With the advent of modern music streaming platforms, when we think about music, it's uncommon to categorize it as an art form. In fact, we jump from one tune to another, hardly appreciating the melody and emotions that they evoke in us.
A huge number of artists, wide availability, and easy access to music have made us insensitive to the nuances and meaningful experiences that western classical music once imparted.
In order to appreciate music better, not as a mere source of entertainment, but as an art with cultural, religious, and emotional significance, we need to take a look at classical music. There are countless examples of music from the years passed, be it Eastern, originating from Chinese musicians and Indian Punjabis, or European and Western descent.
In this article, we'll take a look at the latter and dive into the rich and cultural history of western classical music. It isn't very easy to learn about classical music, so we shall also talk about some optimal ways you can employ to start your melodious journey of learning about the heritage of music. Without any further ado, let's start musing.
What Is Western Classical Music?
Western Classical Music, a term that is inaccurate and often deceiving, carries with it a broader spectrum of musical history than you might think so. The 17th-19th century musical pieces of Mozart and Beethoven that come to mind when we use this term are just a small speck of the actual musical history of western culture.
In reality, the more accurate term for this period is "Western Art Music", which might be too pompous for most people to say. For simplicity, this period is often divided into different eras, based on the style, and the historical and cultural context in which its music was composed.
Some of the most significant periods and styles in western classical music include the Medieval period (500-1450), the Renaissance (1400-1600), the Baroque (1600-1750), the Classical (1730-1820), the Romantic (1815-1910), and the Modern (1900-present).
Each of these periods and styles has its own unique characteristics and features and has contributed to the development of classical music as we know it today.
History of Western Classical Music
Medieval Period (500-1450)
The medieval period of western classical music lasted from around 500 to 1450 and was characterized by the music of the Catholic Church and the secular music of the courts and nobility. During this time, music was an important part of religious ceremonies and secular events, and was primarily vocal, with limited use of instruments.
The medieval period saw the development of a number of important musical forms and styles, including plainchant (also known as Gregorian chant), which was the primary form of liturgical music in the Western Church. Plainchant was characterized by its monophonic texture (meaning that it consisted of a single melody line) and its use of Latin texts.
Instruments played a limited role in medieval music, with the organ and the lute being among the most important instruments of the period. Music was typically performed by choirs of monks and nuns, or by soloists, and was often accompanied by simple instrumentation such as the harp or the recorder.
While the medieval period was a significant time in the development of western classical music, much of the music from this period has been lost to history.
However, the surviving works of composers such as Hildegard of Bingen and Perotin provide a glimpse into the music of this period and demonstrate the rich musical traditions that were present in the medieval world.
Renaissance Period (1450-1600)
The Renaissance period of western classical music lasted from around 1450 to 1600. It was characterized by a renewed interest in the arts and sciences, as well as by the development of new musical forms and styles. The Renaissance was a time of great cultural and intellectual ferment, and music played an important role in this cultural flowering.
One of the key developments of the Renaissance period was the emergence of polyphonic music, which consists of multiple independent melodies that are played or sung at the same time.
Polyphonic music allowed for greater musical complexity and nuance and was an important step in the evolution of western classical music. Composers such as Josquin des Prez and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina wrote music for the Church that was more complex and ornate than the simpler melodies of the medieval period.
Instruments played a more significant role in Renaissance music than they had in the medieval period. The lute, the violin, and the harpsichord were among the most important instruments of the time. Music was performed by a variety of ensembles, including choirs and orchestras, and was often accompanied by dance.
Baroque Period (1600-1750)
The Baroque period of western classical music lasted from approximately 1600 to 1750. It was a time of great change and innovation in music, with composers experimenting with new forms and styles.
One of the most prominent features of Baroque music is its elaborate, ornamental style. Composers of the time often used intricate melodies and elaborate harmonies, while frequently including ornamentation such as trills and mordents in their music.
We also saw the development of new forms and structures in music. One of the most significant of these was the concerto. It features a solo instrument or group of instruments accompanied by an orchestra. Other important forms of the time include the sonata, the suite, and the opera.
During the Baroque period, the harpsichord and the violin became some of the most important instruments in classical music. Many of the greatest composers of the time, such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi, wrote music for these instruments.
This period was also a time of great innovation in opera. Composers such as George Frideric Handel and Claudio Monteverdi created some of the most important works in the genre.
Classical Period (1730-1820)
The classical period of western classical music was a time of great change and innovation in music. Composers were breaking away from the elaborate styles of the Baroque period and instead focusing on more balanced and transparent forms.
It also saw the development of new forms and structures in music, such as the symphony, the string quartet, and the piano sonata. These forms became some of the most important in classical music and continue to be widely performed and enjoyed today.
This period gave birth to some of the most celebrated and distinguished composers, the likes of which have never been seen in history.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
One of the most significant composers of the classical period was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who is widely considered one of the greatest composers in the history of classical music. Some of his most famous works are:
Ludwig van Beethoven
Another important composer of the classical period was Ludwig van Beethoven, who is known for his powerful and dramatic music. Some well-known examples of his music include:
Romantic Period (1815-1910)
The romantic period of western classical music was a time of great change and innovation in music. Composers were breaking away from the balanced and transparent forms of the classical period and instead focusing on more emotional and expressive styles.
One of the most significant composers of the romantic period was Franz Schubert, whose works are known for their emotional depth and lyrical beauty. Another important composer of the time was Frederic Chopin, whose piano works are known for their intense expressiveness and technical virtuosity.
In the romantic period, new forms such as the symphonic poem and the art song were introduced. These allowed composers to explore more complex and expressive musical ideas.
The piano and the violin became some of the most important instruments in this era. Many of the greatest composers of the time, such as Robert Schumann and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, wrote music for these instruments.
Modern Period (1910 - Present)
The modern period of western classical music refers to the music composed from the end of the romantic period in the early 20th century up to the present day.
One of the most significant developments of this period is the growth of experimental and avant-garde music. Composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg broke away from traditional forms and harmonic structures, and instead experimented with new sounds and rhythms.
Minimalism, a new form of music that is characterized by the repetition of simple musical ideas, made headway in this period. Other significant developments of the modern period include jazz, rock, and popular music.
In the modern period, electronic instruments and technology played a significant role in the advancement of classical music. Composers such as John Cage and Pierre Boulez have used electronic instruments and techniques to create new sounds and musical experiences.
Features of Western Classical Music
One of the defining characteristics of Western classical music is its use of notation, a system of written symbols representing musical pitches, rhythms, and other musical elements.
The notation allows musicians to read and play the music that has been written down, and makes it possible to preserve and transmit music over time.
Harmony is the combination of different pitches played or sung at the same time. It's an important element of classical music and is used to create chord progressions, melodies, and other musical structures.
Composers use harmony to create tension and release, convey emotion, and add depth and complexity to their music.
Instrumentation and Orchestra
The orchestra, which is a group of musicians who play a variety of instruments, is a key ensemble in classical music.
It typically includes strings (violins, violas, cellos, and basses), woodwinds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons), brass (trumpets, trombones, and French horns), and percussion (drums, timpani, and other instruments that produce sound by being struck or shaken).
In addition to the orchestra, classical music also features a wide range of solo instruments, including the piano, violin, cello, and guitar.
Learning About Western Classical Music
One way to learn more about classical music is to attend live concerts. No, we don't mean the modern concerts, which are predominated by yelling more than actual music. Instead, you should attend live symphony orchestras, which can be a great way to experience music in a performance setting.
Many cities have classical music ensembles that perform regularly, and there are often opportunities to hear smaller ensembles or solo musicians in recitals and other events. Attending live concerts can be a great way to get a sense of the music as well as the musicians, and it allows you to gain a deeper appreciation for the genre.
Listening to recordings of classical music is another way to learn more about the genre. There are countless recordings of classical music available, ranging from historic recordings of famous compositions to contemporary albums of lesser-known works.
Indulging in classical recordings can be a great way to familiarize yourself with different compositions and discover new works that you might not have heard before.
Reading about classical music can also be a valuable way to learn more about the genre. Many books, articles, and other resources provide insight into the history and significance of classical music, as well as the lives and careers of famous composers.
Reading about classical music can help you gain a deeper understanding of the music and its place in the cultural landscape.
Taking lessons on a classical instrument, such as the piano or violin, can be a great way to develop your musical skills and learn more about music.
Joining a group that performs classical music, such as a choir or an orchestra, can also be a rewarding experience and can provide an opportunity to learn more about the genre through collaboration and performance.
When it comes to music, not many people know about the history, culture, and musicians who helped shape this art form into what it is today.
Western classical music as a genre is vast, and learning it can pose some difficulty. But no need to worry, because with the right attitude, even children can learn to appreciate it.