The Different Types of Classical Music

(This is part of our series on classical music.  Please also visit our page on how to appreciate and enjoy classical music, and our page on suggested pieces of classical music to listen to.)

People use the term “classical music” as if it describes one specific type of music.  But this simple adjective – classical – covers dozens of different styles.  It is a bit like the term “fiction book”.  Is the fiction romance or horror (or sometimes both together!), is it short or long, historical or futuristic, for adults or children, and so on.

It is the same with classical music.  Does it mean instrumental music for one instrument alone (and if so, which instrument), or does it mean music for a small group of instruments, or for a large orchestra?  Does it mean music to be sung – by one or many singers, and accompanied by orchestra, or a smaller group, or unaccompanied.  Is it music that “tells a story” or is it “pure” music with no underlying story?  And so on.

Generally, classical music is grouped two different ways.  First, by several different time-periods during which there was some sort of common semblance of style.  Second, by whether it is for one or many instruments, with or without voices, as mentioned above.

Historically, we have periods that can be broken down into major or minor groups, some studies will show as many as a dozen different periods/styles, others as few as four.  The Wikipedia entry has eight major periods, and within them, and additional 20 sub-periods.  Looking at it reminds me of being set painful essays to write on topics such as “Discuss the evolution from Style Galant to Sturm und Drang with examples”.  Don’t worry, you don’t need to drill down into such detail (but if you wish to, the definitive book is probably Music in Western Civilization by Paul Henry Lang and will tell you very much more than you need to know).

Here are six periods which could perhaps be compressed to five (merge nationalistic into romantic) and which could be reduced to four by removing renaissance music entirely.

So, our groupings are sort of :

      • Renaissance Music
      • Baroque Music
      • Classical Music
      • Romantic Music
      • Nationalistic Music
      • Modern Music

We can often hear a piece of music for the first time without knowing anything about it, but will quickly be able to guess as to the period it was written, because it has distinctive elements associated to that period.

Knowing the period the music was written in helps us set our expectations.  For example, some things we take for granted have not always existed.  The crescendo, for example – a gradual increase in volume – only started appearing in the last quarter of the 18th century.  None of the music written by Bach or Handel had crescendos.

Not only did various styles of music evolve, but so too did instruments.  Early trumpets couldn’t play as many notes as modern valved trumpets (the three plunger knobs you see on the top).  The pianoforte (modern piano) was only invented in 1700.  While trombones date back to the 15th century, it was only in 1808, when Beethoven introduced them into the glorious finale of his symphony No.5 that it became accepted as a “main stream” instrument.

That points to another thing.  The “sound” of an orchestra in the 1700s is very different to the sound of one in the late 1800s, because composers increasingly wrote for more instruments creating a richer tapestry of sound.  Orchestras have steadily got larger and larger in size, with more and more different instruments being included.

But even within a period, there are still very different styles.  For example, Wagner and Verdi were both born in 1813, and both composed operas.  But their styles were as different as chalk and cheese.  Some composers seemed to create their own unique niches (especially Wagner, a revolutionary who created a new style and refined it so profoundly that no-one has ever subsequently managed to credibly compose in a similar style).

There are also “corner cases” – composers who spanned the shift from one style to another.  Beethoven and Schubert are two examples – one was called “the classical romanticist” and the other “the romantic classicist”.  I can never remember which is which, and it really doesn’t matter.  Both had elements of each style in their music.

My point in this article is not to explain the differences in style that exist in classical music, merely to explain that there are huge differences.  Your action items are two-fold

First, understand that all classical music is not the same.  It is as wide-ranging as, in more modern times, big-band music is to punk-rock.  Don’t expect to like all types of classical music, and don’t condemn the entire universe of all classical music if there is a style or period of music you don’t like.

Second, if you do like a piece of classical music, the chances are there are many other pieces in similar style.  A bit of research (or you can always “cheat” and simply ask me!) may help you go from piece to piece to piece, building up your own personal library of favorites as you work within styles and evolve from one style to a related style, and so on.

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