Music, like any other art form, undergoes constant transformation. In the past century, popular music along with all its genres and subgenres emerged as the dominant type of music consumed by the global population. Today, anyone would be hard-pressed to find a country where popular music does not have the biggest following. The change in society’s preferences, in turn, has somewhat taken much attention away from classical music and in the process has blurred its nuances. Today, the term classical music refers to just about any composition that came from at least a century ago or earlier. But while referring to music from the 19th century or earlier as classical is so common that it no longer is considered incorrect, the truth is this term glosses over entirely different musical styles and movements. Calling all old music classical would be similar to calling country music and rock music identical. However, discussing each style within classical music would require more space than a research paper allows. Thus, this paper focuses only on the most prominent styles within classical music. These styles are Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern.
One of the most important styles in classical music is Baroque music. The term Baroque refers to a style that dominated European culture from the early 1600s to the mid-1700s. This style influenced virtually every principal art form, from painting and sculpture to architecture and dance. The style’s emergence and eventual dominance were significantly driven by the Catholic Church, which sought to use art to strengthen its position in face of the Protestant Reformation (Gardner et al. 516). Baroque music, in particular, took on a unique character. Emerging from the constraints of previous styles popular during the Renaissance Period, Baroque music came to be characterized by a more systematic approach to composition. Music before the Baroque Era focused more on a single melody. In cases where polyphony was employed, the focus was more on complexity than harmony. Baroque changed this by retaining the focus on a single melody but emphasizing harmony. As a result, Baroque music came out rich, melodic, and intricate but with an underlying sense of order in it (“Baroque music”). Music during this time also became more varied as more types of musical instruments were used (“What is Baroque music”). One famous example of Baroque music is Antonio Vivaldi’s most famous work, The Four Seasons. Composed of four concertos that correspond with each of the four seasons, the pieces are playful and evocative of the images of the seasons yet also organized. Some excellent examples of Baroque composers are George Frederic Handel, Henry Purcell, Johann Pachelbel, and Johann Sebastian Bach.
Another important type of music from the past is Classical music. Note that there is a crucial difference between the term “classical music” and “Classical music.” The former is a term generally used today when referring to music that was produced before the 20th century, hence the lowercase letters. On the other hand, Classical music is a term that refers to a distinct style that became popular roughly between the mid-1700s and the early 1800s. This makes Classical music the next major style after Baroque. Whereas Baroque music emphasized harmony, Classical music placed more importance on melody. Classical composers also did away with the intricacy of the Baroque style, preferring instead simplicity and clarity. Composers of this time wanted the music to be easier to follow, balanced, and generally shorter than previous works (“The Classical period”). Many might find it quite difficult to distinguish Baroque from Classical pieces, and indeed the two styles have many similarities. However, perhaps the most obvious difference between these two is that the former tends to be more complex and less structured, whereas the latter is simpler and more organized. For example, Classical pieces often have recognizable themes that are repeated throughout. There are many examples of Classical musicians, one of the most famous of which is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major, more popularly known as Eine kleine Nachtmusik or A Little Night Music, excellently demonstrates the Classical style’s characteristics.
Another important type of classical music is Romantic music. Like Baroque music, Romantic music is part of the broader cultural movement known as Romanticism, which lasted from the early 1800s to the mid-1800s (“Romanticism”). This movement influenced not just music but also the visual arts, the performing arts, literature, the natural and social sciences, and philosophy among others. As a musical style, Romanticism had several unique characteristics. For one, Romantic music is known for its highly dramatic quality. These pieces tend to be grand in scale, highly emotional in their effect, and complex in their overall composition (“Romantic Music”). The emphasis on the emotionality of music at this time was for the most part a reaction to the rationality of the Enlightenment, which was a philosophical movement concurrent with the Classical period in music. The music at this time also derived inspiration from Middle Ages. For example, Richard Wagner’s celebrated operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen or The Ring of the Nibelung was deeply inspired by German heroic legends and Norse mythology. Great examples of Romantic music are the operas of the Italian composers such as Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi, and Gioachino Rossini as are the works of preeminent Russian composers such as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Alexander Borodin.
Finally, Modern or Modernist music in the context of classical music refers to music produced at the turn of the 20th century. Again, this type of music is part of a broader movement known as Modernism. Among the four styles discussed in this paper, perhaps the most unique is Modern music. For the first time in centuries, composers sought to radically depart from the conventions that have shaped music and produce entirely new-sounding music. Experimentation became a hallmark, and this led to new pieces that went over and beyond in contravening preconceptions of what fine music sounds like (“Modern Music”). One fine example of Modern music is Igor Stravinsky’s work for the ballet The Rite of Spring. First produced in 1913 in Paris, the work caused a sensation and became notorious for almost inciting a riot. It influenced so many subsequent artists and is considered today as one of the greatest works of the 20th century. Other artists who made a massive mark on this musical style are Maurice Ravel, George Gershwin, and Dmitri Shostakovich among many others.
The passage of time understandably compresses artistic traditions of the past into one overarching concept and music is not alone in this. Renaissance art, for instance, had many strands, yet few people today will be able to differentiate between the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance. Just like the visual arts, classical music has become a single style for many listeners today. But this music has its nuances, as shown by the existence of Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern styles. Each of these styles has its unique qualities, from the complexity of Baroque music and the emphasis on the melody of Classical music to the thunderous roar of Romantic music and the experimental sound of Modern music. Each of these styles brings something different, and always to the delight of a music-loving listener.
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