Exploring Music's Complexities

Classical Music Period Part 2 – Renaissance, Baroque and Classical Periods

Part 2 in this series describes Western music created in the Renaissance period (15th to 16th Centuries),  Baroque period (1700 to 1750), and Classical period (1750 to 1820).  Take time to listen to one of the great pieces of music from this period.  The version below is of Pachelbel-Canon in D available at  https://www.wonderofsound.com/product/dreams-beyond-the-twilight-mp3/

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Renaissance Music
(1600 to 1700)

The Renaissance was a time during which Europe was experiencing a renewed interest in the arts and in learning.  Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Copernicus, and Shakespeare were contributing to the use of humanism, an intellectual movement focused on human life and its accomplishments.

Growth of humanism during this period weakened the church’s grip on sacred music and shifted musical activity to the court (1).  This shift resulted in the incorporation of polyphony (having more than one part) into compositions.  Instrumental music became popular and notation was added to show the duration of notes as well as pitch (2).  Such elements made Renaissance music sound fuller by considering the harmonic effect of chords rather than superimposing one melody above another.

As noted above secular music thrived during this period as did instrumental and dance music (1).  Countries began exchanging musical ideas, which led to what might be described as an international European style.

During this time polyphony or multi voiced music with its horizontal contrapuntal style continued to develop in complexity (3).  At the same time, harmony based on a vertical arrangement of intervals, including thirds and sixths, was explored for their full textures and suitability for accompanying a vocal line.  Composers also began to organize their work into major and minor scales producing a definite tonal centre or key (4).

Later in the period madrigals were extremely popular.  Madrigals were secular songs; usually love songs that were sung in harmony without instruments.

A list of popular Renaissance composers can be found at www.classicalmusic.about.com.  With the exception of a few, women composers of this era went unrecognized.  Those few noted in history include Queen Elizabeth, Vittoria  Aleotti/Raffaela Aleotta and Isabella d’Este (3).

The link below lets you see and hear Renaissance instruments.  http://www.music.iastate.edu/antiqua/instrumt.html.  Another reference for this period can be found at http://historyofmusic.tripod/id8.html

Baroque Music
(1700 to 1750)

Baroque music acquired its name from the word “baroque” a term used to describe an elaborate or ornate style of architecture.  During this period composers were beginning to rebel against the styles prevalent during the High Renaissance (2).  Instrumental concertos, operas, and dance music were among the changes taking place.

This period also witnessed the concept of the modern orchestra.  Compositions required using a bolder violin, viola and cello.  The harpsichord was also invented during this period.  Choral music no longer dominated.  Examples of this Baroque music included compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach (J.S.), George Frederic Handel (G.F.), and Henry Purcell (4).


During its early period one saw the development of ‘monody’ as differentiated from ‘polyphony’ discussed above.   Here the melody is assigned to one instrument or voice and the basso continuo provides the accompaniment.  During the late period the music’s form was concerto grosso.   It reflected the contrast between two groups of instruments.  In this configuration the larger group called the repieno is made up of a body of strings with harpsichord continuo.  The smaller group or concertino was made up of two to four solo instruments.  Sections would alternate between fast and slow movements.

Much of the music during this period was produced under contract to Royalty or Church.  For example, Henry Purcell was composer to the King’s Band and GF Handel was appointed composer to the Chapel Royal.  JS Bach was similarity employed (4).

Late Period Masterpieces

History suggests that two of the greatest and magnificent compositions of the late period are Handel’s Messiah and JS Bach’s St. Mathew Passion.  Francois Couperin is remembered for his harpsichord music.  JS Bach and Antonio Vivaldi transformed this genre into the solo concerto.    Here the solo is equal in importance to the string orchestra.  Corelli was the first to use the form of the concerto.

Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti was an Italian composer who spent much of his life in the service of the Portuguese and Spanish royal families.  He is considered to be one of the founders of modern keyboard techniques and for his little exercises that he named sonatas.  Works such as Sonata in D major K 491 provided an introduction to the Classical Period.

It is generally accepted that the Baroque period culminated in the works of JS Bach and GF Handel.  This period was followed by a transition period referred to as Rococo in which there was a gradual move away from the High Baroque.  For a more detailed discussion of Baroque music see http://historyofmusic.tripod.com/id9.html

Classical Period

This period of time has been given the name classical, as there was a keen interest and admiration for the Greek and Roman heritage.  Although the era lasted for only 70 years, it produced a substantial change in the music being composed and the manner in which it was performed.

The classical style was dominated by homophony, which is turn, produced the distinctly classical sonata.  Phrases became shorter with well-defined cadences.  Composers used chords in triadic form and, on occasion, used seventh chords.

The lighter quality of classical music is due to its slower harmonic movement and less frequent chord changes.  The keyboard part was less obtrusive and was made one of the players in the orchestra.

Unlike pervious periods, which included many composers, three dominated the period:  Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.  The music is characterized by objectivity and emotional control.  This control can be identified by its use of dynamics and expressive differentiation within sections of movements making up the composition through the use of crescendos and decrescendos.

We also invite you to listen to the interpretations of this music by Daniel Kobialka on www.wonderofsound.com and on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Daniel-Kobialka/e/B000AQ2OMG .  A portion of the basic background history for this newsletter was obtained from Robert  Sherrane’s Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music.


  1. Sherrane, Robert.  Music History 102:  a Guide to Western Composers and their music.  www.ipl.org/div/mushist/
  2. Grout, Donald Jay.  A History of Western Music.  New York:  Norton, 1960.
  3. http://bandnotes.info/tidbits/tidbits-october.html.
  4. http://naxos.com
  5. http://library.thinkquest.org/15413/history/history-cla.htm

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Categorised in: History, Music Theory

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