8 Music of the Classical Period

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze philosophical, historical, and social influences on the development of Classical Period music.
  • Describe aspects of music that are considered “entertaining.”
  • Explain how Classical Period composers reflect the concepts of simplicity, clarity, and variety in melody, rhythm, dynamics, tone color, texture, and form.

Original content by Francis Scully

Classical Timeline

Listening for Entertainment

Have you ever watched the Super Bowl half-time show? It’s arguably the biggest and most lavish of musical spectacles in the country. The show features a huge-name pop star (recent artists have included The Weeknd, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga), sometimes additional famous guests, and all sorts of visual spectacle (dancing, explosions, costume changes, gigantic mechanical lions, etc.). And all of this gets packed into about 15 minutes of time!

While there’s obviously a lot of visual interest as well, the Super Bowl half-time show is a place in which music takes center stage with millions and millions of people listening and viewing from the stands and in their homes. And the number one purpose of this musical event: entertainment.

Nowadays, the popular music industry is considered a part of the larger entertainment industry in the United States. But listening to music for entertainment is really only one possible way of using and appreciating music. For example, as we observed in the previous unit, much of the music that we know about from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is functional sacred music. This is music that had a specific purpose—to help unify participants in a religious ritual and to heighten the experience of prayer.

It’s certainly possible to listen to sacred music of the Renaissance for pleasure or entertainment, but that’s not its intended purpose. So what makes music “entertaining”? And what are the conditions under which composers create music for entertainment and listeners seek out music for entertainment purposes?

To explore this further, we’ll take a look at an era in music history in which the “pursuit of happiness” was all important. This period is known as…

The Classical Period (1750-1820s)

“Classical Music” vs. “Classical Period Music”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wait a minute, I thought that all of this ‘Western art music’ was ‘classical music.’” You are correct. And especially for the purposes of classifying musical genres in music stores and on streaming apps, the phrase “classical music” still works as a broad, generic term that covers “Western art music” from about 900 CE to the present day.
But there’s also a more specific era of music history that has come to be known as the “Classical Period.” And in fact, the composers of this era are so significant to the later history of the music that this term “classical” came to stand for this entire musical style.

The Significance of Classical Period Music in Music History

The three most famous composers in the Classical Period—Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven—include at least two of the biggest names in music history. You may not recognize Joseph Haydn, but you most certainly know Beethoven’s name and probably Mozart as well (and even if you haven’t heard any of these names, you’ve likely heard their music). These composers worked in and around Vienna, Austria, and established that city as an important center of music in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

While composers of the Baroque Period (1685-1750) initiated the trend for instrumental music (music without texted singing), composers of the Classical Period helped create and define the key instrumental musical genres, including the symphony, the sonata, and the string quartet.

The Classical Period also brought about the birth of public concerts devoted to these instrumental musical genres. Composers like Beethoven and Mozart helped to create the music and the institutions (concert halls and performing organizations) that caused this music to flourish. Today, there are symphony orchestras and string quartet groups all over the world that are essentially modeled after the same kinds of performance groups that came about during the Classical Period. Most decent-sized cities all over the world have large concert halls that present public concerts of music, a trend that began in the eighteenth century.

The Orpheum Theater in New Orleans
Figure 8.1: The Orpheum Theater in New Orleans, home of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra | Attribution: Wally Gobetz | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY-NC-ND

Vienna, Austria

View of 19th century Vienna
Figure 8.2: View of 19th-century Vienna | Attribution: Johann Wenzel Zinke | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

Why does Vienna become a major musical capital? Because it is centrally located in Europe and it is the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, headed by the Habsburg royal family. The Empress Maria Theresa and the Emperor Joseph II were great supporters of the arts, with music in particular. Where there’s money, political power, and support for music, that’s where the musicians will be.

The Classical Period also coincides with what is known as “The Age of Enlightenment.” The main tenet of the Age of Enlightenment was, above all, faith in human reason. During the Enlightenment, philosophers applied scientific concepts to the social world. In other words, they sought to answer the question, “How can we design government and society so that most people can be happy and live in peace?” For an “enlightened” ruler like Emperor Joseph II of Austria, “reason is the primary source and legitimacy for authority (Boundless). That is to say, political decisions made by rulers were expected to be “reasonable” and “fair.” For the first time, rulers cannot just do whatever they want because they were “chosen by God.”

With this emphasis on using reason in the social world, new understandings of “freedom” and “happiness” are born. That’s how this idea, which you may recognize, emerges:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This is of course from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which was issued in 1776. It is a true “Enlightenment” document.

So What Does the Word “Classical” Mean for Music?

It is worth noting that Classical Period composers like Ludwig van Beethoven, W. A. Mozart, and Joseph Boulogne weren’t trying to write “Classical” music. They didn’t think of their music as “Classical.” Indeed, the use of the term “Classical” to describe music of this era was applied retroactively by music historians after all of these composers had died. This is typical of historical practice. Historians apply labels like “Classical,” “Romantic,” or “old school” in an attempt to define a particular artistic or musical STYLE of a particular group of composers or a particular historical era. And it’s not just that these composers all lived in and around the same place at the same time but that their music shares some similarities.

So, why did historians apply this term to the music of this era? As mentioned above, the composers of this era essentially defined the sound of this style of music. This is in a sense the “Classical” sound.

Think about also what “classical,” or even the related word “classic,” means to you. If we say that a piece of music or a movie or something is a “classic,” we mean that it can stand the test of time. People will continue to watch this movie or listen to this music long after even the creators have died.

What “stood the test of time” for Enlightenment thinkers were the “classical” civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. Historians and scholars, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thought of these “classical” civilizations as models of “enlightened” civilizations, and they celebrated the philosophy, the political ideals (e.g., democracy), and the artistic ideals of these civilizations.

United States White House
Figure 8.3: United States White House | Attribution: MotionStudios | Source: Pixabay | License: Pixabay License

Consider the above photo of the U.S. White House. It was built between 1792 and 1800, smack dab in the middle of the Classical Period. Notice its simple design and clean lines. The architect James Hoban was clearly inspired by great buildings of classical civilizations like the Parthenon of ancient Greece:

The Parthenon in Athens, Greece
Figure 8.4: The Parthenon in Athens, Greece | Photographer: Steven Swayne | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: CC BY 2.0

Style Characteristics of Classical Period Music

In terms of concrete musical style characteristics, Classical Period music parallels the simplicity and clarity of classical architecture and also aims to provide pleasure and entertainment for listeners.

Something to Think About:

Think about this for a second: If the overall goal is to make music “entertaining” for the largest number of listeners, how might composers do that? What would you do?

For Classical Period composers, the approach can be summed up with three words: simplicity, variety, and clarity. Let’s look at our musical structures and see/hear how they reflect this approach.

Melody (Simplicity):

For Classical Period composers and listeners, it was very important that melodies sound “natural.” What this means in practice is that the melodies should sound simple, balanced, and easy to sing or hum. In the Classical Period, you hear more “tunes.”

Listen to these examples of Classical Period melodies and notice their simplicity and tunefulness:

Audio Ex. 8.1: Haydn Surprise Symphony (2nd movement):

Audio Ex. 8.2: Haydn Joke melody:

Audio Ex. 8.3: Mozart Magic Flute melody:

Audio Ex. 8.4: Mozart K. 136:

Rhythm (Variety):

The Classical Period approach to rhythm is going to serve the audience’s desire for “pleasing variety.” In a piece of Classical Period music, you will notice that the tempo stays steady through the whole piece (or movement), but the foreground rhythms (the patterns of long and short notes) in the melody and accompaniment change frequently. As we’ll see, Classical Period composers will use rhythmic variety to create striking emotional contrasts within a piece of music or movement.

Listen to an excerpt from this piano piece by Mozart. Notice that the tempo (fast) and meter (triple meter) remain constant while the rhythms change about every eight seconds or so!

Audio Ex. 8.5: Mozart, K. 332, 1st movement:

Dynamics (Variety):

To create more variety and contrast, classical composers change dynamics more frequently and also introduce more shadings of dynamics (i.e., not just “soft vs. loud,” but soft, medium-soft, extremely soft, medium, medium-loud, extremely loud, etc.). In the piano piece we just heard, there’s a lot more variety in dynamics.

The opening of this symphony brilliantly contrasts an almost aggressively loud opening statement in the full orchestra with a tender, soft response in the strings.

Audio Ex. 8.6: Mozart Jupiter dynamics:

Tone Color (Variety):

Classical Period composers are going to expand the orchestra to include a lot more instruments and isolate individual instruments to bring out contrasting tone colors. In the Classical Period orchestra, the strings are still the foundation for the sound (with the 1st violins frequently carrying the melody), but we’ll hear additional woodwind instruments and even brass and percussion here and there.

Listen to the following:

Audio Ex. 8.7: Mozart 40, 2nd theme:

Audio Ex. 8.8: Eroica, 2nd theme; tone color:

Texture (Clarity):

In order to make it easy for the listener to follow the music along, Classical Period composers want to clearly differentiate between melody and harmony. In Classical Period music, we typically hear one clear melody, and all of the other parts of the texture are providing harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment. You may recall this is known as homophonic texture.

Even in a piece of Classical Period piano music, we can clearly hear the simplicity of the texture. Watch 45 seconds or so of this performance of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major and observe the pianist’s hands. His right hand is playing the melody, while his left hand is playing accompaniment (harmony and rhythm).

Video 8.1: Mozart Sonata in C KV 545—(complete) Paul Barton, piano

Form (Clarity and Variety):

If Enlightenment philosophers are focused on reason, clarity, and balance, it makes sense that a piece of music that follows this philosophy ought to be clearly organized so that the listener can follow the composer’s line of thought. Classical Period composers developed several major breakthroughs in the area of form, which we’ll go into more detail at a later point, but for now I’ll point out three main ideas to keep in mind:

  • Clearly Defined Sections: As we’ve already discussed, musical forms are built up through repetition and contrast. We’ve heard lots of different pieces that have different sections (A, B, and so on). In Classical Period music, composers make it easy to hear where one section ends and another begins.
  • Use of Repetition: Classical Period composers typically repeat musical material within sections to give the listener another opportunity to process the tune. Forms often feature built-in repetition as well, so the musicians are required to repeat whole sections of the music.
  • Development of Standard Formal Structures: Just as the pop song form is a kind of “standardized” formal outline into which a composer can pour their music, classical period composers will develop several different standard forms that will prove very effective for organizing musical material. Some of these standard forms include Sonata Form, Rondo Form, Minuet Form, and Theme and Variations Form. Just as your understanding of the basic outline of pop song form helps you to know what to expect when you listen to a song, audiences familiar with these other standardized forms know what to except.

Listen to the Mozart Piano Sonata above one more time. Now listen from the beginning until about 1:15. Notice that the music stops completely at about 0:25. It’s a moment of silence that Mozart uses to separate the first section of music from the next (clearly defined sections). At about 0:50, it sounds like Mozart is announcing, “Hey everybody, this section is about to end now.” The music more or less stops again at 0:55, and what do you know, at 0:56, the music goes back to the original melody we heard at the beginning of the piece. This is because Mozart has built this repeat into the music. This piece is in what we call Sonata Form, and we’ll explore more of that in another (or the next) chapter.

Chapter Summary

In this chapter, we explored how the Classical Period in music coincided with the Age of Enlightenment in the history of Western thought. Ideas about “the pursuit of happiness” informed Classical Period composers’ approach to musical structures. As the middle class expanded in the late eighteenth century, composers such as Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven created music for “entertainment” that appealed to a wider audience. The resulting style embodied the ideas of simplicity, clarity, and variety.


Boundless. “The Enlightenment.History of Western Civilization II. Lumen, License: CC BY-SA.

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