varied rhythms, melodies of the twentieth century became unpredictable. 

Music in Society


          Music has become an even greater part of society now, because of recordings, radio broadcasts, and the ability to mass print copies of music for anyone to play in the convenience of their home.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, though, many people did not accept these outrageous new styles of music, so the composers mostly performed their less dramatic pieces in concerts.  Women became more active in the music world as composers, virtuoso soloists, and educators.  During the wars, women joined the orchestras as players and conductors.  During Hitler’s reign in Europe, many composers moved to the U.S. to look for work.  The United States became a powerful force for twentieth century music.  Jazz, country, and other popular music swept the world.  American colleges and universities have expanded music throughout the nation, educating countless numbers of students.  These colleges and universities now are what the churches and nobility were in the past.

Links to Composers of the Twentieth Century


Bela Bartok (1881-1945)

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Carlos Chavez (1899-1978)

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

George Gershwin (1898-1937)

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)











Works Cited




Essentials of Music.  Sony Music Entertainment.  22 April 2002.  <>


Kamien, Roger.  Music: An Appreciation.  McGraw-Hill: New York, 2002.


Sherrane, Robert.  Music History 102: Hector Berlioz.  The Juilliard School, New York.  15 March 2002.  <>


Sherrane, Robert.  Music History 102: The Middle Ages.  The Juilliard School, New York.  12 April 2002. <>