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5.2: Music in the Classical period

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  • 5.4.1 Music Comparison Overview

    Baroque Music Classical Music
    • Rise of homophony; polyphony still used
    • Rise of instrumental music, including the violin family
    • Meter more important than before
    • New genres such as opera, oratorio, concerto, cantata, and fugue
    • Emergence of program music
    • Continued presence of music at church and court
    • Continued increase of music among merchant classes
    • Motor rhythm
    • Mostly homophony, but with variation
    • New genres such as the symphony and string quartet
    • Use of crescendos and decrescendos
    • Question and answer (aka antecedent consequent) phrases that are shorter than earlier phrases
    • New emphasis on musical form: for example, sonata form, theme and variations, minuet and trio, rondo, and first-movement concerto form
    • Greater use of contrasting dynamics, articulations, and tempos

    5.4.2 General Trends of Classical music

    Musical Style

    The Classical style of music embodies balance, structure, and flexibility of expression, arguably related to the noble simplicity and calm grandeur that the eighteenth century art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann saw in ancient Greek art. In the music of Haydn, Mozart, and the early Beethoven, we find tuneful melodies using question/answer or antecedent/consequent phrasing; flexible deployment of rhythm and rests; and slower harmonic rhythm (harmonic rhythm is the rate at which the chords or harmonies change). Composers included more expressive marks in their music, such as the crescendo and decrescendo. The homophony of the Classical period featured predominant melody lines accompanied by relatively interesting and independent lines. In the case of a symphony or operatic ensemble, the texture might be described as homophony with multiple accompanying lines or polyphony with a predominant melodic line.

    Performing Forces

    The Classical period saw new performing forces such as the piano and the string quartet and an expansion of the orchestra. Initially called the fortepiano, then the pianoforte, and now the piano was capable of dynamics from soft to loud; the player needed only to adjust the weight applied when depressing a key. This feature was not available in the Baroque harpsichord. Although the first pianos were developed in the first half of the eighteenth century, most of the technological advancements that led the piano to overtaking all other keyboard instruments in popularity occurred in the late eighteenth century.

    Besides the keyboard instruments, the string quartet was the most popular new chamber music ensembles of the Classical period and comprised two violins, a viola, and a cello. In addition to string quartets, composers wrote duets, trios, quintets, and even sextets, septets, and octets. Whether performed in a palace or a more modest middle class home, chamber music, as the name implies, was generally performed in chamber or smaller room.

    In the Classical period, the orchestra expanded into an ensemble that might include as many as thirty to sixty musicians distributed into four sections. The sections include the strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Classical composers explored the individual unique tone colors of the instruments and they did not treat the instrumental sections interchangeably. An orchestral classical piece utilizes a much larger tonal palette and more rapid changes of the ensemble’s timbre through a variety of orchestration techniques. Each section in the classical orchestra has a unique musical purpose as penned by the composer. The string section still holds its prominence as the center-piece for the orchestra. Composers continue to predominantly assign the first violins the melody and the accompaniment to the lower strings. The woodwinds are orchestrated to provide diverse tone colors and often assigned melodic solo passages. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, clarinets were added to the flutes and oboes to complete the woodwind section. To add volume and to emphasize louder dynamic, horns and trumpets were used. The horns and trumpets also filled out the harmonies. The brass usually were not assigned the melody or solos. The kettle drum or timpani were used for volume highlights and for rhythmic pulse. Overall, the Classical orchestra matured into a multifaceted tone color ensemble that composers could utilize to produce their most demanding musical thoughts acoustically through an extensive tonal palette. General differences between the Baroque and Classical (1750-1815) orchestras are summarized in the following chart.

    Baroque Orchestras Classical Orchestras
    • Strings at the core
    • Woodwind and brass instruments such as the flutes or oboes and trumpets and horns doubled the themes played by the strings or provided harmonies
    • Any percussion was provided by timpani
    • Harpsichord, sometimes accompanied by cello or bassoon, provided the basso continuo
    • Generally led by the harpsichord player
    • Strings at the core
    • More woodwind instruments— flutes and oboes and (increasingly) clarinets—which were sometimes given their own melodic themes and solo parts
    • More brass instruments, including, after 1808, trombones.
    • More percussion instruments, including cymbals, the triangle, and other drums
    • Phasing out of the basso continuo
    • Generally led by the concertmaster (the most important first violinist) and increasingly by a conductor

    Emergence of New Musical Venues

    The Classical period saw performing ensembles such as the orchestra appearing at an increasing number of concerts. These concerts were typically held in theaters or in the large halls of palaces and attended by anyone who could afford the ticket price, which was reasonable for a substantial portion of the growing middle class. For this reason, the birth of the public concert is often traced to the late eighteenth century. At the same time, more music was incorporated into a growing number of middle class households.

    The redistribution of wealth and power of this era affected the performing forces and musical venues in two ways. First, although the aristocracy still employed musicians, professional composers were no longer exclusively employed by the wealthy. This meant that not all musicians were bound to a particular person or family as their patron/sponsor. Therefore, public concerts shifted from performances in the homes and halls of the rich to performances for the masses which evolved the symphony into a genre for the public concert, as they were eventually written for larger and larger ensembles. Second, middle class families incorporated more music into their households for personal entertainment. For example, middle class households would have their children take music lesson and participate in chamber music or small musical ensembles. Musicians could now support themselves through teaching lessons, composing and publishing music, and per- forming in public venues, such as in public concerts. Other opportunities included the public opera house, which was the center for vocal music experimentation during the Classical era. Composers also continued to write music for the church.

    Musical Form

    As musical compositions of the Classical period incorporated more performing forces and increased in length, a composition’s structure became more important. As an element of organization and coherence, form helps give meaning to a mu- sical movement or piece, we have some evidence to suggest that late eighteenth and early nineteenth century audiences heard form in music that was especially composed to play on their expectations.

    Sonata Form
    The most important innovation in form during the Classical period is what we

    call Sonata Form. This form got its name from being used as the first movement of most piano sonatas of the Classical period. Consisting of three sections—exposition, development, and recapitulation—it was also used for the first movements (and sometimes final movements) of almost all Classical symphonies and string quartets. The exposition of a sonata form presents the primary themes and keys of the movement. After the first theme is presented in the home or tonic key, the music modulates to a different key during a sub-section that is called a “transi- tion.” Once the new key is established, subsequent themes appear. The exposition generally ends with a rousing confirmation of the new key in a sub-section called the “closing.” The exposition then often repeats.

    As its name implies, the development “develops” the primary themes of the movement. The motives that comprise the musical themes are often broken apart and given to different parts of the orchestra. These motives are often repeated in sequences (refer back to chapter 1 for more about sequences), and these sequences often lead to frequent modulations from one musical key to another that con- tribute to an overall sense of instability. Near the end of the development, there is sometimes a sub-section called the “retransition” during which the harmonies, textures, and dynamics of the music prepare the listener for the final section of the form, the recapitulation.

    Also true to its name, the recapitulation brings back the primary themes and home key of the movement. A simultaneous return of the first theme and home key generally marks its beginning. In the recapitulation, the listener hears the same musical themes as in the first presented in the exposition. The main difference between the exposition and the recapitulation is that the recapitulation stays in the home key. After all, the movement is about to end and ending in the home key provides the listener a sense of closure. Recapitulations often end with sub-sections called codas. The coda, or “tail,” of the movement is a sub-section that re-emphasizes the home key and that generally provides a dramatic conclusion.

    Starting in the late eighteenth century, there are reports of listeners recognizing the basic sections of sonata form, and contemporary music theorists outlined them in music composition treatises. Their descriptions are generalizations based on the multitudinous sonata form movements composed by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Although the sonata form movements of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven share many of the characteristics outlined above, each sonata form is slightly different. Perhaps that is what makes their music so interesting: it takes what is expected and does something different. In fact, composers continued to write sonata forms through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the end of the nineteenth century, some of these sonata forms were massive, almost-hour-long movements. You will have the opportunity to hear sonata form in several of our focus composi- tions from the Classical period.

    Other Important Forms in Classical Music
    Another form of the Classical period is the Theme and Variations. Theme and Variations form consists of the presentation of a theme and then the variations upon it. The theme may be illustrated as A with any number of variations follow- ing it: A’, A’’, A’’’, A’’’’, etc. Each theme is a varied version of the original, keeping enough of the theme to be recognizable, but providing enough variety in style for interest. Variations change melodies (often through ornamentation), harmonies, rhythms, and instrumentation. Theme and variations forms were often found in slow movements of symphonies and string quartets. Some fast movements are also in theme and variations form.

    The Minuet and Trio form found in many Classical symphonies and string quartets stems from the stylized dances of the Baroque Period (see chapter 4), and then followed by the Minuet A section: A B A for short. To save paper, the return of the A section was generally not written out. Instead, the composer wrote the words da capo, meaning to the head, at the end of the B section indicating a return to the A section. As a movement in three parts, Minuet and Trio form is sometimes called a ternary form. As we will see in our discussion of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Minuet and Trio was perceived as dated, and composers started writing fast ABA ternary form movements called scherzos.

    The rondo is another popular instrumental form of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Rondo consists of the alternation of a refrain “A” with contrasting sections (“B,” “C,” “D,” etc.). Rondos are often the final movements of string quartets, classical symphonies, concerti, and sonata (instrumental solos).


    We normally classify musical compositions into genres by considering their performing forces, function, the presence and quality of any text, and their musical style and form. Changes in any of these factors can lead to changes in genres. The two most important new genres of the Classical period were the symphony and the string quartet; instrumental genres that continued from the Baroque period include the concerto.

    Although one might trace its origins to the opera overture, the symphony developed as an orchestral composition for the public concert. By the end of the Classical period, it typically had four movements. The first movement was generally

    fast in tempo and in sonata form. The final movement was normally fast in tempo and used sonata, rondo, or theme and variations form. The interior movements consisted of a slow and lyrical movement and a moderate-tempo dance-like movement generally using the style of the minuet, a popular eighteenth century dance.

    The string quartet became one of the most popular genres of Classical chamber music. Its overall structure and form was exactly like the symphony. However, it was always performed by two violins, one viola, and one cello (thus its name) and commonly used as entertainment in the home, although on occasion string quartets were performed in public concerts. Also popular for personal diversion was the piano sonata, which normally had only three movements (generally lacking the minuet movement found in the string quartet and the symphony).

    The most pronounced change in the Classical period vocal music was the growing popularity of opera buffa, or comic opera, over the more serious plot and aristocratic characters of Baroque opera seria. Opera buffa portrayed the lives of middle class characters and often mixed tragedy with comedy; as we will see, Mozart would produce some of the most famous opera buffa of all time. (As a side note, Mozart also transformed the opera overture into a preview of the musical themes to follow in the opera proper.) Composers Haydn and Beethoven also continued to write oratorios.