The Evolution of Musical Eras

4 Musical Eras

The baroque period (1600 – 1750) brought us composers like JS Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. It saw a full embrace of tonal music. Orchestras started to grow, harpsichords became less popular and the piano was invented.

Harmonies began to sound simpler, and composers used specific progressions that people could recognize and understand. Classical music also included gradual changes in tempo (speeding up and slowing down) to add expression and contrast.


The Baroque era, which lasted from around 1600 to 1750, brought new forms for vocal and instrumental music. Claudio Monteverdi pioneered a recitative style of vocal singing that married music and text in a more natural way than the elaborate contrapuntal textures of Renaissance madrigals and motets.

He also created a whole new genre of musical drama called opera. Henry Purcell, who was born in 1659 and died at age 36, produced a profusion of musical works, including many large-scale, orchestral pieces.

Instrumental composers in the Baroque era included such masters as Arcangelo Corelli, Antonio Vivaldi and Giuseppe Tartini in Italy, Jean-Baptiste Lully in France, and George Frideric Handel in England. New instrumental forms included the sonata and concerto, with contrasting slow and fast sections, and the French overture.

The baroque era also saw a return to polyphony (musical composition using more than one voice) as a dominant mode of composition. The baroque era’s legacy is evident in the way that classical music continues to be performed, studied and listened to today.


In the Classical era (spanning 1750-1820), the music we know and love today started to take shape. It was during this time that composers such as Franz Joseph Haydn solidified the structure and form of the symphony, which we still use today. Distinctive, playful melodies also became the hallmark of classical music. At the same time, the invention of printing aided the growth of mass musical publishing and helped to further standardize many of the forms that we use to this day.

Other innovations of the era included orchestras growing in size, public concerts becoming commonplace and instrumental music taking on a greater role than church or royal court entertainment. Some of the most popular classical composers of this era include Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. This era also saw the emergence of moral philosophy that advocated individualism and freeing people from power figures. These ideas provided the foundation for the freer, less retrained emotional expressiveness of the Romantic Era.


In the early 1800s, composers began to embrace the expressiveness of music with an array of personal and rule-breaking musical ideas. This is the era of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Chopin and Wagner – some of whose works remain as popular today as they were in their time.

Composers also experimented with new techniques like chromatic writing, which uses notes achromatically (borrowed from other keys), and increased instrument developments led to the ability for musicians to make wider dynamic and tone changes. This sparked a new style known as Romanticism.

It was around this time that the Industrial Revolution started to have a big impact on world economies, leading to the rise of the middle class and more people could afford to buy classical music. This meant that composers could look to flamboyance, aural drama and emotional expression as ways to attract audiences. They also started to use a theme and variations form to tell a story in their pieces, such as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

20th Century

The 20th Century era saw broad experimentation with new musical styles and forms. It included the first post-Romantic movements such as Impressionism, and the break with traditional tonality brought by composers such as Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok and Edgard Varese.

Composers used percussion on an equal footing with melodic instruments, and incorporated jazz and other styles of music into classical compositions. Other innovations in this era included the theremin which produced sounds by interrupting a magnetic field rather than touching an instrument.

Rock and roll emerged in the 1950s and influenced other popular music styles including boogie woogie, blues, jazz (especially bebop), country and folk music. The development of radio and other technologies made it possible for musical artists to become widely known. This allowed people from different backgrounds to easily access and enjoy high-quality musical performances. This era also saw the growth of world music, which incorporates elements from eastern and other cultures. Examples include works by Suzanne Ciani, Enya and Yanni.

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