Characteristics of Classical Music

The term “classical music” is often misused in common culture. It is incorrectly used to refer to any old music that is not considered pop music. The correct term for this music is art music. In reality, the term "classical" actually refers to a select group of composers in the time period 1750-1810. Classical music developed in Europe, mostly in Germany and Austria, after the baroque period. The most noted composers of classical music were Stamitz, Gluck, C.P.E. Bach, J.C. Bach, Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart.


Classical music was composed to please the listener rather than make him think. As time progressed, more balance and control were used. Grace and beauty of the melody and design grew more important. The overall texture of classical music was homophonic, which is when multiple voices or instruments harmonize and play or sing the same melody.


Classical composers wrote for strings and wind instruments. The harpsichord became nearly obsolete in the classical period. Strings became the main focus of the orchestra. Winds were growing in significance as well. At first, strings were accompanied by two horns or two flutes or two oboes. Over time, composers began adding one or two bassoons, two trumpets or two kettle drums. Mozart started adding clarinets.


The piano was invented in 1698. It began to replace the harpsichord as it was much more agile and pleasing to the ear. Pianos could capture expression with their ability to increase and decrease volume, and produce legato (smooth) and staccato (choppy) melodies.


Symphony is a sonata for orchestra. Sonata is a work created in several movements for one or two instruments. Symphony began with three sections, but later, composers added a fourth. Stamitz was the first famous composer of symphony, but Haydn and Mozart perfected it. Each part of the symphony is referred to as a movement. The first movement of the symphony is generally fast and in sonata form. The second movement slows down and is more song-like. It may be in sonata form, but with some variation. The third movement is a transition to the fourth. The fourth movement is fast and light-hearted. It may be in rondo or sonata form.

Sonata Form

There are three sections of sonata form. The first, the exposition, is when the composer divulges his musical ideas. These ideas are called subjects. The first subject is the tonic, usually in a minor key, which modulates (changes key) near the end to transition the passage leading into the second subject. The second subject is new and usually related to the first. The second subject is often in a major key. The second section or the development is where the ideas are developed. This is where the composer creates tension or conflict. The third section is the recapitulation in which the beginning is repeated, but the second subject becomes the tonic. The music may end with a coda to round it off.


The concerto uses a solo instrument accompanied by an orchestra. Three movements comprise the concerto. The movements are arranged as such: slow, fast, slow. The first movement offers double exposition. It begins with the orchestra, then is followed by the soloist. The second movement is in a related key. During the second movement, development and recapitulation for the orchestra and soloist happen. As the piece ends, the orchestra pauses, and the soloist plays the candeza, a short passage based on earlier played themes. The soloist finishes with a trill, signaling to the orchestra to end the piece.


Classical composers wrote for voice as well as instruments, especially in opera. In opera, the voice carries over the orchestra. The orchestra is used to create the dramatic mood.