Classical Music Genres

The most comprehensive list of classical music genres available on the Internet

The Music Genres List site covers many of the most popular styles of classical music, we hope this becomes the definitive list of classical music genres on the Internet, send an email to add @ musicgenreslist dot com if you feel any classical music genres are missing and we’ll add to complete the music list.

  • Avant-Garde
  • Baroque
  • Chamber Music
  • Chant
  • Choral
  • Classical Crossover
  • Early Music
  • High Classical
  • Impressionist
  • Medieval
  • Minimalism
  • Modern Composition
  • Opera
  • Orchestral
  • Renaissance
  • Romantic
  • Wedding Music

It is important to have some understanding of the historical periods of music.

Medieval Classical Music

When we explore Medieval music, we are dealing with the longest and most distant period of musical history. It includes the Gregorian chant. Gregorian chant is monophonic, meaning music that consists of only one melodic line without accompaniment. Polyphony, music where two or more melodic lines are heard simultaneously, did not exist (or was not knotted) until the 11th century. Unlike chant, polyphony required the participation of a composer to combine the melodic lines in a pleasing manner. I don’t know much about this period because I don’t like this kind of music.

Renaissance Classical Music

In the mid-1500s, a prominent bishop commented that music composed for the church should reflect the meaning of the words so that the listeners would be moved to piety. This concept seems like a no-brainer today, but it was a fairly new idea at the time. To suggest that Medieval composers had no desire to write “expressive” music would be unfair. But, it was the rediscovery of ancient Greek ideals in the Renaissance that inspired many musicians to explore the eloquent possibilities of their art.

The increased value of individualism in the Renaissance is reflected by the changing role of the composer in society. Unlike most of their Medieval predecessors, the great masters of the Renaissance were revered in their own lifetimes.
Sacred music was still predominant, though secular music became more prevalent and more sophisticated. The repertory of instrumental music also began to expand significantly. New instruments were invented, including the clavichord and virginal (both keyboard instruments) and many existing instruments were improved.

Baroque Classical Music (1600-1750)

Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Johann Pachelbel, Antonio Vivaldi

Baroque music is often highly ornate, colorful and richly textured when compared with its predecessors. Opera was born at what is considered to be the very beginning of the Baroque era, around 1600.
Music’s ability to express human emotions and depict natural phenomenon was explored throughout the Baroque period.
Although imitative polyphony remained fundamental to musical composition, homophonic writing became increasingly important. Homophonic music features a clear distinction between the melody line and an subsidiary accompaniment part.
The orchestra evolved during the early Baroque, starting as an “accompanist” for operatic and vocal music. By the mid-1600s the orchestra had a life of its own. The concerto was a favorite Baroque form that featured a solo instrumentalist (or small ensemble of soloists) playing “against” the orchestra, creating interesting contrasts of volume and texture.
Many Baroque composers were also virtuoso performers. For example, Archangelo Corelli was famous for his violin playing and Johann Sebastian Bach was famous for his keyboard skills. The highly ornamented quality of Baroque melody lent itself perfectly to such displays of musical dexterity.

“Classical” Music (1750-1820)

Johann Christian Bach, Ledwig van Beethoven, Franz Joseph haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus

The word Classical has strong connotations, conjuring up the art and philosophy of Ancient Greece and Rome along with their ideals of balance, proportion and disciplined expression. The late Baroque style was polyphonically complex and melodically ornate. The composers of the early Classical period changed direction, writing music that was much simpler in texture.
Homophony–music in which melody and accompaniment are distinct–dominated the Classical style, and new forms of composition were developed to accommodate the transformation. Sonata form is by far the most important of these forms, and one that continued to evolve throughout the Classical period. Although Baroque composers also wrote pieces called sonatas, the Classical sonata was quite different.
One of the most important developments of the Classical period is the growth of the public concert. Although the aristocracy would continue to play a significant role in musical life, it was now possible for composers to survive without being the employee of one person or family. This also meant that concerts were no longer limited to palace drawing rooms. Composers started organizing concerts featuring their own music, and often attracted large audiences. The increasing popularity of the public concert had a strong impact on the growth of the orchestra. Although chamber music and solo works were played in the home or other intimate settings, orchestral concerts seemed to be naturally designed for big public spaces. As a result, symphonic music (including opera and oratorio) became more extroverted in character. Composers gradually expanded the size of the orchestra to accommodate this expanded musical vision.

Romantic Classical Music (1820-1915)

Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, Frederic Chopin, Felix Mendelssohn, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Romanticism implies fantasy, spontaneity and sensuality. The Classical period focused on structural clarity and emotional restraint. Classical music was expressive, but not so passionate that it could overwhelm a work’s equilibrium. Beethoven who was in some ways responsible for igniting the flame of romanticism, always struggled (sometimes unsuccessfully) to maintain that balance. Many composers of the Romantic period followed Beethoven’s model and found their own balance between emotional intensity and Classical form. Others reveled in the new atmosphere of artistic freedom and created music whose structure was designed to support its emotional surges. Musical story-telling became important, and not just in opera, but in “pure” instrumental music as well. The tone-poem is a particularly Romantic invention, as it was an orchestral work whose structure was entirely dependent on the scene being depicted or the story being told.
Color was another important feature of Romantic music. New instruments were added to the orchestra and composers experimented with ways to get new sounds from existing instruments. A large palette of musical colors was necessary to depict the exotic scenes that became so popular.
In addition to seeking out the sights and sounds of other places, composers began exploring the music of their native countries. Nationalism became a driving force in the late Romantic period and composers wanted their music to express their cultural identity. This desire was particularly intense in Russia and Eastern Europe, where elements of folk music were incorporated into symphonies, tone-poems and other “Classical” forms.
The Romantic period was the heyday of the virtuoso. Exceptionally gifted performers–and particularly pianists, violinists, and singers–became enormously popular. Liszt, the great Hungarian pianist/composer, reportedly played with such passion and intensity that women in the audience would faint. Since, like Liszt, most composers were also virtuoso performers, it was inevitable that the music they wrote would be extremely challenging to play.
The Romantic period witnessed an unprecedented glorification of the artist–whether musician, poet or painter–that has had a powerful impact on our own culture.

Early 20th-C. History

Debussy through Copland

Many 20th-century composers turned away from harmonic methods that had been used in music for the past 150 years. The Frenchman Claude Debussy (1862-1918) rejected the rules of 19th-century harmony as they were taught in the Paris Conservatoire, instead infusing his practice with harmonic techniques from East Asia and Russia. Debussy’s association with French painters of his time has led some people to label him and his music “Impressionist.” Debussy did share with the Impressionist painters a propensity for depicting nature; the orchestral piece reproduced here, one of three “nocturnes,” is entitled “Clouds.” (Debussy’s “nocturnes” are not related to Chopin’s use of the term.) With Debussy, we enter the “Modern” era of Western art music, an era which presumably continues to the present day.

The American Charles Ives (1874-1954) was yet another composer to react negatively to the strictures of prior musical practice. Ives blended, overlaid, and contrasted snippets of music from all walks of American life: the country church, the dance hall, and the military base. Military music is most evident in “Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut,” a musical representation of the Revolutionary army marching at the winter quarters of General Israel Putnam. The tunes “Yankee Doodle” and “The British Grenadiers” are woven into the music, as is John Philip Sousa’s march “Semper Fidelis.”

The best-known work of Alban Berg (1885-1935), a student of Schoenberg, is the Expressionist opera Wozzeck. Expressionism, associated with painters and composers in Germany and Austria between the world wars, took as its subject matter the irrational unconscious, inner conflict, and alienation from the conventions of society. The title character of Wozzeck is an impoverished, deranged soldier, who discovers an affair between his lover Marie and the more impressive Drum Major. In the scene reproduced here, Wozzeck finds himself in a crowded bar after having cut Marie’s throat; near the end of the scene, the crowd discovers blood stains on Wozzeck’s arm, inspiring him to flee.

Modern Classical Music (ca, 1915-Present)

Aaron Copland, George Gershwin

The late Romantic period featured its own extremes: sprawling symphonies and tone-poems overflowing with music that seemed to stretch harmony and melody to their limits. It is certainly possible to view some early 20th century music as an extension of the late Romantic style, but a great deal of it can also be interpreted as a reaction against that style.
20th century music is a series of “isms” and “neo-isms.” The primal energy of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has been called neo-Primitivism. The intensely emotional tone of Schönberg’s early music has been labeled Expressionism. The return to clearly structured forms and textures has been dubbed neo-Classicism. These terms have been employed in an attempt to organize the diversity of styles running through the 20th century.

Music history has always been characterized by the search for ways to make new kinds of sound–by constructing new instruments, by finding new ways of playing old instruments, by finding new ways for performers to work together. The search for new kinds of sound became particularly intense in the mid-to-late 20th century. InAtmospheres, written by György Ligeti (b. 1923), the string instruments combine to form a sound intended to be different from the sound of earlier string ensemble music.

For many 20th century composers, past styles still offered plenty of scope. Some like Richard Strauss, Elgar, Nielsen and Shostakovich used a basically 19th century style, updating it with 20th century harmonies and new ideas (such as jazz). Others (such as Stravinsky and Hindemith) reworked older styles particularly those of the 18th century: because of this their work was called ‘neo-classical’. Still other composers (eg Ives, Schoenberg and Webern) struck out in new directions altogether devising fresh systems and ways of combining sounds. Later in the century, electronic instruments, computers and recording machines combined with traditional methods and performers to produce a music utterly unlike anything known in the 19th century.

Nationalism continued to be a strong musical influence in the first half of the century. The study of folk songs enriched the music of numerous composers, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams (England), Bela Bartok (Hungary), Heitor Villa Lobos (Brazil) and Aaron Copland (USA). Jazz and popular musical styles have also been tremendously influential on “classical” composers from both the United States and Europe.
Technology has played a increasingly important role in the development of 20th century music. Composers have used recording tape as a compositional tool (such as Steve Reich’s Violin Phase). Electronically generated sounds have been used both on their own and in combination with traditional instruments. More recently, computer technology has been used in a variety of ways, including manipulating the performance of instruments in real time.