A Layman’s Intro to Western Classical Music

Around a millennium ago, monks and priests started taking record of the immense catalog of chants they were composing. They came up with a notation system to help others learn the music faster: Music Sheets. This system allows for keeping track of more elaborate ideas, that would have been possible relying on the human brain alone. Consequently, these sheets gave way to the growth of a much more extensive and complex music all the way to Classical music.

The Middle Ages

Composers like Perotin and Machaut explored ways of writing multiple vocal lines that went together. Choral music was the art music of the times. Instruments were common, of course, but since they generally weren’t allowed in houses of worship, there is scarcely any notated music including them from the time.


The Renaissance

Since the early 1400’s, the music is almost identical in concept to its predecessors—choral music of exponential complexity, such as that of Dufay.


However, the emergence of cities, a literate middle class, and the consequent availability of music printing enabled a huge upsurge in secular art music for the very first time.

The most captivating productions in this period are the madrigal (try Monteverdi and Morley), the smooth, haunting choral motet (such as the one by di Lasso), and some groovy instrumental dance pieces too.

The Baroque

This was prompted above all by the evolution of opera, thanks above all to Monteverdi (again), Lulli, and HandelBach and Zelenka set a new standard for compositional distinction, examining different ways to integrate novel keys and nimble harmonies, while Corelli was the main benefactor when it comes defining the set of chords we’re accustomed to today.

The Classical

The ornate and euphuistic styles that were in high fashion ended up getting on people’s nerves. Disciplined, arranged and precise music became prized. This is extremely important because what drove great composers to move the art forward were their attempts to break the squareness of the Classical in small, subtle and incremental ways.

If there’s one go-to era to dodge second-rate music, it’s the 18th century, because it’s extraordinarily conservative. The innovators in subtlety were Haydn and Mozart. Where’s the subtlety? It’s in the unpredictable changes in harmony, the unusual phrase lengths, and in the way endings are delayed. Listen for form.

Looking for the subtlety? It’s in the irregular changes in harmony, the unusual phrase lengths, and in the way endings dally. Listen for form.

Nobody beats the bunch at playing with your ear’s expectations than Beethoven.

The Romantic Period

And it’s with Beethoven we enter the Romantic period. Composers like Schubert and Wagner began to direct attention to the intimate and emotional in music while Mendelssohn combined Bach’s approach to vocal writing with the brand-new, larger orchestral forces available in the centers of 19th-century Europe. In the late Romantic period, composers experimented with huge magnitudes of sound and a broad embracing of influences, especially Mahler.

The Early Modern Era

After Wagner, people began wondering, “Woah, you can’t do much better than that with the chords we got. We need new ones. Hell, we need a whole new musical language.” Provincialism was on the rise, too, and folk wanted to express their own countries’ inclinations. The early modern era saw  Vaughan Williams (in England) and Debussy(in France) channel their magic in blends between the old and the new. And in the little quiet hamlet of New Haven, Connecticut, Ives raised musical hell like the world had never known before.


Meantime, an Austrian by the name of Schoenberg came up with a new way of ordering notes. This method, called Serialism, frightens a lot of people, but rock out to that link! Focus on the phrases and forget the notes. It’s practically songlike, you can perceive sentences. This was the nativity of atonality, a migration from your typical harmony, which inspired a lot of the experimentation of the 20th century.

The Modern Era and The Neoclassical Period

Loads of experimentation happened in those early decades of the Modern eraStravinsky espoused then squeezed his native Russia; Honegger would rather mate with the machine. World War I resulted in a massive decline in available resources, and the resulting Neoclassical period was one of moderation and clarity, but the music fires burned bright: WeillVarèse, and Bartók were able to innovate and bake new ways of musical arrangement.

With the passing of World War II, composers bent over backward experimenting with new ways to create art in the face of catastrophe and rubble. BoulezCage, and Messiaen are but a tiny sample of these out-of-the-box savants, who tried, as Monteverdi and Beethoven before them, to develop a new musical grammar. But the past survived the war, too, and many composers like Britten figured out that, the Mendelssohn did, combining old approaches with the new served to create equally potent music.

The postmodern era


The postmodern era finally arrived when some composers from the US of A  got sick of Boulez yelling about how his model was the soundest, despite his never-ceasing tirades about how he was an anti-fascist.

Young and Riley started shattering boundaries between musicians and audiences.

Beaser and Pärt helped reframe older pieces for a modern public.

And behold the 21th century! It’s impossible at this point for me to name-drop because these names are  being shaped. But a few of my favorites who are significant nowadays, or up-and-coming, are James MacMillanSteven Snowden,  Caroline Mallonée, Ian Dicke.

I left out a conservatoire’s fill of information, but there’s always more to discover when it comes to classical music. On a parting note, all that “art” means is that it’s designed to push either your envelope or your buttons. By contrast, “popular” music is music that’s designed to be more cozy and familiar. That makes it easier to hum or sing, catchier, easier to swing your hips to. Neither is better or worse than the other! All that being said, art music (classical music/erudite music) is supposed to make you cock an ear and see through it. If you don’t get it the first time around, give it another try. If you never get it, you’ve found yourself a damn good piece.

6 thoughts on “A Layman’s Intro to Western Classical Music

  1. Writing a history of western classical music without mentioning Bach is like writing a textbook on human anatomy without a chapter on the brain. Or describing a tree to an alien with no metion of the roots. Or …

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