Essay on History of Music

Origin and History of Music
There are many theories regarding when and where music originated. Many agree that music began even before man existed. Historiographers point out that there are six periods of music and each period has a particular style of music that greatly contributed to what music is today. Here are some resources for you to better understand the history of music. Links are arranged chronologically and is a great primer to learn more about every stage of music development.
The Medieval Era
(800 – 1400 C.E.)
The Medieval Era is the longest and most remote period of musical history. It is important to note that this musical era consists of almost a thousand years worth of music. For most of the middle ages, the Church was the focal point of social life, learning, and the arts. Saint Gregory, who was pope from 590 – 640 C.E., is said to have organized a huge repetoire of chants that developed during the first centuries of the Christian church. Thus the term of “Gregorian Chant” came about.
Early Medieval music notation did not look like the notation that is used in present day music. The earliest signs of a notational system notational system for music used neumes. For a long time, musical notation consisted of the pitch or note that was to be sung. Other musical notation, such as rhythm didn’t begin until the 12th or 13th centuries.
Gregorian Chant is monophonic , having one melodic line without an accompaniment. It is said to be very serene, with pure shapes of melody. It is not known who wrote the melodies of the Gregorian Chant. Similar to folk melodies, it probably changed over time as it was passed down through generations.
Toward the latter part of the Middle Ages, music consisted of two or more melodic lines that were heard simultaneously, called polyphony . This appeared around the 1200s. Polyphony was more difficult to compose than the monophonic chant, because a composer had to combine multiple melodic lines in a way that would be pleasing to the listener. Most of the Medieval polyphonic music was anonymous, as the names of composers were never written down. However, there are a few exceptions, as some composers had works so important that their names were preserved along with their music.
Although little of it has been preserved, secular song was important to the medieval era.. Secular song was monophonic and stylistically more diversified than plain song. It was stronger, and utilized regular rhythms, and had short rhythmic patterns. It was generally modal but favored major (Ionian) and minor (Aeolian) modes.
The Renaissance Period
(1400 – 1600 C.E.)
The Renaissance era encompasses Western music history from 1400 to the begining of the 1600’s. This period in time marked the rebirth of humanism, and the revival of cultural achievements for their own sake in all forms of art, including music. The word “Renaissance” in itself is defined as a “rebirth”or a “reconstruction”.
During this time, artists and musicians produced works that displayed more artistic freedom and individualism. This creativity allowed artists to abandon the stricter ways of the Medieval Era. Their art forms rediscovered the ancient Greek ideals. The great masters of the Renaissance were revered in their own lifetimes (rather than after their deaths), which was different from most of their Medieval predecessors. With the new printing techniques, music and musical ideas were able to be preserved and distributed to the people.
The distinctive musical sounds of the Renaissance era were comprised of a smooth, imitative, polyphonic style, as seen in the music of Byrd, Palestrina, and Lassus. While sacred music remained of great importance, secular music was starting to become increasingly common. Therefore, the polyphonic style was not only used in sacred music, but also in secular madrigals .
The repertoire of instrumental music also began to grow considerably. New instruments were invented, including two keyboard instruments called the clavichord and virginal. In addition, many existing instruments were enhanced. The lute became the favored instrument of the time period, and it was established as the standard instrument for family music making during the 16th century.
Masses and motets were the primary forms for sacred vocal polyphony. These were accompanied by the lute or a small instrumental ensemble or consort. Secular vocal forms included motets, madrigals and songs, while instrumental pieces were usually short polyphonic works or music for dancing.
Renaissance polyphony was harmonious when compared with the Medieval style. Imitation was a method that composers used to make elaborate music more coherent and to give the listener a sense of arrangement. Imitation, where one melodic line shares, or “imitates,” the same musical theme as a previous melodic line became an important polyphonic technique. Imitative polyphony can be easily heard in the music of Byrd, Gibbons, and Gabrieli. Additionally, the masses and motets of composers such as Josquin also displayed the imitative polyphonic style. Imitative polyphony was so important that it continued into the Baroque period, especially in sacred music for the church.
The Baroque Era
(1600-1750 C.E.)
The term Baroque era describes the style or period of European music between the years of 1600 and 1750. The term Baroque was derived from a Portuguese word meaning “a pearl of irregular shape.” The word Baroque was initially used to imply strangeness, abnormality and extravagance, applying more to art than music. It is only in the 20th century that this term has been employed to refer to a period in music history.
When compared with its predecessors, Baroque music can be seen as being highly ornate, lavishly texturized, and intense. The music of this time period was characterized by rich counterpoint and a highly decorated melodic line. The music of this period has a number of defining characteristics including the use of the basso continuo and the belief in the doctrine of the affections. The doctrine of affections allowed composers to express emotions and feelings in their compositions. Another distinguishing characteristic of the Baroque era was the emphasis on contrast of volume, texture, and pace in the music, as compared to music of the late Renaissance which did not concentrate on these elements. In addition, Baroque music broke away from the harshness of the Medieval and early Renaissance style with new emphasis on the use of vocal and instrumental color. Secular types of music were now in abundance and used as widely as those of the liturgical musical styles. Imitative polyphony (more than one line of music) still was an extremely important factor in writing and playing music, while the homophonic method (a musical technique that displays a vast separation amongst the melody line and the accompaniment) was gaining acceptance and use quite rapidly. This homophonic style eventually became dominant in instrumental forms of music as well. Musical works containing a continuo part in which a keyboard (usually an organ or harpsichord) and a bass instrument (usually a bassoon or a cello) helped to convey the harmonic support of chords under the melodic lines.
Although homophonic music was becoming increasingly popular during this time in music history, new forms of polyphonic music were also developing simultaneously. Similar to composers during the Renaissance, composers during this period felt that the art of counterpoint was essential to their artistry. Two extremely strict forms of imitative polyphony, cannons and fugues , were very popular at the time of the Baroque era. To prove their very expertise, composers were sometimes expected to improvise complex fugues at a moment’s notice.
It is also important to note that opera and the orchestra were both conceived during the Baroque era as well. Around 1600, opera came about because Italian intellectuals wanted to recapture the spirit of ancient Greek drama in which music played a key role. Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), was the first great opera. The homophonic musical style played a significant role in opera and solo vocal music because it focused the listener’s concentration on the poetic melody of the singer.
During the beginning of the Baroque period, as a companion for operatic and vocal music, the orchestra evolved. By the mid-1600s the orchestra was growing into its own entity and the concerto was one of the most popular forms of music performed. The concerto featured a solo instrumentalist, or small ensemble of soloists, playing in opposition to the orchestra, thus creating an interesting contrast of texture and volume. In addition, during the Baroque period composers began exploring music’s ability to express the human spirirt and to depict natural phenomena. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons was the most famous set of concertos that typified this.
The Classical Era
(1750-1820 C.E.)

Although the Classical Era lasted for only 70 years, there was a substantial change in the music that was being produced. Classical music placed a greater stress on clarity with regard to melodic expression and instrumental color. Although opera and vocal music (both sacred and secular) were still being written, orchestral literature was performed on a much broader basis. The orchestra gained more color and flexibility as clarinets, flutes, oboes, and bassoons became permanent members of the orchestra.
The classical style was dominated by homophony , which consisted of a single melodic line and an accompaniment. New forms of composition were developed to adapt to this style. The most important of these forms was the sonata which was in instrumental music. This form continued to change and evolve throughout the classical period, and it is important to note that the classical sonata was very different from the sonatas written by Baroque composers.
The early 1700s reflected a musical style known as Rococo. This style served as a transition from the Baroque to the Classical Era. Rococo, which developed in France, is actually an art term that described a new art style which was both a light and embellished. Musically speaking, it is refered to as style galant. In Germany, after 1750, the style galant became empfindsamer stil. With this change in name came an added element of expressiveness and sentimentality.
As classical music evolved, distinctive characteristics developed. Changes in form were seen along with changes in phrase structure. Shorter phraases and well defined cadences became more prevalent. During this time period, a favorite accompaniment pattern was the Alberti bass (name for Dominico Alberti), which featured a broken chord progression.
The melodies of the Classical era were more compact and diatonic. Harmony was less structured. It used the tonic, dominant, and subdominant chords. In addition, during this period, diatonic harmony was more common then chromatic. Composers mainly used chords in triadic form and occasionally used seventh chords in their compositions.
The four major composers of the Classical era were Haydn, Mozart, Gluck, and Beethoven. These composers wrote extensively for vocal and instrumental mediums.
The Romantic Era
(1850 – 1920 C.E.)
The Romantic era was a period of great change and emancipation. While the Classical era had strict laws of balance and restraint, the Romantic era moved away from that by allowing artistic freedom, experimentation, and creativity. The music of this time period was very expressive, and melody became the dominant feature. Composers even used this expressive means to display nationalism . This became a driving force in the late Romantic period, as composers used elements of folk music to express their cultural identity.
As in any time of change, new musical techniques came about to fit in with the current trends. Composers began to experiment with length of compositions, new harmonies, and tonal relationships. Additionally, there was the increased use of dissonance and extended use of chromaticism . Another important feature of Romantic music was the use of color. While new instruments were constantly being added to the orchestra, composers also tried to get new or different sounds out of the instruments already in use.
One of the new forms was the symphonic poem , which was an orchestral work that portrayed a story or had some kind of literary or artistic background to it. Another was the art song , which was a vocal musical work with tremendous emphasis placed on the text or the symbolical meanings of words within the text. Likewise, opera became increasingly popular, as it continued to musically tell a story and to express the issues of the day. Some of the themes that composers wrote about were the escape from political oppression, the fates of national or religious groups, and the events which were taking place in far off settings or exotic climates. This allowed an element of fantasy to be used by composers.
During the Romantic period, the virtuoso began to be focused. Exceptionally gifted performers – pianists, violinists, and singers — became enormously popular. Liszt, the great Hungarian pianist/composer, reportedly played with such passion and intensity that women in the audience would faint. Most composers were also virtuoso performers; it was inevitable that the music they wrote would be extremely challenging to play.
The Modern/20th Century Era
(1900 – Present)
With the coming of the 20th century another evolution in the musical world emerged. While some of the early 20th century music can be seen as extensions of the late Romantic style, much of 20th century music can be seen as a rebellion. Composers did not look to build on what was standard but again created music freely and used sounds that went against the current grain. Twentieth century music can be described as being more refined, vague in form, delicate, and having a mysterious atmosphere.
Twentieth century music is an era that is hard to define in terms of musical style. The only easy way to define 20th century music is that it does not fit into the Romantic era’s requirements. And because of its own expression and orchestral technique it does not fit into any other category but its own.
This time period spawned many new terms for musical styles because of the diversity of music that was being written. Some common examples are atonality, expressionism (seen in Schoenberg’s early music), neo-Romanticism , and neo-Classicism .
As was true in the Romantic era, nationalism was still an important musical device used during the first half of the 20th century. Composers utilized folk songs to enriched their music. Examples can be seen in the music of Raplh Vaughan Williams (England), Bela Bartok (Hungary), Heitor Villa Lobos (Brazil) and Aaron Copland (USA). Jazz and popular musical styles influenced composers from both the United States and Europe.
In 20th century musical styles traditional forms and structures were broken up and recreated or composed using non-Western musical techniques and abstract ideas. Technology also became an extremely important factor in the music making during this time period. Composers have been known to use recording tape as a compositional tool. Electronically created sounds are used in combination with other electronic sounds or played together with traditional music instruments. Most recently, the use of computer technology has affected the world of music making. Some ways in which computers currently alter the face of the music world are by manipulating the performance of instruments in real time.


Posted on

March 7, 2018

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