Characteristics of Classical Music: An introduction

Characteristics of Classical Music
Characteristics of Classical Music

Periods of music are often hotly contested and accompanied by the notion that over-night one period of music magically transformed into the next. Imagine falling asleep in the Baroque and waking to a whole new Classical world. For the purposes of this article, we will agree that the Classical Period stretched from around 1750 – 1820. It is the music and its characteristics that I will examine in this piece with a view to providing an outline of the key features of this period’s music.

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Characteristics of Classical Music

The music of the Baroque came directly before the Classical period and many of its features flowed naturally into the newly emerging Classical period. Many of the characteristics of the Baroque did, however, begin to decline in favour of a fresh perspective on music and all arts. The Classical era arose from a reaction against many of the established musical norms and composers worked on developing a very different sound.

Classical music, like classical architecture built its structures on symmetry and apparent simplicity. The forms that dominated the Greek and Roman Empires now began to enjoy a resurrection in the world of Classical music. Composers began to abandon the complex polyphony[1] of the Baroque in support of more homophonic[2] forms. The ornate melodies frequently found in Baroque music give way to measured, regularly phased tunes.

It is in the Classical period that the idea of the Equal Temperament scale finally becomes accepted and tonality, as we recognise it even today, becomes permanently established. An increase in dynamic range (volume), evolves in this period of music as the quality of instruments advances. Composers specify these dynamics in the notation in their scores in a way that did not happen in earlier music.

During this period of music, we also enter familiar territory in terms of famous composers. Mozart and Haydn, two of the most notable and respected composers who ever lived, were the pillars of the Classical movement. This is not to claim that no other composers were their equal but that it is their names and their music that has endured hundreds of years after their deaths. It was also these two astonishing composers who in many ways shaped the way Classical music grew and laid the cornerstones for future styles of music.

Almost regardless of the Classical composer, you chose to listen to there are features inherent in the majority of music from this period that you can listen for. There are many musical forms that became increasingly popular for Classical composers and their audience alike that need to be mentioned before a more detailed appraisal of the characteristics of the music.

From the Baroque suite comes the sonata and sonata form. There is the rise of the Symphony as a musical form together with the development of the orchestra and the instruments that it involves. Chamber music becomes ever more in favour with both Mozart and Haydn champions of the String Quartet and String Quintet. The Concerto remains a popular musical form during the Classical period as well as the sacred musical forms of the Mass and the Oratorio. Opera begins a whole new journey as a vehicle for rich musical expression both as comic and serious opera.

What are the characteristics of the music of the classical period?

A dominant feature of the Classical period of music is heard in the construction of the melody. Regular or periodic phrasing is common in the music of many Classical composers. What this means is that the melody is frequently composed to be in even, regular bar lengths[3]. Most common are melodies that form an eight bar phrase equally divided into two four bar sections. This brings a carefully measured feel to many of the best loved Classical tunes.

The additional reason this phrasing appeals is the harmony that underpins the melody. In the Classical period is the height of the tonal system with a clear polarity of tonic and dominant harmony. Tonic refers to the starting or home key of the piece and the word dominant refers to the next most harmonically important key, that of the 5th; based on the 5th note of the scale.

To illustrate the point, if the music was written in the key of A, then the dominant would be five notes above A (A, counting as number one), giving a dominant of E. Melody would ordinarily move from the tonic to the dominant over the first four bars, followed by a move back to the tonic during the second four bars.

The power of the tonal system and the pull of the tonic dominant relationship gave structure to larger forms than just composition of melody during the Classical period. It allowed composers to develop a hugely innovative musical form called “sonata form”. This structure provided the building blocks for concertos, symphonies and sonatas.

The principle of the form is simple. In its purest form there are three sections that make up the entire form. These are the exposition, the development and the recapitulation. In the first section (exposition), the composer would usually present two contrasting themes; one based in the tonic, the other in the dominant. In the development section, the composer explores the melodic, rhythmic, textural and harmonic possibilities of each theme. In the final part of the form (recapitulation), we hear the same themes restated and sometimes reworked.

What sonata form offered composers in the Classical period was the harmonic elegance of a tonic dominant system and the chance to fully explore the material of their compositions rather than simply a statement of melody. If you are listening to the first movement of a symphony, a concerto or a sonata from the classical period, the chances are it is written in sonata form.

As instruments began to develop in the Classical period we find that the orchestra also begins to take on a new sound. The introduction of the clarinet into the woodwind section made a significant difference to the timbre of the classical orchestra. It became increasingly common for composers to use up to four French horns, two trumpets and timpani (kettle drums).

The string section of the orchestra had grown in size to include distinct sections: first and second violin, viola, celli and double basses. From early Haydn symphonies where the players may have only numbered thirty to his final symphonies where they were closer to sixty performers. This drastically altered the possibilities for different composers to explore new sound combinations within their compositions. It certainly allowed for what is described as the sturm und drang (storm and drive) movement in German literature where huge contrast of emotional expression was the central focus of the work[4].

The Piano began to occupy a central place in the line-up of available instruments for the Classical composers to explore. It left behind the jangly unreliability of the harpsichord and as it developed it matured into an instrument of great range and expressive possibilities. Piano sonatas and concertos make up a large portion of the Classical repertoire. The Piano Sonata designed for more intimate settings and often composed to specific commission from a noble patron. The Concerto became an increasingly popular vehicle for virtuosity and dazzling display.

A typical Classical feature in much piano music of the time is the alberti bass. It was named after the 18th century composer Domenico Alberti[5] (1710-1740). The accompanying figure that is the alberti bass consists of a chord broken up into quavers (quarter-notes), or semi-quavers (eighth-notes) with the root note of the chord sounding first. This accompanying line would be played by the left hand of the pianist whilst the right hand played the melody above. The idea was extensively employed by Haydn and Mozart with Beethoven adopting it later in many of his piano works too.

It would be a mistake to not mention an important musical form called rondo[6] before concluding this article. This widespread musical form derived from the ritornello (little return), popular in the Baroque. Rondo form often had its place in the final movements of symphonies, concertos and sonatas during the Classical period. It was also a form that Mozart loved at it gave him almost endless musical possibilities. The form work with an opening theme, followed by a contrasting one; then the return of the opening theme again. It is notated like this: A B A C A D etc.

Finally, a list of a few really key Classical pieces that everyone interested in this period of music is encouraged to listen to and explore. In many of these landmark works, you can hear the characteristics that held this great time in musical history together.


String Trio No. 26 in G major: Hob.V:G4

String Quartets Op.76; nos. 1-4

Piano Sonata in C minor: Hob. XVI/20

The “London” Symphonies Nos. 93-98

“The Creation” Oratorio – Hob.XXI/2


Symphony No.40 in G minor; K.550

Piano Concerto in A major; K.488

Piano Sonata in A minor; K.300

String Quartet No.17, “The Hunt”; K.458

The Magic Flute; K.620

[1] Polyphonic refers to the use of many voices or melodic lines sounding at the same time. One example of polyphonic music in the Baroque Era is the fugue.

[2] Homophonic music is in its simplest form, a melody plus an accompaniment.

[3] For a good example of regular phrasing listen to the opening of the “Farewell” symphony by Haydn.

[4] Haydn’s 46th Symphony is a good starting place for sturm und drang.


[6] A famous Rondo is the third movement of the A Major Sonata K.331 with the nick-name Rondo a La Turka.

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