Musical Eras: Romantic, Baroque, Classical, 20th Century to Present

4 Musical Eras

In the Classical era, composers like Haydn and Mozart became famous. The harpsichord was replaced by the piano (or fortepiano) and orchestras were larger than ever before.

Romance ran high, as composers wrote music about love and beauty. They also began to write programmatic symphonies, telling stories through music.


As the name implies, the Romantic era took Classical structures and added intense emotion and drama. It also allowed composers to explore instruments in their extreme ranges and experimented with varying tempos to communicate different feelings. This was also the era of the musical virtuoso, with performers like Paganini, Liszt, and Brahms having amazing technical proficiency and widespread public acclaim.

One of the biggest changes in this era was the gradual rise of middle-class audiences for concerts and music festivals. This changed the way that composers were able to find success, as they no longer relied on the patronage of wealthy aristocrats. This gave them a chance to use expressiveness and flamboyance in their works and to reach out to a broader audience.

Many composers used this opportunity to write what we call “programmatic music,” or a musical description of a story, such as Beethoven’s pastoral Symphony No. 6 or Smetana’s set of six symphonic poems called Ma vlast, meaning My Homeland.


In the Baroque era, composers re-emphasized musical drama and emotions. They used intricate musical mosaics that included a variety of styles. They introduced rhythmic innovations like the recitative style and they sought a new kind of harmony: pre-tonal (not quite tonally directed chords). In addition, they wanted more dissonance.

In terms of compositional forms, the Baroque era produced opera, oratorio, cantata, concerto and sonata. Among the great composers of this period were Claudio Monteverdi, Domenico Scarlatti and Giovanni Pergolesi for vocal music and Antonio Vivaldi, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Arcangelo Corelli and Georg Philipp Telemann for instrumental music.

Another popular form was the trio sonata, which grew from Renaissance canzonas and featured two melody instruments with a basso continuo. For solo instrumental music, harpsichord or organ were the main keyboard instruments.


The Classical era was dominated by composers like Joseph Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Franz Schubert. The ‘first Viennese school’ is sometimes included in this category as well. This era was marked by social shifts, as the church and the royal courts ceased to be primary patrons of musicians and composers, while a new middle class sought music in their homes.

This era saw the development of sonata form, a set of structural rules that could be applied across musical genres and styles. This era also saw a rise in solo instrumental concertos and string quartets.

Classical composers sought to create ‘absolute’ music, music that doesn’t attempt to describe an idea or emotion, instead relying on structure and rhythm. This was in contrast to program music that attempted to tell a story through sound. Classical composers also aimed for clarity in the melody, which was often shorter than the Baroque’s intricate figurations and arpeggios. A growing interest in the arts prompted many classical composers to take inspiration from art and literature.

20th Century to Present

The era of 20th Century to Present was marked by rapid change and upheaval on a world scale. This sense of change was reflected in music as composers broke away from established styles and experimented with new ideas.

The Classical period (1400 to 1800) saw a greater emphasis on instrumental pieces, particularly symphonies and chamber music. The old modal system of harmony faded from favour as composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven introduced new chord progressions and more intricate musical textures.

Music became a regular feature of daily life, and people would attend concerts and listen to music at home. The ensembles used to play these pieces also started to get bigger – the piano first entered the classical repertoire, for instance. Debussy and Ravel brought chromaticism to the classical repertoire, and Arnold Schoenberg discarded tonality and introduced serial (or 12-tone) music. Despite these radical changes, some of the classical period’s characteristics carried on into the 20th Century, for example, sonata form and formal structure.

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