Western Music History

Western Music refers to those cultures whose music system is based on the philosophy and science of Pythagoras and his school. The Ancient Greeks were the first European culture to investigate the science of acoustics using mathematics and simple scientific laboratory instruments like the monochord. Due to the paucity of actual notated music from Ancient Greece we are unable to fully recreate their music, but with the rise of Christianity and through the importance and influence of Greek thought upon the early Christian church we can infer that their legacy was of no small importance to the developing musical practices of later generations. There is some debate about Eastern influences, notably from the Hebrew liturgy and psalms, but this does not disturb the system of consonance and dissonance described by the Ancient Greeks within one octave of twelve intervals. The foundation of Western Music is Greek, but its development pan-European.

As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, the consolidation of Chant (later termed Gregorian Chant) from the Roman Catholic Mass and Liturgies of the Hours led to the development of a body of music that was disseminated throughout Europe via the Papacy and monasteries for both women and men. During this period, Western Music kept a strict division between music used for the service of God and that put to everyday use. As champions of literacy and learning, it was the church that made advances in music notation; this is why we have "sacred" melodies from the 11th century preserved for us, but few to none from the secular world from that time. Later, as education became more widespread, secular themes began to come to the fore in the Renaissance period. People began to combine voices and instrumental lines in deliberate ways. The role and work of the composer was sparked.

We then have expansions of range and complexity as we move with Dietrich Buxtehude, Georg Friedrich Handel, and J. S. Bach into the Baroque era. The Classical era gives us the understated, formal power associated with such composers as C. P. E. Bach, Franz Josef Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Romanticism, in the musical imaginations of Franz Schubert, Ludwig von Beethoven, Claude Debussy and Richard Wagner, then transforms the rigid styles and forms of the Classical era into more individualistic stylizations. Tonality was at its peak during this period, then Impressionist music paved the way to the total breakdown of harmonic structure in favor of the 12-tone, aleatoric, and mechanically produced music of the Modern era. This process continues, morphs, and returns to tonality in the current Contemporary period of music.

Table of contents

  1. Medieval Music (476 A.D. to 1400 A.D.)
  2. Renaissance Music (1400 A.D. to 1600 A.D.)
  3. Baroque Music (1600 A.D. to 1750 A.D.)
  4. Classical Music (1750 A.D. to 1820 A.D.)
  5. Romantic Music (1820 A.D. to 1900 A.D.)
  6. Modern Music (1900 A.D. to 1960 A.D.)
  7. Contemporary Music (1945 A.D. to present)

A Note: Time Periods


There is no clear line when the Renaissance began and the Middle Ages ended. The Renaissance in music happened, as the Renaissance in all the other arts did, at different times in different places. So for convenience, we will use 1400 A.D. as the start of the Renaissance.

This vagueness is the same for every period, there is no specific beginning or ending date. For example, the Classical era was ongoing both with its influences and its music. Where shall we place the dividing point between it and Romanticism? However, for the sake of pinning down when the style was most popular and the people who produced its music were alive, these dates were chosen, and are, by and large, agreed upon by scholars.

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