The Official Musebreak Over-Simplified Guide to Western Music, part one

So, are you one of those people who think that the music of J. S. Bach is Classical? Do you think that a Mozart aria is Romantic? Well, here’s your Official Musebreak Over-Simplified Guide to Western Music (or “Why not all classical music is Classical”).

Now take it from a guy who spent a lot of time catching up on his sleep during Music History lectures, this is an extremely watered-down version. Also, we’ll only be looking at the major divisions. There have been some minor divisions as well that were sub-movements in the larger divisions, and some that represent transitional periods overlapping the major ones. Impressionist is an example of the former; Rococo is one of the latter.

When musicologists talk of Western music, they don’t mean Roy Rogers or Merle Haggard. They’re talking about the music traditions that covered the area from mostly Europe and later North America. Areas like the Orient and the aboriginal areas of Africa and Australia (and Native America, or course) had their own traditions, frequently following a completely different form of music theory than what we’re used to.

The foundations of Western music began in ancient Greece, but we’re going to skip ahead a few centuries to get to the periods where music started becoming more formalized.

The first period was the Medieval period (500-1400). It is generally thought to start about the time of the fall of the Roman empire, and as you can see it covers a period of nearly a millennium. This period brought us the Gregorian chants, and madrigals and motets. Although most of the period was monophonic (one melody, unaccompanied) the later part of the period introduced polyphony, the use of more than one line of music at a time. Basic harmonies became common, using very open intervals between pitches like fourths, fifths and octaves. Modal music was common, being music based on scales that differed from the scales that we are most familiar with, i.e. major scales and minor scales. Basically a mode would start on a different step of the scale and move up an octave by steps and half steps; each mode having a different place in the scale to insert the half steps.

The predominant instruments of the time served two functions. First were the instruments that would play melodies, like flutes and recorders. The other instruments, lyres and later lutes, could be played to provide an accompaniment to the melody.

Next came the Renaissance period (circa 1400-1600). Note that this is about a century later than the Renaissance is credited with beginning in other areas. The music periods do not always line up exactly with other fields.

With the Renaissance, music truly came into its own. Royalty began hiring virtuoso performers and composers for their courts. The invention of the printing press meant that sheet music was widely available for the first time. Secular and sacred composers began borrowing ideas from each other. And craftsmanship improved increasing the variety of instruments that were available. Modal music all-but vanished, but thirds were added to harmonies which brought much richer sounds. Brass instruments became common (although still fairly primitive), reed instruments were added to the flutes in the woodwind department, and small handheld percussion instruments like the tambourine began to be used.

The polyphony of the late Medieval period became much more elaborate and complex, making Renaissance music some of the most challenging ensemble pieces that can be performed by musicians even today. Noteworthy composers of the period include William Byrd, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Orlande de Lassus, John Dowland, and Giovanni Gabrieli.

Following that, we come to the Baroque era (1600-1750). The ending date is significant in that it commemorates the passing of the first true superstar of Western music: Johann Sebastian Bach.

With the Baroque era, polyphony began to be downplayed somewhat. Solo virtuosos began to be given opportunities to shine, and instrumental ensembles more frequently took on the role of accompaniment. The period also introduced dance suites (sometimes called Baroque suites), which were a group of pieces, each in a different dance style, that had similar keys.

Also the Baroque period brought us the opera. Although music and theatrics were combined in a small way during the Renaissance, it was during this period that the full opera was truly developed. However, it would not be until the Classical period that it would become the powerhouse form we know it as now.

Meanwhile in more sacred settings, the pipe organ began its rise to the status of “King of the instruments”. It was a huge, expensive, and incredibly versatile instrument which only the richest churches could afford. The music that Bach wrote for it is to this day considered the paramount literature for the instrument.

However, it’s important to avoid overlooking a smaller, simpler keyboard instrument that appeared on the scene, the harpsichord. It’s a bit unusual to hear it today, but it was the ancestor to what is arguably the most important instrument in the world, the piano. The middle step in the evolution came toward the end of the Baroque period with the fortepiano, and the piano as we know it now came along a century or so later.

Important composers of the Baroque era, apart from J. S. Bach, include Johann Pachelbel, Antonio Vivaldi, Henry Purcell, and George Frideric Handel.

In part two, we’ll pick up with the next period, the Classical, move through the Romantic period, and wrap up with an extremely truncated run-down of the Twentieth century and today’s music.