Classical Music Epochs

By Daniel McAdam.

Students of the history of music, or of classical music in general, are often confused by varying descriptions and definitions of major periods in the development of classical music.  There are a two primary reasons for this confusion.  First, there is a lack of universal agreement on precisely how many major periods there are, and on when such periods began and ended.  Second, the terminology utilized by musicologists and individuals in the musical performance and recording industries is inconsistent, to the extent that the definition of as common a term as “classical music” varies from person to person.  Indeed, The Oxford Companion to Music, which boasts over 8,000 entries, has none for “classical music,” although it does contain something of a discussion of the subject under the heading of, “The Classical Era” (Latham 263-265). 

Although any definition of “classical music” (similar to any definition of “art”) is more easily attacked than defended, the term is used regularly to describe a type of music that a majority of listeners would clearly recognize and identify as such.  Most persons agree, for example, that Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 in E flat major, op. 55 "Eroica", is a work of classical music, and that Alice Cooper’s School’s Out is, despite its rhythmic charms, something that does not belong to that same genre.

The editor of the 1926 edition of Webster’s Dictionary did include a definition of “classical music” in that large work which, while far from perfect, does provide guidance:

Appealing to critical interest or developed taste; conforming to an established and elaborated form of the art, as the fugue, suite, or sonata; used of music distinguished from popular music, or that characterized by obvious rhythm, catchy melody, and meager harmony and form.  (Harris 410.)


Another method of attempting to establish just what constitutes classical music is to identify works by their composers.  Using this system, one would identify anything written by Mozart, Haydn, or other similar composers as being “classical music,” and would similarly exclude from that category works written by popular composers such as Jim Steinman or Elton John.  Flaws in this methodology are not difficult to perceive.  What does one do, for example, with George Gershwin, who penned both popular tunes such as I Got Rhythm along with arguably classical works including Piano Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue?

As alluded to earlier, lack of agreement also exists regarding the identification of major eras of classical music.  This is to be expected, when one considers that those living during the time that music in the classical period was being composed were no more inclined to think of such compositions as “classical music” than those listening to popular music in the 1960’s and 1970’s were inclined to think of Led Zeppelin and Creedence Clearwater Revival songs as “classic rock.”

There is a general consensus that a Classical era of musical composition existed, and that the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were composed within its confines.  Once such an idea is accepted, then it follows that there is also a pre-Classical and post-Classical period of musical composition, and the simplest forms of categorization go no further than identifying these three periods.  In modern times, one more commonly encounters six defined epochs:

Naxos, a major producer of classical music recordings, uses a seven-epoch system, which inserts an Early Romantic period extending from 1830 to 1860, and has the Romantic period ending in 1920.  (Naxos.)  The practical difference between the two systems is miniscule, and brings to mind Krehbiel’s observation that, “There are, among all the terms used in music, no words of vaguer meaning than Classic and Romantic.”  (Krehbiel 65.)

One author, writing in 1890 during what moderns would consider to be the not-yet-finished Romantic period, proposed an eight-epoch system which offered a far more detailed review of pre-Classical eras, as follows: The Chant in its Crude State (1 – 384); Ambrosian Chant (384 – 590); Epoch of the Gregorian or Roman Chant (590 – 1360); Epoch of the Polyphonic Schools (1360 – 1600); Epoch of the Monodic School (1600 – 1607); Epoch of the Polyodic Schools (1607 – 1680); Epoch of the Classical Schools (1680 – 1800); and Epoch of the Romantic Schools (1800 – 1890).  (Derthick 44.)  This system is not without merit, in that it seeks to define earlier periods of musical development by compositional structure, and also avoids lumping clearly pre-Medieval music under a “Medieval” label.  On the other hand, one would have to be a purist of the first order to complain that the seven-year Epoch of the Monodic School is not discretely identified in current systems. 

The conclusion that must be drawn from the above discussion is that the various definitions of classical music and its principal eras of development are ultimately subjective, much like the enjoyment and appreciation of classical music itself.  Given the difficulties in reaching precise delineations in these matters, one could do worse than to emulate the example of the untutored man at the museum who, when asked about art, replied, “I know it when I see it.”  For the vast majority of music listeners, classical music is known when heard, and most are content with such a state of affairs.

Works Cited

Derthick, W. M., ed.  A Manual of Music.  Chicago: The Manual Publishing Company, 1890.

Harris, W. T., ed.  Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language.  Springfield, Massachusetts, G. & C. Merriam Company, 1926.

“History of Classical Music.”  Naxos.  Web. 6 Dec. 2010.

Krehbiel, Henry Edward.  How to Listen to Music.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897. 

Latham, Alison, ed.  The Oxford Companion to Music (Oxford Companions).  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.



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