Music History Resources

Use these resources to explore the rich history of western classical music

Painting: School of Athens by Raphael

The images on this page are artworks from Wikimedia Commons. Click on each image to go to the original Wikimedia page for more information and higher resolution pictures. Thank you Wikimedia Commons!

Ancient Greek Music Lesson

Ancient times

Musical characteristics:
Few surviving examples of notation, early instruments, use of modes
Suggested Listening:
The Epitaph of Seikilos (1st century B.C.)

Graduale Aboense, hymn book of Turku, Finland. 14th-15th century

The Medieval Period (400-1400)

Main composers:
Mainly anonymous, but also Hildegard of Bingen, Machaut, Landini
Musical characteristics:
Use of modes, early instruments, mostly monophonic texture, church music, Gregorian chant
Suggested Listening:
Any selections of Gregorian Chant
Hildegard of Bingen: O ignis spiritus

Sir Henry Unton

The Renaissance (1400-1600)

Main composers:
Josquin des Prez, Palestrina, Dufay
Musical characteristics:
Mainly vocal music, some instrumental; use of free polyphony; moving gradually from modes to major and minor scales; use of early instruments, court and church music
Suggested Listening:
Palestrina: Super Flumina Babylonis
Ockeghem: Intermerata Dei
Dufay: Alma redemptoris mater
Josquin des Prez: Deploration sur la mort d'Ockeghem

The Transparente, Toledo Cathedral

The Baroque Period (1600-1750)

Main composers:
Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, Purcell, Scarlatti
Musical characteristics:
Music is polyphonic, now with rules (counterpoint); ornamentation and complexity valued; use of major and minor keys; more modern instruments; terraced dynamics; motivic development; music written for specific instruments
Suggested Listening:
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, BWV 1049, III: Presto
Handel: “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah
Vivaldi: “Spring” from The Four Seasons

Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David, 1784

The Classical Period (1750-1820)

Main composers:
Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven
Musical characteristics:
The Age of Reason, Enlightenment, elegant simplicity, balance, order, a desire for accessibility; homophonic texture; interest in structure; simple harmony; the rise of the concert tradition
Suggested Listening:
Mozart: Clarinet Concerto
Mozart: Piano Sonata in C Major, K 545
Haydn: The Emperor String Quartet
Beethoven: Symphony No. 1

The Fighting Temeraire, Turner, 1838

The Romantic Period (1820-1880)

Main composers:
Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky
Musical characteristics:
Passion, sentiment, expression of emotion, rich complex harmony, extended chords, more brass and percussion in the orchestra, expression more important than form
Suggested Listening:
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1
Chopin: Nocturne in E flat Major Op. 9 No. 2
Schubert: Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel
Tchaikovsky: “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker Suite

Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge, Monet, 1897-99

Impressionism (1880-1920)

Main composers:
Puccini, Mahler, Ravel, Debussy, Rakhmaninov
Musical characteristics:
Experimentation, pushing the boundaries in every direction, rich experimental harmony, an interest in tone colour and orchestral effects, experiments in genre and orchestration
Suggested Listening:
Ravel: Bolero
Debussy: Clair de Lune
Rakhmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2
Puccini: “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Gianni Schicchi

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, Mondrian, 1930

The Twentieth Century and onward

Main composers:
Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky
Musical characteristics:
Move towards atonality; innovation valued; complex rhythms including syncopation, electric instruments, extended tonality, many different styles including serialism and minimalism
Suggested Listening:
Schoenberg: Violin Concerto
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Glass: “Closing” from Glassworks