The music of Europe: Western Classical

“If music be the food of love, play on,

Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.”

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 1, 1-3

Shakespeare’s Duke Orsino says he is so frustrated in love that he wants an excess of music. He opines that music might reduce his obsession with love just as an excess of food kills one’s appetite. Music played a pivotal role in Shakespeare’s plays and it would not be a wrong conjecture to say that he indeed believed it to be “the food of love”.

Music has been a part of man from time immemorial and is a form of expression which represents our feelings and emotions. Our moods are articulated well in music and moods also determine the type of music sometimes. Sound is an integral component of music but not all sounds are music and hence not every sound touches us so as to stir our passion. Therefor music is such an entity which is regular, simple, soothing yet one of the most complex forms of performing arts. The very subject of music is so vast, that bringing it under the umbrella of a single topic is futile. The subject of the mechanism of music is not so interesting as it is to know why music makes us feel the way it does. It is a bridge between emotion and discernment, determining that tender intersection of where our brain ends and our soul begins.

Why music makes us feel the way it does is equivalent to knowing the divinity of nature or the origin of love: summarizing it, the answer is very difficult. In his book “This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession”, Daniel J. Levitin has taken an attempt to answer it. He deals with a range of concepts, starting from an intelligible and coherent explanation of technical terms like scale, tone and timbre to several cross-disciplinary starting from neurobiology, philosophy, psychology, memory theory, behavioral science, Gestalt psychology and more. He elucidates diverse topics like what accounts for the diverse tastes in music and what constitutes a music expert, stating music processing as basic cognitive function embedded in human nature. Without disengaging from the involuntary charm of powerful music, Levitin dissects the different elements of music with fervour of a researcher, while keeping its essence intact like true music lover. Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker once in a 1997 talk famously called music “auditory cheesecake” displacing demands that areas of the brain should be concerned with more important functions like language. But Levitin opposes this view and responds to it with a mighty storehouse of research.

If human voice is the greatest instrument, then our brain is the greatest composer. While performing, composing or merely listening to music, the brain gets affected with a range of devices, harmonies and patterns which help in the creation of emotional meaning out of the elements of sound and often emanating pleasure. The cause of pleasure in music is due to the tonal deviations and they create a conflict, resolved with a return to the tonal center which gives us a sensation of bliss. This sequence of conflict and resolution is brought about by four key elements of music, viz., rhythm, melody, phrase and harmony.

John Ortiz’s “The Tao of Music: Sound of Psychology” blends the unbelievable grasping capability of music with the principles of Taoist philosophy to bring forward a rare but enthralling concept. Our music library can be utilized for improving our performance and state of mind across daily challenges like controlling our anger, shun procrastination, treat romantic relationships with utmost care and attaining perfection in the art of relaxation. Through cognitive-behavioral exercises, meditation and musical ideas, Ortiz offers a useful music-oriented toolkit to overcome life’s obstacles, and even provides a specific set of musical list for various emotional states.

Music is one of human civilization’s greatest treasures and Anthony Storr’s “Music and the Mind” lets us peep into this matter and gives insight in this regard. From carefully analysing the views held by the greatest philosophers in history to the transformation of the Western tonal system, the book carries information about some of the basic questions of music, like why a minor scale always sounds sad and a major scale happy and offers a very natural human theory, which is supported by proof, for the very purpose of music: Peace, resolution and tranquility of spirit.

Each music type has its own culture and regional traditions, although music is not bound by barriers. Classical music has its own history which speaks for the distinctive nature of this particular genre. Classical music is present in every culture and tradition and is played with the assistance of certain enlisted instruments, and the Indians, Arabs, and the Europeans maybe named among these cultures. The term Classical music is a broad spectrum but it may be defined as a practice which includes a learned tradition, support from the church or government or greater cultural capital.

Western classical music or more specifically, music of Europe evolved during stages of vast time periods. The inception of western classical music was the Medieval era lasting from 500 A.D to 1400 A.D. It was followed by the Renaissance, one of the most fruitful eras in terms of mankind’s creation, lasting from 1400 to 1600. Soon after the Renaissance came what is known as the ‘common practice period’ which includes the Baroque era from 1600 to 1750, the Classical era from 1750 to 1820, the Romantic era from 1804 to 1910 and the Impressionist era from 1875 to 1925. Thereafter comes the 20th century and contemporary period which starts with modern overlapping from the late 19th century including high modern from 1890 to 1975. The penultimate stage is the contemporary or postmodern era starting from 1975 and continuing in the present age. The time period finally concludes with 21st century music starting in 2000 and continuing in the present age.

Roots of western classical music can be traced back to ancient Egyptian art music through cheironomy or the use of hands to direct a vocal musical performance and ancient Egyptian orchestra dating back to 2956 BC. The individual scales and tones were developed by ancient Greeks such as Aristoxenus and Pythagoras. A tuning system was created by Pythagoras which facilitated the codification of musical notation. Ancient Greek instruments such as the aulos (a wooden musical instrument in which a thin strip material vibrates to produce sound) and the lyre (a stringed instrument similar to a small harp) are the eventual outcome of modern day instruments of a classical orchestra. The early period was preceded by the era of ancient music before the fall of the Roman Empire (476 A.D) and very little music is left from this time period, most of it from ancient Greece.

Medieval Period

Medieval music was dominated by liturgical music (songs for the church) and secular songs (non-religious songs). Vocal music was the only type of music constituting this era such as Gregorian chant(sacred song of the Roman Catholic Church) and choral music in addition to solely instrumental music and music made up of both voice and music. This stage begins with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and ends in the early 15th century. The Medieval Period laid the foundation stone for notational and theoretical practices that ultimately moulded Western music into the developing norms of the common practice era. The most common type of practice was the development of a musical notational system because of which composers were able to write their songs and pieces on a parchment or a paper. The previous practice before the arrival of musical notation was, songs were to be learned by ear, from one person who knew a song to another person. This had geographical constraints and music wasn’t able to disseminate itself outside a particular boundary. But the invention of musical notation helped overcome this shortcoming. Medieval music used many pluck string instruments like the lute, mandore, gittern and psaltery. This era consisted of three types of genres namely, monophonic, polyphonic and heterophonic. Monophonic means a single melodic line without the harmonic part or instrumental accompaniment which included the liturgical genre, predominantly Gregorian. During the high medieval period, polyphonic genres began to develop in which multiple independent melodic lines were performed simultaneously. Finally, heterophony is defined as the performance of the same melody by two different persons at the same time. In terms of theory, notation and rhythm, the medieval era saw its end in a highly manneristic style known as Arts subtillor which was the demarcating line between this era and the Renaissance.


Renaissance music is vocal and instrumental which was written and performed in Europe during the Renaissance period. Increased innovation and discovery, the rise of a bourgeois class, the growth of commercial enterprises and Protestant Reformation hugely impacted the music of that age. Music liberated itself and came out of the shackles of medieval restrictions which offered more varied range in rhythm, harmony, form and notation. Music was used as a vehicle of personal expression and composers found various ways to enhance vocal music as more impassioned in the texts they were setting.

Renaissance was predominantly about polyphony throughout the 14th century with highly independent voices. Leonel Power, along with John Dunstaple was one of the pioneers in the history of English music of the early 15th century. One of his best compositions Old Hail Manuscript, maybe called a rare undamaged source of English music from the early 15th century. Dunstaple’s contribution to the country’s treasure of music is extremely significant considering the relative paucity of his works. Other notable composers of this period were Oswald von Wolkenstein, Gilles Binchois, Guillaume Du Fay and so on. Early 1470s was a period of change, wherein printing press was introduced and music started getting printed. The most famous artiste of the period was Josquin des Prez, who was a contemporary of the Franco-Flemish School. In Venice, from about 1534 until the 1600s, a polychoral style emerged due to which the continent of Europe got one of the grandest, most mellifluous tunes composed until that time, with the best choirs of singers. Other existing schools were the Roman School and the English Madrigal School which were an integral part of these institutions. Roman School was a group of composers who mostly played church music, where many composers had a good relation with the Vatican. The most famous composer of the Roman school is said to be Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.  There was an ephemeral but fruitful progress in the musical madrigal of England, mostly from 1588 to 1627 which is called the English Madrigal School. In the late 16th century the Renaissance came to an end and thereafter we see a transition to the common practice period initiating with the Baroque era.


Baroque music formed one of the most significant stages of European classical music and contributed a large portion to the storehouse of music for that matter. The origin of the word Baroque is the Portuguese word ‘barroco’ meaning ‘misshapen pearl’. The idea of music being used as a source of entertainment in an occasion did not come into existence yet and as a result, it was more of an individual hobby. That emotion can be attached to music was still an unheard of concept and hence music of this age is largely devoid of emotion. Music was a subject of intense study and not entertainment. Key composers of the Baroque era include Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, Claudio Monteverdi, Domenico Scarlatti, Alessandro Scarlatti, Henry Purcell, Georg Philipp Telemann, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jean Philippe Rameau, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Arcangelo Corelli, Tomaso Albinoni, Francois Couperin, Giuseppe Tartini, Heinrich Schutz, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Dieterich Buxtehude and Johann Pachelbel. Changes were made in musical notation during this period and there was an emergence new techniques of playing instruments. Instrumental performance achieved new heights in terms of size, range and complexity and also consolidated the mixed vocal/instrumental forms of opera, cantata (vocal composition with an instrumental accompaniment) and oratorio (large musical compositions for orchestra, choir and soloists) and the solo instrumental forms concerto (a piece usually composed in three parts or movements, one solo instrument, for instance a piano, violin, cello or flute is accompanied by an orchestra or concert band) and sonata (a piece sung) as musical genres.

The epitome of the Baroque era, undoubtedly, was Johann Sebastian Bach, very closely followed by Antonio Vivaldi. Born in Eisenach, the capital city of the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, Bach graduated from St. Michael’s. From there he was appointed as the court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst III in Weimar. Playing as a keyboardist, his reputation was spreading swiftly and soon he was appointed by Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Kothen, as his Kappelmeister (director of music). It was at that juncture that he enjoyed the most flourishing time of his career. His musical style adhered to the conventions of his days, which was the final stage of the baroque style.  He composed violin concertos, keyboard concertos, orchestral suites and the Brandenburg concertos. The Brandenburg concertos were his peerless creation in orchestral works and they were titled so because he presented them with the hope that he would get employed Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt, only to see disappointment. His works are exemplary of the highest form of art and there can be no denial of the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach stood as one of the towering figures of the common practice era.

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi, the other big name of this era, was an Italian baroque composer, teacher and violinist. Numerous instrumental concertos are accounted to him, mostly for violin and various other instruments. He was also involved in the creation of sacred choral works and has more than forty operas to his name. His most well-known works is a series of violin concertos named ‘The Four Seasons’. It was time for Baroque music to give way to eventually the most musically rich era in the history of European music, that is the classical age, when music flowered while remaining within the strict compositional rules.

Classical Period

This period is defined as the age of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, arguably the best composer of all time, a true master in his art. The variety and contrast in the composition became more conspicuous in this age than before and the range, size and power of the orchestra also increased in magnitude. The dominant forms of instrumental compositions in this period were the sonata, symphony (extended musical composition) and solo concerto in which a solo performer played a solo work for violin, piano, flute or any such instrument accompanied by an orchestra. The best-known composers of the time were Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most influential and famous musician of all time and Joseph Haydn. Other notable names include Franz Schubert, Luigi Boccherini, Muzio Clementi, Antonio Salieri, Leopold Mozart, Johann Christian Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Christoph Willibald Gluck. But Beethoven was a part of the transition to the Romantic period, as was Schubert. This stage is also sometimes called the era of Viennese Classic since Mozart, Salieri, Beethoven, Gluck and Haydn worked in Vienna and Schubert was born there.

Baptised as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, he was born in Salzburg. Being a child prodigy, Mozart showed tremendous ability from his childhood and was a virtuoso performer on piano and violin. Composing from the age of five, he had the opportunity to play before European royalty. At 17 years of age, Mozart was one of the musicians at the Salzburg court. He composed more than 600 works during his lifetime, most of which are looked upon as masterpieces, no less than the works of Michelangelo or Da Vinci. Two of his most noteable creations, Don Giovani and The Marriage of Figaro, remain as exemplary forms of artwork and are still considered amongst few of the best creations in western classical music. The Marriage of Figaro has been used in a number of English films, the most famous being the iconic scene in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. A film made on Mozart, named ‘Amadeus’, showed the ups and downs of his life, starting from his prodigious acts to his sad death, caused due to poverty which led to his mad state and his sour relation with his fiercest rival and contemporary, Antonio Salieri. The film went on to win 8 oscars including the best film award in the 1985 Academy Awards. The pioneer of the classical period, Mozart’s influence on subsequent Western art music is unforgettable. Joseph Haydn rightly said, “posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years”.

Born in Bonn, Beethoven was another child prodigy who is considered among the very few artists who defined the craft of perfection. Beethoven composed for a number of genres and for a variety of instrumental combinations. His works include nine symphonies (the Ninth Symphony is accompanied by a chorus) and seven concerti. For piano he composed 32 sonatas, in addition to 10 violin sonatas and 5 cello sonatas. The most well-known of his creations are the Fifth Symphony and the Moonlight Sonata, tunes which are heard in every other art form since and can be recognized in the blink of an eye. Beethoven is a crucial figure in the transition between the classical and romantic era and may be considered as the paragon of western classical music ever to exist in history.

Romantic Period

The Romantic Period encompassed literary, philosophical and artistic themes which made music more expressive. The socio-political changes facilitated one of the evolutionary changes, that is the introduction of emotion in music. For the first time music came out of the chains of form and structure and individual expressions got importance. Masters of this particular era who need to be mentioned are Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt. This is also the era in which opera reached its peak under Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi.

Modern and post-modern

20th century classical music consists of the late romantic, modern, high modern and post-modern styles of composition. Modernism was an era which saw many composers shun values of the common practice era such as tonality, melody, instrumentation and structure. The most famous composer of this era was Arnold Schoenberg. Again, postmodern music has been held by a few as contemporary music composed from the late 20th century to the early 21st century.

Thus we get a comprehensive knowledge about European music by studying these eras and they help us determine the importance of this particular art form along with all its evolutions.


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