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Dernière mise à jour : 26 nov. 2018

35 000 years B.C.: the Upper Paleolithic

Was the rhythm or the melody the first to appear? Had the music of those times a strong link with dance?

What is sure is that music instruments dating from around 35 000 years B.C. were discovered during Archeological digs, like bones flutes (reindeer phalanges flutes) or hunting instruments.

In comparison, the first villages appeared around 7 000 years before Christ, like that of Catal Huyuk, which is in present-day Turkey, and the first cities were built around 5000 years B.C. in the Middle East.

Moreover, during the discovery of prehistoric French Caves in the town of Aurignac, some archeologists even made the theory that the location of prehistoric paintings was chosen for sound quality! Maybe prayers were made for the spirit of an animal with the instrument that was made of his bones…

From 3 500 years B.C. J.C. to the Vth century: Greco-roman Antiquity

The invention of writing dates from around 3 500 years B.C and took place in Mesopotamia. In fact, at that time most part of culture and knowledge appeared in this region. Then it moved to Egypt, China and Greece.

The first music theory describing a 5 notes scale (probably a pentatonic scale) was developed around 1 000 years B.C. in China.

The oldest noted composition (Song of Tralles or Seikilos epitaph from the Greek composer Seikilos) dates from 200 years B.C. Around 50 scores of Ancient Greek music were found with letters indications (A=la, B=si...). In Greece, research has shown that music began to be taught in about 500 B.C.

Around 250 years B.C. Ctesibios from Alexandria created the Hydraulis, predecessor of the Organ, which was made of 2 columns: a water column and an air column fitted with a reed.

Among stringed instruments was the Lyre, made of a turtle shell and dedicated to Apollo, god of Arts.

The Pandoura (or Tambur) was probably one of the Guitar ancestors.

Among wind instruments, the Ollos was the predecessor of the Bag-pipes. It was made of 2 tubes, one used to play a “tonic” pedal while the other is developing a melody. This instrument disappeared around the year 500 after Christ.

The Syrinx looked like the Pan-flute, and was associated to the god Dionyus.

Among percussions were the Sistra and Crotales.

Concerning music theory and acoustic, Pythagore (580 B.C.) discovered the harmonic sequence of a sound. The main Greek scale which was used can be compared to the current Phrygian mode, but it was played in a downward motion E, D, C, B, A, G, F, E. There was also a complex theory of rhythm.

As regards the style of this music, it was monodic: only one melodic was played, no chords were used. A form named Nomos consisted in telling stories from the Greek myth with a music accompaniment.

From the Vth century to the XVth: Medieval times

From the years 500 to 900: Birth of the Gregorian chant

Around the year 510, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius called Boèce, a Roman theorist, wrote De Institutione Musica, a synthesis of the Greek author knowledge about music. This work has been a reference book all along medieval times.

In about 590, the pope Gregoire le Grand decided to establish the Roman Rite all over Western Europe. A song was chosen for each festivities of the Catholic calendar. Grégoire le Grand also created the Schola Cantorum, official choir of the Vatican, and chose the liturgical texts for the Catholic mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo…). That’s how the Gregorian chant appeared. Before the IVth century and the Gregorian songs, there were different ways of singing liturgical texts like in Spain, Celtic countries, northern Italy and so on…

The melodic structure of Gregorian songs follows that of the liturgical text, with a short pause between each sentence.

The ambitus of Gregorian melodies is roughly an 11th. Melodies were still built on Greek modes. Specific melodic patterns were used for each ecclesiastical mode (or scale) and have been listed by Johannes Affligemensis (John Cotton) in the XIIth century. For example it is possible to begin by the “tonic” (or 1st degree), go upward or downward to the “dominant” (5th degree), make a pause on it, and finally go back to the tonic.

At that time religious music remained vocal and monodic. Of course it was possible for several musicians to sing together the same melody an octave upper or lower. But during the IXth century the Organ began to be played in churches. However it was not used as an accompaniment but rather as an interlude between too sacred songs.

During centuries VIII and IX (especially from 750 to 814), French kings Pépin le Bref and Charlemagne supported and continued the work of Gregoire le Grand. Moreover, scoring progress (with the Neumes) facilitated the transfer of Gregorian vocal music.

Around the Xth century, musicians began to use a red line to represent the note F (Fa). Some years later, the same process will be used with a yellow line for the note C (ut or do).

In Dialogus de musica, Odon de Cluny (882-942) described a 2 octaves scale going from A to G and from “a” to “g” for the second octave.

In about 1030, famous notes names (ut, ré, mi, fa, sol, la) were invented by Guy d’Arezzo, an Italian Benedictine monk. Those syllables were chosen from the Saint Jean-Baptist Hymn, in which the first note of each sentences follow the C (or do) major scale sequence. In Latin countries this new scoring replaces the letters which were used since Greek antiquity. This 6 notes scale is somehow the predecessor of our major scale. It is called a Hexacorde. As its name suggests, no raised 7th degree or major 7th was used in this scale, or else it implied to change of Hexacorde. At that time, there were only 3 different “keys”: one with a natural B (G major), one without any B (C major) and one with a flat B (F major).

From the years 900 to 1300: Birth of polyphony

Ars Antiqua:

In his work Musica enchiriadis, an unknown French composer of the IXth century describes how to sing an additional melody below the Gregorian one. The French Benedictine monk Hucbald de Saint-Amand (850-930) is also one of the first to superimpose another melody onto a liturgical song.

This one can be written in a lower or upper register. During the IXth and Xth centuries, composers used to write it below the Gregorian chant and later (XI-XII) over. This technique is called the Organum.

During the IXth and Xth centuries, intervals used between the 2 melodic lines are unisons, octaves, 4th or 5th. However these vocal pieces use to begin and end with the unison. Moreover the additional line must follow the same motion as that of the chosen Gregorian chant (it is called Parallel Organum).

During this period, the same process exists in present-day United Kingdom and Nordic countries, but intervals used are 3rd and 6th. This is called the Gymel. Around the beginning of the XIVth century, Walter Odington explained why 3rd and 6th can be considered as consonances. It was also in England that one of the oldest known Canon was composed (Sumer is icumen in), probably around 1260 at the Reading Abbey.

In France, from the XIth century, composers begin to write the additional melodic line over the Gregorian one. This is called the Déchant. In this technique, opposite motion and the use of few passing 3rd and 6th become possible.

For example the additional line could begin with the unison, go in a stepwise motion to a series of 4th (5th or 8ves) intervals with the Gregorian line and at last come back in a stepwise motion to the unison. As most of Gregorian chants begin with the repetition of the tonic, it makes it easier for the additional line to play dissonant passing notes from the unison to a 4th or 5th.

The XIIth century has been the golden age of Organum with composers like Leonin (1150-1210), music teacher at the cathedral Notre dame de Paris, and his student Perotin (1160-1230). At that time the cathedral was under construction since it began in 1163 and was completed around 1350. In about 1180, Leonin composed the Magnus liber Organi, compendium of sacred song later reviewed by Perotin. Some of those pieces are made of 4 independent melodic lines.

This time liturgical melody rhythms are lengthened so that several additional melodies could be added, playing embellishments with a faster rhythm. Moreover, secular or liturgical texts used to be added to the original Gregorian song (what is called the Motet). Of course, this process supposed to improve rhythm scoring as regards proportions between long and short notes. Pierre de la Croix (1270-1347), a French clergyman who probably lived in the town of Amiens, explains this new scoring in his music treaty Ars mottetorum compilata breviter. Rhythm theory can be also found in the treaty from Francon de Cologne Ars cantus mensurabilis.

As regards secular songs, composers who also needed an accurate rhythm and measure scoring were the French Trouvères, because their lyrics were poems written in verses (and the AAB form was often used). It was the case of Adam de la Halle (†1288) when he wrote Le Jeu de Robin et Marion. One of the main issues of those songs is courtly love between a knight and noblewoman.

During this period, other advances were made like the use of measures, major scales, chromatic notes and imitations between 2 melodies. Concerning scoring, from the XIVth century 4 lines are used to represent notes (F, A, C, E or fa, la, do, mi). In about 1321, a synthesis of discoveries made by the Ars Antiqua was published by Jacques de Liège in his music treaty Speculum musicae.

However, like in most of medieval music, there are not many examples of instrumental pieces during the Ars Antiqua period. At that time, a great part of it was improvised from typical patterns. Among music instruments, one of the most played was the Vithele, which looks like a Violin. It was especially used to play monodic dances or the tenor line of the Motets.

There was no real bass instrument: the lower register was the tenor. Medieval instruments were almost the same as during antiquity. Among stringed instruments were the Anglo-Irish harp, the lyre, the psaltery (predecessor of the spinet and the sitar), the lute and the monochord (predecessor of the clavichord). Wind instruments were the organ, the horn, the trumpet, various flutes and bagpipes.

The XIVth century and the Ars Nova: birth of Harmony and end of Feudalism

At the beginning of the XIVth century appears in Paris a new style of music called Ars Nova, the peak of Gothic style in the field of music. Although it remains French polyphonic vocal music, some new composing techniques are used like major and minor keys with a raised 7th degree, binary measures and rhythms, rhythmic repetition (this is called isorythmie: several lines playing the same rhythm), 3rd and 6th as real possible harmonic intervals and flat and sharp notes.

Final resolution on a “tonic chord” without 3rd (only the tonic and the dominant) consisted in approaching those 2 notes by an upward minor second (soprano and alto), while the tenor was approaching the tonic by a downward major second.

Among typical musical forms of the Ars Nova are the Motet isorythmique and the Polyphonic song.

The 2 main composers of this period are Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) and Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377).

Philippe de Vitry was the bishop of the town of Meaux. He named this new style Ars Nova in his music treaty Ars nova musicæ. From 1310 to 1316, he took part to the Roman de Fauvel, the story of a mule who becomes king. This 2 volumes compendium of poems is a critic of corruption in Feudalism and Clergy, and yet the authors of this work were members of the Royal Court!

Concerning Guillaume de Machaut, he was a French clergyman who worked at the Cathedral of Reims. He is known for his famous 4 voices polyphonic Messe Nostre Dame, written around 1365 after the siege of Reims. This piece can be considered as a new musical form (the Mass form), and other composers later used its structure to write masses.

A century of disasters:

There were several great calamities during this period: the epidemic of Black Plague from 1347 to 1352 (which causes about 25 millions deaths in Europe), starvations (1314-1316), the Hundred Years’ War from 1337 to 1453 and the Great Western Catholic Schism from 1378 to 1415 between Popes of Avignon and Rome.

In fact, all those problems were mainly the consequences of the development of a trade powerful middle class, the decline of the role of the Clergy, population growth and the decline of agricultural farms size, rural depopulation and the need to raise taxes to administer defense and justice. Finally, this century was the birth of a centralized state, and the old Feudalism system didn’t fit with it. But the light at the end of the tunnel was not far…

As regards music, the Pope Jean XXII elected in 1316

in Avignon tried to impose a prohibition against mixing sacred and secular texts (which became an increasingly common practice especially in the form of the Motet).

The role of secular Italian music during the XIVth:

Meanwhile the French Ars Nova was developing, appeared a new style of song called Trecento in Northern Italy. It was written for 3 high-pitched man voices. Texts from Pétrarque (1304-1374), Boccace (1313-1375) and other poets were set to music.

3 different song forms were used: the Madrigal (love song, humorous story or critic), the Caccia (hunting song) and the Ballata (with a refrain). Among composers of this period was Fancesco Landini (1335-1397), organist at the Cathedral of Florence.

This Italian style played an important role in the development of the Franco-Flemish aesthetic.

The XVth century: the Franco-Flemish period

In 1419, during the Hundred Years’ war, the father of Philippe le bon (1396-1467), Duke of Burgundy, was killed by supporters of the King of France (Charles VII). That’s why he decided to join England and King Henri V. However, in 1435 in Arras he negotiated a land-for-peace agreement with the French Kingdom.

At that time, the Duchy of Burgundy also included some parts of Netherlands, Luxembourg, Flanders and Lorraine. Cities such as Dijon, Anvers, Cambrai, Arras, Bruxelles and Lille were part of it. This region was an independent, prosperous and growing economy. So it’s no wonder that it became the new European artistic center. Moreover, some artists went to Burgundy to escape from the war. By the way, most of those composers worked for royal courts and were frequent travelers. A stay in Italy almost became a necessary step for an artist. Those musicians were also influenced by the emergence of the humanist culture, which will later be a key component of the Renaissance.

At the end of the XIVth century, the latest developments of the French Ars Nova (called Ars Subtilior) had led to an increasing complexity (especially in rhythm) and too much embellishment. That’s why Franco-Flemish composers decided to write a simpler and less solemn music, rather inspired by English and Italian musicians. The main legacy of English composers is the so-called Faburden, a way of arranging in which first inversions of chords (indicated 6 in classical music) resolve on 5th and 8ves.

Unlike the Ars Nova in which the same rhythm was repeated, Franco-Flemish composers prefer to use different rhythms. However, principles of imitation and Canon are kept and even developed with the ideas of the retrograde Canon and rhythmic augmentation or diminution.

Most of Motets and Masses of this period are written with 4 independent melodic lines. Another difference with the Ars Nova is the use of only one main theme, the same melody passing through several lines, especially in masses.

During this period a free song form appears: the Madrigal, which makes use of musical symbolism to describe lyrics.

Among the most famous composers of the XVth century:

The two forerunners are: the English John Dunstable (1370-1453, Alma redemptoris mater, Quam pulchra es) and Johannes Ciconia (1370-1412) who comes from Liège but travelled a lot in Italy.

Gilles Binchois was a former soldier turned to the Clergy (1400-1460). He also worked for the Duke Philippe le Bon. He is known for his Royal Court polyphonic songs.

Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474, Mass of the armed man, Mass Ave regina coelorum, Mass Ecce ancillia domini). He worked for the Duchy of Savoy, then at the Cathedral of Cambrai and spent some time in Rome.

Johannes Ockeghem (1420-1495, Deo gratias, Missa prolationum) was a student of G. Dufay and G. Binchois. He worked for the church of Anvers and the French Royal Court. He wrote the first known Requiem, several Motets and Masses. He is known for his Canons.

Jacob Obrecht (1450-1505) worked in Cambrai, Anvers, Utrecht, Bruges... He is known for his augmented and diminished Canons and is one of the forerunners of Fugue. He wrote the first known St Matthew Passion.

Josquin Des Prés (1450-1521, Missa ad fugam, Missa pange lingua) was a student of J.Ockeghem and travelled all through Europe (especially in Italy). He composed Motets, Masses and songs.

XVIth century: The Renaissance

The name of Renaissance was used in 1550 by the Italian painter Giorgio Vasari. During this period, several great achievements and discoveries forever changed the world: the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg (1455), the discovery of America by Christopher Colombus (1492), the first world tour by Fernand de Magellan (1522) and the progress realized in modern natural sciences thanks to Galilée and Copernic.

This period was also a time of crisis of the religious faith, as demonstrated by the Protestant reformation of Martin Luther (1517) and the Catholic Counter-Reformation with the Council of Trent (1547-1563). This Protestant reformation will give rise to a new style of sacred song called Kirchenlieder written for 4 voices by composers like Osiander, Hassler and later J-S Bach. On the over hand, the Counter-Reformation will be a guide for the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

In Philosophy, humanist authors like Erasme (1467-1536) and Montaigne (1533-1592) rediscover Greco-Roman Antiquity and can identify with it. They recognize significant human achievements and value his potential. It is the great return of Pedagogy and Epicureanism.

Painters like Michel-Ange, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci are inspired by nature, perspective and depth. The new European artistic center is now in northern Italy, in cities like Rome, Milan, Florence…

In poetry, Greek antiquity is also taken as a model. There are authors like Pierre de Ronsard and his friend Antoine de Baïf (1532-1589) who belonged to the group of French Renaissance poets La péliade and worked for Charles the IXth.

In the field of music, instrumental pieces refer to the nature and vocal music must symbolize the text. But at the end of the XVth century, the Franco-Flemish period had already exhausted the possibilities of human voice. During the Renaissance period appeared the first pieces only written for instruments. Compared to the voice, instruments don’t have to breath and can play faster embellishments. Moreover, keyboards such as the Clavichord and the Spinet (the Virginal) have a larger range.

Apparition of keyboards also facilitated the use of chords and the development of harmony. That’s how the ancient ecclesiastical modes gradually disappeared and were replaced by the major or minor scales. Moreover, melodic lines are no longer written successively but at the same time. In his Istitutioni harmoniche (1558), Gioseffo Zarlino (1517- 1590) explains what is a minor and a major chord. He also recommends organists to play the bass line.

A new “musical grammar” appears since tonal degrees I, IV and V are more and more used. That’s also during this period that 3rds of tonic chords are found for the first time in final V – I resolutions. However it will remain a major 3rd (even in minor keys) until the XVIII. Concerning Renaissance scoring, it is almost the same as nowadays with 5 lines and the use of measures.

Among instrumental music of the XVIth, there are:

Transcriptions of vocal pieces or arrangements of sacred songs: for example, the vocal theme could be played by a keyboard while a Viol was playing embellishments of the bass line.

Improvisations over a dance bass (the Grounds based on a bass ostinato) or Variations on popular themes, for example in the Fitzwilliam virginal book by John Bull. In Spain, Variations are called Diferencias.

Toccatas and Preludes based on plated chords and fast stepwise motions, as played by St Mark’s Basilica organists in Venice,

Ricercar, made of several sections based on the imitation of different themes (looks like the Motet),

Several Dances, for example the compendium published by Pierre Attaingnant (1494-1551).

During the Renaissance, composers also begin to write for small instrumental ensembles. It could be for a set of similar instruments (whole consort) for example a Viol quartet, or a group of various instruments like winds, strings and voices (broken consort).

Concerning ensemble music, the idea to use the space between instruments gradually appears. The experiment has been made with 2 choirs and 2 organs by Adrien Willaert (1490-1562), who was the choirmaster of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. That was a first approach of the Concertante style.

Among instrumental music composers, we can mention:

Lute players: Francesco da Milano (1497-1543), L.Narvaez (1500-1555, Diferencias 1538),

Organ players: Juan Bermudo, Tomas de Santa Maria (De arte de taner Fantasia 1565), A. De Cabezon who worked for Charles V and Philippe II, William Byrd (1542-1623) and his student Thomas Morley (1557-1623).

Renaissance Songs:

In vocal music, various forms are used like: Ballads, Rondels, Virelais (written in a 6/8 measure), Villanelles (a Neapolitan dance written with parallels 5th), Madrigals (written in a 3 times measure, using chromatic motions and surprising modulations), Motets…

Songs may also be accompanied by a Lute (John Dowland 1562-1625, L. Milan, Le Roy…), for example the French polyphonic songs.

Among songs composers were Clément Janequin (1485-1558), Pierre Certon (†1572), Adrien Willaert (Musica nova 1559), Carlo Gesualdo (In madrigals, interesting modulations between distant keys: A minor to F# Major!), Philippe de Monte (1521-1603)…

As regards the Motets, there have been some changes since medieval times: there is no more Cantus firmus and one single text is used. The structure is in 2 parts, with a continuous flow of imitations of one theme for each section. Composers are searching for a fluid melody and several types of measures can be used in the same piece (3/4 and 4/4).

What can also be noted in Renaissance Motets is the alternation between 2, 3 or 4 melodic lines. This is a holdover of Josquin des Pres: a process called Binicium in which 2 melodic lines may even be connected and create a contrasting effect with the 2 others.

In liturgical music, foremost composers can be mentioned:

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1526-1594) was choirmaster at the Sixtine Chapel and followed the instructions of the Council of Trent. His vocal pieces are still based on a Gregorian Cantus Firmus and use a continuous flow of notes. Depending on the length and meaning of the text, homophony and final resolutions (for long texts) contrast with polyphony and counterpoint (for shorter texts). Palestrina was succeeded at the Sixtine Chapel by his student Thomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611).

Roland de Lassus (1532-1594) worked for the king Charles the Vth. Born in Mons in Italy he travelled a lot: from Naples to Munich where he was choirmaster of the royal court of Bavaria, in Fontainebleau… In his pieces can be noted the prevalence of the soprano and the “new” role of the bass (the use of tonal degrees and resolutions). He also wrote Madrigals on texts from Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) or Luigi Tansillo…

Among his works can be mentioned: Magnum opus musicum, Laudate dominum, Missa pro defunctis, Tears of St Peter, Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah…

From 1600 to 1750: The Baroque era: Bassus continuus, Opera, Dances suites, Concertos, Fugues…

In Literature and Music, there are almost the same differences between the Baroque and Renaissance period. For example, Ronsard, Rabelais and Montaigne differ from Descartes and Malherbe. Reflection and clarity take precedence over peculiarities and emotion.

This period begins with the composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) who “invented” the form of Opera and was one of the first to use dominant chords without preparation. It ends with the death of J.S Bach in 1750. Some of musical features of the Baroque style are embellishments in the soprano line, a new way of arranging the bass called Bassus continuus and the scoring of chords inversions for keyboards accompaniment. Although accompanied melody appears, counterpoint and imitations is still the main way of writing music. Concerning rhythm, there is a continuous flow of notes between the different melodic lines (quarter notes or eight notes) and not much silence (except in Preludes, Recitatives or Sarabands).

Several treaties deal with harmony and composing, we can mention that of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) L’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels.

Among Baroque forms are:

Operas, Orfeo from Monteverdi (1607), Dafne from Jacopo Peri (1561-1633),

Cantatas, which alternate between recitatives and arias (as it is the case in the Opera),

The Oratorio which looks like an Opera without staging,

The Concerto grosso (Brandenburg concertos from J.S Bach), or soloist Concerto in 3 sections (fast tempo, slow and fast),

The Church Sonata which is in 4 sections,

Dances suites,


The Sonata da camera (Chamber sonata) which looks like the Dances suites,

French Overtures in 3 sections (slow tempo, fast Fugato and slow) or Italian overtures (first a fast melodic section, slow and fast)

Toccatas (for Organ, Harpsichord…) which are displays of virtuosity (looks like Preludes).

Equal temperament, unequal temperaments and keyboard tuning:

During the Renaissance, modal music had been gradually replaced by major and minor modern scales. But as the main value of tonal music is modulations, making a good use of this new grammar supposed to be able to write music in every major and minor scales. However, at that time most of instruments, especially keyboards, couldn’t play music in every key. Moreover, a Harpsichord string (or an Organ pipe) is used to play a single note whereas a Lute string already “contains” every interval. That’s why composers needed a new way of tuning keyboards.

G. Zarlino, who was choirmaster at St Mark Basilica (1563-1590) explains in his work Istitutioni harmoniche (1558) what is the frequency ratio between two natural harmonics: for example the highest note of a major 3rd vibrates 1,25 times (or 5/4) more than the lowest. However, this way of defining intervals might be a problem because several definitions can be given for minor 2nd, major 2nd and others: for example, has the major 2nd a ratio of 9/8 or 10/9?

Moreover, the harmonic B sharp 6 (si 6) doesn’t sound the same as C 7(do 7): it is 1/9 of a major 2nd lower. However, if it was the case, it would mean that an interval of 7 octaves would be equal to 12 fifths. There are several ways to do it artificially and spread the difference between B# 6 and C 7 over more tones, including the so-called equal temperament, in which each minor 2nd is equal to 1/12 of an octave, each major 2nd contain 2 minors 2nd, and so on…

What can be surprising is that equal temperament only became widespread from the beginning of the XXth century. By the way, the aim of keyboard tuning and the Well-tempered keyboard from J.S Bach was rather to be able to play in every key.

Other ways of distributing this distance of one ninth of tone are unequal temperaments: for example, it is possible to tune every 5th from C 1 to C 7 a little lower (1/ (12*9) of a tone). This technique was used by Andreas Werckmeister. As it the case between natural harmonics, with an unequal temperament, a same interval may not always have the same range: some 5th, 2nd … are larger than other.

Among Baroque composers are:

Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672), who was student of Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrieli and wrote much religious music (3 Passions, Italian Madrigals…)

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) who worked for King Louis XIV and Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin), among his pieces we can mention Atys.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Dido and Eneas, King Arthur…

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) who also worked for Molière, among his pieces are Te Deum, Médée, Le malade imaginaire…

Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707), Cantatas, Harpsichord and Organ pieces.

François Couperin (1668-1733), Suites de danses pour clavecin

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736), Stabat Mater

André Campra (1660-1744), L’Europe Galante

J.S Bach (1685-1750), Kunst der fuge, Musikalische Opfer…

Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), 550 Sonatas

Georg Friedrich Haendel (1685-1759), Almira, Deidamia, Organ concertos…

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), Les Indes Galantes.

Georg Phillip Telemann (1681-1767), Harpsichord Fantasies, many Concertos,

From 1750 to 1820: The classic period: dramatic action, Sonata and Symphony forms

In music, there are several differences between Classic and Baroque styles concerning forms, rhythms and arrangement.

During this period appears the Sonata form, which is based on 2 themes, 3 parts and is used in most string quartets or Symphonies movements. In the first part, 2 themes are played: a first A theme written in the tonic key and a B theme in the relative major (the degree III of a minor key) or dominant key (the Vth degree of a major key). Those 2 themes may have different features: one can be melodic (with small intervals and long rhythms, played by wind instruments in Symphonies) and the other rather rhythmic (with shorter rhythms, played by string instruments in Symphonies).

After this first part there is an intermediate section in which some melodic or harmonic materials of the first section are used again with some modifications and modulations.

At last, a 3rd section plays the 2 themes A and B again, but this time written in the tonic key.

In Classic style, as regards arrangement for keyboard instruments, appears a new way of accompanying the soprano called the Alberti bass. It is based on a bass with arpeggios. As a result it destroys counterpoint, since there are only a bass, arpeggios in the intermediate line and a soprano.

Concerning rhythm, it is now used as a dramatic effect thanks to a greater variety of rhythms and silences (for example the famous 4 notes pattern of the 5th Symphony from Beethoven). Theatrical effects are an important element of Classic style, even in other forms than the Opera. Moreover, the new dark and tragic artistic movement called Sturm and drang in literature and music led to the use of minor keys and light-darkness effects (especially in the music of Haydn and Mozart). We can mention the novel from Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) Sufferings of the yound Werther published in 1774, predecessor of the Romantic style.

In music, Classic style has probably also a link with French rationality and revolutionary ideas developed by authors like Montesquieu (Charles de Secondat 1869-1755), Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet 1694-1778) and Denis Diderot (1713-1784).

Maybe the main innovation of Classic composers is the Symphony. This new orchestral form has been developed by the “Mannheim school” with composers like Carl Philip Stamitz (1745-1801).

During this period, musicians and composers begin to sell their services by themselves. The composer Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787) advocates for the independence of composers and less philanthropy.

Among Classic Forms are:

The Lied (ABA),

String Quartets (beginning with a Sonata, a 2nd movement in a ABA or theme and variations form, a Menuet and a Rondo).

Symphony (fast, slow, Menuet, fast),


Comic Opera (also called Singspiel),

The Concerto begins with an orchestral introduction, themes, and the soloist Cadenza. The 2nd movement is in a lyric feeling with a slow tempo, and may follows a ABA (Lied) or Sonata form. The last movement can be written in a Rondo Sonata or theme and variations form.

Among Classic composers is the first Vienna school:

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who wrote symphonies, string quartets, masses, Operas, concertos…

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), student of Haydn, wrote many operas (Don Giovanni, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Die Zauberföte, Cosi fan tutte, Le nozze di Figaro…), piano concertos, symphonies, masses, a requiem, piano sonatas, string quartets…

Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827), also student of Haydn around 1792-1796, he wrote symphonies (the 6th Pastoral symphony, the 3rd Heroic symphony, the famous 5th symphony…), one Opera Fidelio, piano concertos, piano sonatas (for example the 3 last Sonatas), piano variations, string quartets…

From 1820 to 1900: Romantic generations and harmonic innovations

The Romantic feeling first appeared in Literature at the beginning of the XIXth century, after the failure of the French revolution. We can mention the novel René, from François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848). It is the impression of a real divorce between a dirty society and a non-conforming individual. In music, Romanticism is also well illustrated by the couple of Robert and Clara Schumann.

In this movement, composers still get inspiration from paintings or poems, but there is no more direct link with the text, and symbolism becomes less figurative. However in the new orchestral form called Symphonic poem, the music must follow a story. In composition, appears the technique of the Leit Motiv, a short melodic pattern which is regularly repeated all along the piece (for example in Till L’espiègle from Richard Strauss).

Romantic composers like to use large intervals, altered keys (with many flat or sharp tones), modulations between distant keys, melodic and harmonic tensions… One of the most influential composers of this period is Richard Wagner (1813-1883). He is one of the first to use the substitute chord bVI7#11 of the V/V chord (Tristan und isold) and a hyper-chromatic melody. Franz Liszt (1811-1886), who was the father-in-law of Wagner, also brought interesting harmonic innovations (La lugubre Gondola).

Composers like Cesar Franck (1822-1890), his students (such as Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931)) and even Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) were inspired by the style of Wagner. However, it was difficult to equal the master!

Others like Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1924) and his students (for example Paul Dukas (1865-1935)…) decided to write music in a “French” style.

Among Romantic forms are :

Symphonic poems (The sorcerer’s apprentice from Paul Dukas, Die Moldau from Bedrich Smetana…)



Dances (Mazurkas, Waltzes…)

Among Romantic composers are :

Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Symphonies, Piano Sonatas, more than 600 Lieder

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), Symphonies, Concertos, Organ Preludes, various Quartets…

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), Nocturnals, Preludes, Mazurkas…

Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Carnaval, Kinderszene, Liederkreis, Dichterliebe…

Piotr Ilitch Tchaïkosky (1840-1893), Nutcracker, Swan Lake, string quartets, symphonies…

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Variations and Sonatas for Piano, Chamber music, Symphonies, Concertos…

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Das lied von der Erde, Kindertotenlieder, the 5th Symphony…

Richard Strauss (1864-1949), Elektra (continuous modulation), Till L’espiègle, Metamorphosen…

Realistic music of the XIXth century:

Modest Moussorgski (1839-1881), Without sun, Night on bald mountain, Boris Godounov, Pictures at an exhibition (for Piano)…

The Modern period:

Symbolism: Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune, Jeux, Préludes for piano, La Mer, Pelléas et Mélisande…

Use of modal progressions, pentatonic scales and scale by tones…

Eric Satie (1866-1925), Gymnopédies, Vexations…

Impressionism: Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Le tombeau de Couperin (Neo-baroque), Pavane pour une infante défunte, Daphnis et Chloé, Ma mère l’Oye…

Use of extended chords, modal progressions…

The XXth century and the disappearance of keys:

In music, among the expressionist movement can be mentioned the 2nd Vienna school including composers Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Anton Webern (1883-1945) and Alban Berg (1885-1935).

Expressionism first appeared in painting at the end of the XIXth century with painters like Edvard Munch (The scream). It can be described as a violent, highly intense expression, marked with the fear of the first world-war. In painting, this style appeared after the French Impressionism, which was based on realistic components and nature. Unlike Impressionism, Expressionism doesn’t try to describe reality, but rather directly a feeling.

In music, this first results in the use of every tone of the chromatic scale and the disappearance of a recognizable or stable key. During the 20’s, a real twelve-tone system will be developed by Arnold Schoenberg for the piano in a relatively abstract feeling (Fünf Klavierstücke opus 23).

Among expressionist pieces are:

The miraculous Mandarin from Bela Bartok.

Le Pierrot lunaire, Ewartung from Arnold Schoenberg.

In 1913, was composed maybe the most important piece of the XXth century: The rites of spring, a ballet from Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).

Wozzeck, an Opera from Alban Berg which describes a social tragedy.

The Neo-classic approach:

The problem with the term “Neo-classic” is that it can sometimes be a grab-bag. Nowadays, this term is mainly used for pieces written between the two world-wars. It includes composers such as Le Groupe des six (Arthur Honneger, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud who is known for polytonality…) or Sergueï Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith…and even some pieces of Igor Stravinsky (Pulcinella). Unlike expressionist composers, they prefer to keep a link with tonal music and like to revisit classic, baroque, medieval or popular musical materials and forms. However, it doesn’t necessarily means there is no modernity in those pieces.

Escaping categories:

George Gershwin (1898-1937), wrote many musicals and the Opera Porgy and Bess. It can be interesting to know he was a friend of Arnold Schoenberg during the last years of his life! His style is between Romantic music and Blues (Rhapsody in blue), and he can be considered as a forerunner of the Crossover music. In I got Rhythm, a song from the musical Girl crazy, he “invented” the famous AABA song form, which is sometimes called, by the way, “Rhythm changes”. This song form has later been a frame for many tunes of the 30’s and 40’s.

Another great composer of the XXth century is György Ligeti ((1923-2006) listen to Devil’s steps). The form of his pieces is often based on groups of notes or particular intervals (Musica ricercata).

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) also developed his own style, inspired by Indian music, bird songs and diminished scales. Listen to the Quartet for the end of time.

From 1950 to Nowadays:

The Twelve-tone system (and even complete serialism) is still used by composers from the Darmstadt school such as Karlheinz Stockhausen ((1928-2007) listen to the Tierkreis) and Luciano Berio ((1925-2003) listen to the Sequenza IV).

Electro-acoustic music:

It is the mix of electronic music (sound only made electronically) and concrete music (various recorded sounds). This movement was created by Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995) and Pierre Henry ((1927-2017) listen to The temple of Emese, Fragments pour Artaud). Another great electro-acoustic composer is François Bayle (1932- ? Toupie dans le ciel).

Spectral music:

This way of composing music is based on the analysis of the harmonics of a sound or a timbre and their evolution in time. Main composers are Tristan Murail (1947-?) and Gérard Grisey ((1946-1998) listen to Vortex temporum).

Jazz and Blues:

Jazz origins come from the city of New Orleans (and the neighborhood of Storyville) in the state of Louisiana (around the Mississippi delta), and Saint Louis (Missouri). At the end of the XIXth century, there were various influences in those regions like Negro spirituals, Romantic and Afro-Caribbean music. Those different styles gave birth to the Rag-time and the Blues form. Composers such as Scott Joplin (1868-1917) or Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941, King porter stomp) and his band Red hot peppers can be mentioned.

Around 1917, for economic reasons and because of the closing of Storyville, many musicians from New Orleans and Saint Louis went to Chicago. There, during the 20’s and the 30’s, several New Orleans jazz bands were formed such as the Fletcher Henderson (1897-1952) big-band. This arranger hired most of the best musicians of that time: Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter… He also worked with Count Basie and Benny Goodman.

Another great arranger and composer is Duke Ellington (1899-1974, Harlem).

At the beginning of the 40’s, black musicians realized that Jazz were there cultural legacy and decided to improve improvisation and composing techniques. That was the time of the Be-bop style. Extended chords, tensions and new chord changes were used. Moreover, although Big-bands still exist, musicians begin to play into smaller bands like Trio, Quartet or Quintet. We can mention composers like Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powel… After the Be-bop came the Hard-bop style at the beginning of the 50’s, with the bassist Charles Mingus and the pianist John Lewis.

With the Kind of Blue record in 1959, Miles Davis explores the possibilities of modal music.

In 1960, with Giant steps, John Coltrane, who played in the Miles Davis band, find new chords progressions based on the octave divisions.

Later, during the 70’s, appears the Jazz-rock-fusion. Once again, Miles Davis is one of the forerunners of this style (for example with the record Bitches brew). In Fusion, we can also mention guitarists Frank Zappa, John Mac Laughling, John Scofield and Pat Metheny (Travels), the pianist Herbie Hancock, some pieces from Carla Bley in Escalator over the hill or the band Weather report (Remark you made).

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