Introduction to musical periods

(Jan 28, 2019)

Human beings like to put things into boxes…

Musical periods are categories based on time. People describing music like to make things simple, so they attempt to invent names they think best describe things, and they do the same thing with music. They invent names for periods, and periods are nothing but big boxes. As a student I was forced to learn musical history, and I was force to learn and memorize many musical periods, as defined by books. I think they are mostly useless, for many reasons, but perhaps learning them – which meant learning names for boxes and memorizing them – later made it easier for me to break out of those boxes.

Obviously music has been around long before recorded history, so we can’t go back to the beginning. We don’t even know when the beginning of music was. In general we are unlikely to hear music that was composed before the Renaissance, and you will not hear much Renaissance music unless you search for it and buy it. Renaissance music is a bit of a special taste.

But please remember that a lot of music from way back then was just as popular as anything we hear today that was just composed last year or last week. Keep in mind that any music that was famous and heard by a huge number of people in any place, at any time, was popular. Always remember that things that are very popular and that remain popular, right up to this very moment, are incredibly important. This is true for music, for art, for literature, and for many other things.

Now, here are a few musical periods, starting with the Renaissance and ending around 1900. Why end at 1900? Because for the past 120 years or so, music has branched out in countless directions, and no attempt to classify music by style or any other criterion will work very well. You will find countless periods listed for 1900 through to today, but no one agrees on the names, the dates, or the descriptions. Some people try to label 1945- 2019 as contemporary music, which is absurd. 

The Renaissance Period: 1400-1600,
really old music…

This is a really big period. Of course there is music much older, but lets start here. The John Dowland selection is from 1498.

How old does this sound to you? Of the top of my head, I’d say this is about right for Shakespeare, but it’s actually about a century too early, since Shakespeare died in 1616. If you like this, just look up Renaissance music on YouTube, and start listening.

Baroque Period: 1600-1750,
still pretty old sounding…

which is pretty huge. This includes Bach, Handel and Vivaldi, the most famous composers of this period. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, some of this music was extremely popular back then and remains so – just think of Handel’s Messiah (Hallelujah Chorus) or The Four Seasons by Vivaldi. I don’t think anyone expects to hear music like this for a modern film unless a composer is mimicking an older style, to set a mood for this time period.

Classical Period, 1750-1820, getting close to what we might hear today, in a film…

This period includes Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. As you can see, the word “Classical”, with a capital, has a very definite meaning. Don’t confuse it with “classical music”, small “c”, which is only used by non-musicians, or by musicians attempting to communicate with non-musicians. The symphony above by Prokoview, called “Classical Symphony”, was written around 1917. This is the same man who wrote Peter and the Wolf. It fooled other students in my freshman class years ago at FSU, although I knew immediately that it was 20th century. So you can see how composers blend older styles into newer ones.

Romantic Period, 1820-1900- is this really old?

The short piece above is something I learned and performed almost 50 years ago. It could be for a computer game right now, or a ghost story. It’s strange, spooky, and could have been composed in the 20th century, or last week. But it is the final part or movement of a piano sonata.

The Romantic Period includes Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Schumann, Verdi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and many others. Unlike earlier periods, Romantic music has never gone out of style. It is just as popular right now as it was “way back then”. Modern film composers often use a Romantic style, so you will hear it in Star Wars or Harry Potter, by John Williams, or by countless other composers who write music for action, adventure films.

Impressionistic Period, 1890-1925 – this still sounds brand new to me.

The orchestration, harmony and musical ideas are things you will hear from a movie from last year. This is the world of Harry Potter and Star Wars, yet this is Ravel, and he wrote this about 100 years ago.

Impressionistic Period includes Debussy as well as Ravel, and of course just about everyone has heard Bolero, so obviously their music was and remains incredibly popular. But it is important to know that the main composers of this period disliked the word “impressionism”, so it’s a pretty horrible name to start with. Worse, the sounds these composers used, their ideas, were used later by top jazz composers, so in the most recent jazz recordings you can find you will hear chords and harmonies that were first used by these so-called impressionistic composers. In other words, when you see a period defined up to 1925 that invented and used sounds we are also using right now, the whole concept is rather useless.

Here is the bottom line: For the most part, music from the Baroque Period really does sound a bit old, at least. To explain why would mean going into details that aren’t necessary here, and they would be horribly complicated. For the moment, just take my word for it. Music from the Classical Period also has an older sound to it, though perhaps less so. You would be pretty surprised to hear someone write music for a Marvel Universe movie that sounds like Beethoven.

But music from both the Romantic Period and the Impressionist Period can really fool you, because composers right now are still using the tricks of people from those times to write music that is being composed right now.


10 thoughts on “Introduction to musical periods

  1. I remember all of these from either movies I’ve seen or my teachers would just play them while we work. I remember Toccata and Fugue in D minor from the Baroque Period very fondly but didn’t realize it’s that old, and also the Renaissance lute music from the Renaissance Period.

    1. Safath, what I’m interested in is this: What is your comfort zone? If you want to relax, or if you want something in the background that makes you feel good, what do you listen to?

      If a teacher plays something for you, what would you listen to again, on your own? What period do you feel most at home with? What style?

    1. Toni, you just asked a very difficult question. “Impressionistic” is a label. Labels can be very misleading But if you want to get a sense of what people mean with this word, put this name into YouTube:

      Claude Monet

      This might be a good place to start:

      It’s two hours long, so just watch just a bit, maybe for a minute. You can stop it and look if you see a picture you really like. It’s not realistic. It’s not what we see. If you take a picture with your camera, you won’t get a picture like that. Everything is blurred a bit. The colors look like they are melted together.

      I wish they had given the name of each picture, and when it was painted.

      Impressionistic music is the same. It’s just different. It sets a mood. Usually it tends to be gentle sounding. The most famous Impressionist composers are Debussy and Ravel.

      1. I was thinking about those pictures and “It’s not really what you see.” But do we see all that we see – like, do we see all the dimples on an orange when we look at it? Maybe sometimes we see-feel when we see, and the painters wanted to capture that.

        Btw, I know Debussy was called an impressionistic musician, and lived in that era, but also didn’t like being called that. It sort goes with boxes. Maybe it’s better not to have boxes and think “What should we call Debussy, then?” Maybe just – a musician who created some awesome music.

        1. Full disclosure: I’m not happy with this post. The more I do this, the more I like things that are unorganized and spur of the moment. So I’ll probably change the way I do things later.

          Impressionism: The other night I spent a long time looking at the paintings of Monet, and the only thing I felt was awe. But I do see some kind of connection between the way colors were blurred and the way composers like Debussy blurred sounds. So the label works for me. Is it accurate? Probably not. But we need something. When people talk about French Impressionism in music, I have no trouble with that concept and linking it to Debussy and Ravel.

  2. I have a lot of feelings about this. Most of my life I barely knew composers, works, “periods” and it was a general jumble. I set out to get a general idea about the “big” ones: Early, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, “the stuff after that”. There was a time I couldn’t have listed that, and any of the names didn’t conjure up anything. I’ll admit that I felt less ignorant in other people’s eyes.

    It also helped cure the feeling of a gazillion composers and pieces all a-jumble. Those in various periods had some things in common, and you could see music evolve.

    Next I started to study the periods more closely, with a better book. I learned that Baroque, Renaissance were catch-all names, simplified into easy to remember images. In fact, stuff happens from century to century and in between, different musicians are trying different things, and it was a lot more fluid. That’s sort of where I am with it all now. 🙂

  3. Leandro, the reason I wrote about musical periods is that there is no exact line between styles and times. Baroque is just a one word description of a long period of time, and I don’t think it is very accurate. If you like Bach, for instance, people did not suddenly throw out everything he did a few years later. They built on his ideas, because all the great composers who followed Bach studied Bach.

    Pachelbel (September 1653- 1706) lived in the same period, but I don’t think his music sounds like Bach. Then in the next period, the Classical period, the most famous composer was Mozart. So many of these guys had really short lives. Mozart was dead before his 35th birthday, and he was born just six years after Bach died. There is a lot of overlap.

    There is a reason why I wrote about musical periods. It won’t tell you everything, but if you start there, later you can learn about each period, separately, and that way you get a better idea of how things developed.


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