Classical music often refers to Western European art music as a whole. However, the classical era actually refers to the last half of the 18th century and the first part of the 19th century. It was preceded by the baroque era and followed by the romantic era. Making sharp distinctions is a somewhat artificial procedure in that it often is done after the fact. However, there are significant differences among the three eras that the composers consciously were aware of. Music, like other types of art, progresses by creating new rules, ideas and methods.
Use a timeline to distinguish the baroque, classical and romantic eras. A timeline places each period in its historical context. The boundaries between each period are not fixed. The different periods overlap to some degree. However, the traditional dates for each era are: The baroque era, 1600-1750; the classical era, 1750-1830; and the romantic era, 1815-1910.
Listen to compositions by the major composers of each era. Listening to works provides specific details and examples of the differences and similarities among the three eras. Important composers of the baroque era include Henry Purcell, George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach. Classical era composers include Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Ludwig van Beethoven is a transitional figure between the classical and the romantic era. He is considered the father of the romantic era. Other important Romantic composers include Franz Schubert, Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms.
Distinguish the three eras by musical characteristics. The baroque era strongly was influenced by the Enlightenment ideas of reason, order and progress. Baroque music emphasized mathematical precision in the composition and organization of music. Its distinguishing features are musical experimentation, harmony and counterpoint technique, which makes use of multiple, simultaneous melodies that move together or in opposite directions but resolve to the tonic chord. The classical composers tended to prefer simpler musical textures and melodies, and they emphasized and respected the musical rules and forms for composition. One of the primary characteristics of the romantic composers was the desire to transgress the traditional rules of musical composition. The 19th century was an age of revolutionary activity in Europe and this was reflected in the musical ideas of the time.