4 Introduction to Western Music History

Learning Objective

  • Identify various periods in the history of Western music.

Time, Calendars, History: Periods of Art and Music History

Stevens Edwards

History is the study of the past based on evidence, usually written documents. What happened? How do we know? Why did it happen? Historians sometimes attempt to impose order on the past by dividing it into periods or eras. Such attempts are inherently analytical and involve making judgments about the past. Some periods were named by the people experiencing them as “now.” People in the Renaissance really did believe that they were having a “re-birth” of interest in the ideals of Classical Antiquity, the ancient Greeks and Romans. They were also the ones who described the period between antiquity and themselves as the Middle Ages.

What historical era or period do you live in? The Post-9/11 Era? The Post-Pandemic Era? The Modern or Postmodern period? The 21st century? (What does one call these first decades of the 21st century, anyway?) Or are you just living “now”?

Related to this question about when you are living is the matter of how you keep track. Over time and in different places, there have been numerous changes in the division of time into a calendar. In this course, we will use the distinctions CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before the Common Era). These are similar to what you may know as AD (Anno Domine, in the year of our Lord—not “after death”) and BC (Before Christ). The old AD and BC distinction is completely Western-centric and assumes that everyone is—or should be—Christian.

Pre-historic refers to the time before history, before written records. We know about pre-historic times based on evidence that pre-dates a written record. In some cases, cultures living today have little or no contact with the outside world and preserve pre-historic traditions. These are now usually referred to as indigenous rather than pre-historic or primitive.

Classical Antiquity: 500 BCE–500 CE

The beginning of this era might be pushed back to around 800 BCE to include the earliest writings of the Hebrews and the beginnings of literate Greek culture (Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” etc.) The end of the era is connected to the fall of the Roman Empire, which is conventionally dated to 476 CE. But Rome did not fall in a day…

Medieval (Middle Ages): 500–1400

The Middle Ages were sometimes also called the Dark Ages due to the collapse of the Roman Empire. The last two centuries of the Middle Ages saw a crescendo of political, economic, and artistic progress that moved logically into the Renaissance.

Renaissance: 1400–1600

The Renaissance reflected a re-birth of interest in the ideals of Classical Antiquity. In music, this was reflected in a new emphasis on all elements of text and in the actual experience of listening to music (as opposed to music being a symbolic representation of some philosophical natural order). As we will see below, there were huge changes in the sound of music and the relationship between music and text beginning in the 1430s.

Baroque: 1600–1750

The term “baroque” originally referred to something misshaped (an irregular pearl) and was not applied as the name of this period of history until the end of the 19th century. In fact, there were many significant developments in music around 1600: the beginnings of independent instrumental music, the invention of opera, and a change in thinking about and notating music (basso continuo, figured bass).

Classical: 1750–1810

The so-called classical period was named by 19th-century historians. It reflected a golden age in music (none of whose composers would have identified as “classical”) and was inspired by archeological rediscoveries in Greece of many monuments.

Romantic: 1810–1900

The “Long” 19th century extending from the French Revolution in 1789 until the First World War in 1914 includes the development of the modern concert, the virtuoso performer, and most of the trappings of the market-based musical economy

Modern or Contemporary: 1900–Present

As we move farther and farther into the 21st century, this label seems less and less useful. It is now more common to identify a Modern period from around the time of WWI (and the events leading up to it) until WWII (and the events just after). From the 1950s until 2017 can now be seen as the Global Era.


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Music Appreciation Copyright © 2022 by LOUIS: The Louisiana Library Network is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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