Music History: Classical Music


Even though some use the term “classical music” to describe all music from the middle ages through now, the Classical period of music went from roughly 1750-1820. In the middle of the 18th century – the end of the Baroque era – Western Europe shifted towards a new style of literature, architecture, and art known as Classicism (a style emulating ideals of Classical [Ancient] Greece).

Age of Enlightenment

The fortepiano was the Classical period’s equivalent to the harpsichord. Unlike its ancestor, it could play dynamics with ease and subtlety.

These Classical ideals included the value of the common person, the power of human reasoning (as in emotion shouldn’t be in control), and the need for structure and order. As a result of society’s desire to emulate Ancient Greece, scholars and creators alike strove for simplicity and perfection. Thus a new ideal was born in the form of an intellectual movement: the Age of Enlightenment.

Great. So what does this have to do with music?

The Age of Enlightenment led to a revolution – the old ways were out and new ideas were in. No more fancy embellishments for the sake of showing off. And music was no longer strictly for the court and the church. Public concerts became popular due to the new idea that music should be for the enjoyment of the common person, for everyone.  However, because of this shift in audience, the musical style changed.

Classical Period Style

Remember the style of Baroque music? It was wonderfully embellished, very complex, and often improvised. In the Classical period, however, music became a lot simpler. Because of the rise in public concerts, many musicians began playing concert works in their homes, so composers had to write music simple enough for the amateur musician to play. Musical textures lightened (no more heavy counterpoint). Singable melodies and simple, balanced phrases became standard.

Beethoven Piano Sonatas
Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Classical period musicians believed in objectivity: music should be controlled, not emotional (thank you, Age of Enlightenment). One way composers achieved that objectivity was through the use of dynamic markings and frequent mood changes in the music. Baroque music left all of these decisions up to the performer, which allowed for varying interpretations and emotion. In the Classical period, composers had complete control over how their works were presented (regarding dynamics, tempo, etc.).

Classical Period Instruments

String Quartet Art
A string quartet consists of two violins, a viola, and a cello

There were many instrumental developments during the Classical era. The standard orchestra grew to include woodwinds as well as strings, and the fortepiano gradually replaced the harpsichord due to its ability to play dynamics. New musical genres were developed and expanded, such as the string quartet. Overall, this was a time of careful exploration into the world of music. 

Noteworthy Composers

There are many important and influential composers who created during this time, so for now let’s talk about the main three: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

A celebrated composer and teacher during his lifetime, Haydn is known for his development of the string quartet. Check out his String Quartet in B-flat Major, op. 76 no. 4 below. Pay attention to the lightness of the main theme and the simplicity of the accompaniment.

*Haydn also wrote many piano works; check out his famous theme and variations here.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-17917)

A child prodigy, Mozart composed and performed his whole life. His sound is characteristically “classical”, as you can see in his Piano Sonata in F Major, K332 below. Simple phrases and quick changes in mood pervade this work.

Also check out the first movement of his Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550 below:

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

One of the most influential composers of all time, Beethoven characterizes the growth and development of Classical music. He wrote several symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and piano sonatas, including Sonata in D Major, op. 28 (shown below), and he pushed the boundaries of Classicism in music to help usher in the Romantic era.

*Fun fact: He even studied composition with Haydn for a while!

In a nutshell, the Classical period is characterized by order, balance, lightness, and simplicity. As time went on, however, and composers started pushing boundaries, emotion in music took over and the Classical period came to an end.


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