Monday, April 30, 2007

Musical Time Periods

Learning the history of music along with your main history lessons adds depth and fun to your studies. Depending on your family's needs, interests, and time, you can simply play music from the time period during lessons or you can try to learn a piece from each time period. More advanced students may even wish to explore more of the technical side of music composition. These musical time periods emphasize western music.

While we divide the history of anything into time periods, these seemingly separate times flowed into one another rather than suddenly breaking into a new period. The same holds true for the history of music. Also, because some musicians lived in one period but composed music in a style of a different period, various music historians may place them in different eras.

The Greeks developed scale systems with intervals such as used in the modern piano. They actually developed seven modes (named after different Greek cities they felt reflected the moods of each mode), but the two we use most often today are the Ionian (our major scale) and the Aeolian (our minor scale) modes. The Dorian and Mixolydian modes are often heard in Irish and Scottish folk music. Phrygian, Lorraine, and Lydian make up the other three modes.

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church used all seven Greek modes in the Gregorian chants. The chants (named after Pope Gregory I, pope from 590-604 A.D.) were composed in monophonic style, that is with only one melodic line and no accompaniment. Polyphony, or music with two or more melodic lines heard at the same time in a harmony, wasn't written until the 11th C. There are few known composers from this time, but those known include Hildegard von Bingen, Perotin, Guillaume de Machau and John Dumstable.

Just as in the arts, many great innovations in music developed during the Renaissance. The Ionian (major) and Aeolian (minor) modes dominated, the music of this time was mostly polyphonic, and a cappella choirs excelled.

The viol family of stringed instruments was invented, and the viol and spinet were regularly used. Pipe organs, clarinets, and harpsichords were greatly improved. Sliding trombones were invented, and the most popular wind instrument was the recorder.

Many composers lived during the Renaissance. Important composers include Claudio Monteverdi, Josquin Depress, John Farmer, Guilliame Dufay, and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

The Baroque Period (about 1600-1750) was a time of experimentation. The innovations of the Renaissance produced musicians with great technical and improvisational abilities. Instrumental compositions gained full equality with vocal music, and often left space for a soloist to display technical prowess with extemporaneous displays of 5 to 10 minutes (called a cadenza). Also, awareness of national styles grew. Melodies were ornate and dramatic, with newly developed instruments providing a new depth and richness of sounds. Monteverdi, Henry Purell, Vivaldi, Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach composed during this period.

During the Classical Period, music became more controlled with strict rules of counterpoint and harmony. Melodies were usually simplified into even phrases, often utilizing symmetrical "question and answer" structures. THe piano became the most used solo instrument. Hayden, Mozart, and Beethoven were composers of the era, but as their creative genius would not be confined to strict rules, their music led to the development of the Romantic Period.

Many different musical styles developed during the Romantic Period as musical geniuses, trained to classical rules, expressed themselves in dynamic and creative compositions. There was larger range of sound and a greater variety of instruments utilized and even invented. Melodies became longer, more dramatic and emotional. Wagner, Schubert, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Chopin fall into this period.

With some ambivalence toward the musical past, the Modern Period developed in a rebellious attempt to break away from all rules. All sounds--even no sound--could be used. Anything goes, really, as composers have utilized extreme dissonance and micro-tonal intervals. Form can be very controlled or totally improvised. But there is also tremendous variety, with such composers as Sables, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Karsakov, Strauss, McDonnell, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky all classed in the Modern Period. These, and others, have produced some of the greatest music ever written.

As you move through the time periods, don't forget regional folk music, which often inspired composers. Most of all, enjoy the music.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I will read it to my children.

  2. What a great idea!

    We plan to tie everything together through history, I hadn't thought of adding music to that.


Thanks for posting. I really appreciate it.