top of page

A Guide to the Most Important Music Periods in History

Do you have classical musicians for friends who go on and on about these classical periods? Are you not too sure about what they’re talking about and feeling left out? Do you want a quick crash course on these famous periods to impress your friends or just learn more? Look no further and read on for a condensed walk through music in time!

Medieval Period (c. 1150 - c. 1400)

Beginning around the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, the medieval period progressed into the 6th century and lasted through the end of the 14th century (when it gave way to the Renaissance Period). One of the most prominent features of this period was its focus on the church. Medieval music included liturgical music (used for the church) and secular music.

Medieval music carried stark characteristics such as monophony, standardised rhythmic patterns and limited instrumental music. Furthermore, the foundation for the music notation and music theory practices that would shape Western music was laid and developed during this period. Before this introduction of music notation, songs and pieces were learned by ear since no song melodies were written out.

While a majority of medieval music has not survived the test of time due to inconsistencies in music notation, the works of a few prominent composers have. These composers include Léonin, Pérotin, Hildegard von Bingen and Guillaume de Machaut.

Renaissance Period (c. 1400 - c. 1600)

During the Renaissance Period, music was increasingly freed from medieval constraints and there was a wider display of range, rhythm, harmony, form and notation. This was also when music became more used for personal expression.

A few of the most notable traits of Renaissance music were its polyphony, tonal music and increase in risk-taking (with the increased use of dissonance).

Although Renaissance music has not carried on to the present as much as music from the Classical and Romantic periods have, some of the composers from this era still remain highly influential. The works of Josquin des Prez, Carlo Gesualdo and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina are still frequently used in today’s age.

Baroque Period (c. 1600 - c. 1750)

Best known for its grandiose, dramatic and energetic spirit as well as its stylistic diversity, the Baroque was a period of artistic style that started around 1600 in Rome, Italy before spreading throughout the majority of Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, the word baroque describes something that is elaborate and highly detailed.

Baroque music was characterised by its emphasis on dynamics, ornamentation (where even the simplest melodies were embellished with ornamentations like trills, acciaccaturas, appoggiaturas, mordents and turns) and drama. Its intention was to appeal to all senses and emotions. During this period, popular musical forms such as the prelude and fugue, the cantata, the concerto, the oratorio, the sonata and even opera were created. Furthermore, similar to prior Renaissance compositions, many Baroque pieces had religious themes.

This period was shaped by many composers, notably, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi. In fact, J.S. Bach was so influential that the Baroque period’s end was tied to his death in 1750.

Classical Period (c. 1750 - c. 1830)

Maintaining many styles of the Baroque tradition but placing a stronger emphasis on elegance and simplicity (unlike Baroque music’s grandiosity and complexity), the Classical Period spanned over the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In it, composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn built on the foundation laid by Baroque composers.

The most commonly used music forms of the Classical Period were the string quartet, opera (including opera buffa and opera seria), trio sonata, symphony (traditionally written in sonata form) and solo concertos.

A few characteristics of the Classical Period that stand out are its simplicity, classicism and increased accessibility.

It is during this period that we see the rise of composers who still hold incredible influence in the musical scene today. These composers include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert, Ludwig van Beethoven (although his later works are commonly linked to the Romantic era), Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach and Antonio Salieri.

Romantic Period (c. 1830 - c. 1920)

Closely related to the broader concept of Romanticism (the intellectual, artistic and literary movement that became prominent in Europe from around 1800 until 1910), the Romantic Period placed a heavy focus on originality, individuality, personal emotional expression and freedom and experimentation of form.

Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert bridged the Classical and Romantic periods as although their formal musical techniques were Classical, their music’s intense personal feelings and use of programmatic elements provided an important model for 19th-century Romantic composers.

This period made significant advances toward emotion and expression and was not as strong on the formal structures of the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical periods of music. It introduced new genres such as the rhapsody, the nocturne, the concert etude, the polonaise, the mazurka, the overture and program music. Moreover, it expanded instrumentation and expanded on musical language.

Most of the names of famous composers you have heard of have probably made their mark in this period, including Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Clara Wieck Schumann, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Frédéric Chopin, Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn, Niccolò Paganini, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Mahler, Verdi, Rimsky-Korsakov, Sibelius, Elgar and Saint-Saëns.

20th Century (1900s-2000s)

20th-century classical music had no dominant style since it was during this period that musical style diverged. However, this century saw the rise of serialism, electronic music, concept music, jazz, folk music and so on.

Some of the most influential composers during this period were John Williams, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Jean Sibelius.

Conclusion And there you have it, history’s most famous musical periods. What was your favourite one




bottom of page