What you need to know about classical music

Classical music forms the basis of much of what we listen to today. We give you a taste of the genre’s long history

Chris Gillett |

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When most people refer to “classical music”, they mean something from what is known as the “common-practice” period from 1600-1910. This encompasses the baroque, classical and romantic eras. But the genre’s roots go back at least as far as 500AD; compare this to almost every other popular genre, which mostly emerged between 1920 and 1980. Classical music was so labelled in the 19th century, with the intention of bookmarking the period between Bach and Beethoven’s music.

There is a vast range of styles within the broader genre, but one distinguishing feature is the use of music notation; many more modern genres, such as blues or jazz, are largely improvised. This notation has enabled many pieces to survive centuries, and to be played today exactly as they first were.

A lot of classical music is written for orchestras. While many bands might have four or five members, orchestras have woodwind, brass, percussion and strings sections, and easily have 80 or more members.

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Orchestras existed in ancient Egypt as far back as 3000BC; at the similar time, musical notes and scales were being developed in Ancient Greece. The harmonised vocals of Gregorian chant – by all-male choirs – formed the prominent music from approximately 1100AD, before instruments and orchestras were redeveloped in the Renaissance period starting in 1400, with an emphasis on the harpsichord.

The music of the baroque period (c. 1600-1750) saw the creation of “tonality”, or writing in a particular key, something which remains an important part of almost all modern Western music. Pieces also became more complex, with interweaving melodies and more structure, which included repeating musical themes. This period spawned some of the best known composers: J. S. Bach, Vivaldi, Handel and Purcell.

In the classical period (c. 1730-1820), the harpsichord was replaced with the piano, and violins often took centre stage. The music was less complex than baroque, and featured a prominent melody. Some of the major composers were Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn.

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The romantic era (1800-1910) was so named as the music became more emotionally charged and melodic. Compositions often reflected political identity, with the rise of nationalism. Some of the most highly regarded composers of the time included Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Wagner, Schubert and Strauss.

Although classical music evolved at a faster rate from the 1900s, works from the common-practice period remain hugely popular.

Today, “contemporary classical” music has worked its way into film scores and TV soundtracks – Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Philip Glass are particularly prolific in film, while Max Richter, Olufur Arnalds and Johann Johannssen are highly regarded for their works for TV.

While some people see it as old-fashioned, classical music remains essential grounding for artists in many genres. Rock band Muse might not have been so successful without including it in their music.

Recommended listening:

Bach – Unaccompanied Cello Suite No.1

Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, Violin Concerto No.2

Beethoven – Sonata No.14 “Moonlight”

Tchaikovsky – Swan Lake, Op.20

Hans Zimmer – Time (from Inception)

Muse – Butterflies and Hurricanes / Exogensis

Max Richter – On the Nature of Daylight (from Arrival)

Recommended viewing:

The Harvest of Sorrow – Rachmaninoff documentary


In Search of Beethoven – documentary


Glass: A Portrait of Phillip

Recommended reading:

Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music

Johannes Brahms: A Biography

Edited by Karly Cox