Joseph Haydn, Symphony “A” Hoboken 107, 1760.
2.36 Joseph Haydn, Symphony “A” Hoboken 107, 1760.1

Assigning specific dates to a musical period is not accurate by any sense of the word. The Classical era is usually assigned the years 1750-1809. The year 1750 is the year of the death of Johan Sebastian Bach, and is considered the end of the Baroque musical era. The actual beginning of the Classical era can be seen in the pre-Classical works written between 1740 and 1770. Two of Bach’s sons, Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach and Johann Christian Bach were trend setters in this period. The year 1809 is arbitrarily chosen as the end of the Classical era because it marks the death of Franz Joseph Haydn. The term Classical can be confusing in itself. It its general use the term classical can be used to refer to any music that is serious as opposed to popular. When we speak of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic symphony, we often speak of their classical music. Any music played in a concert hall might be labeled classic, no matter when it was written. We also refer to popular music that has a lasting appeal as “classic rock.” The technical term, as we will use it in this discussion will refer to music written between 1750 and 1809.

The Classical period falls between the Baroque and the Romantic periods. The best-known composers from this period are Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert; other notable names include Luigi Boccherini, Muzio Clementi, Antonio Soler, Antonio Salieri, François Joseph Gossec, Johann Stamitz, Carl Friedrich Abel, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Christoph Willibald Gluck. Ludwig van Beethoven is also regarded either as a Romantic composer or a composer who was part of the transition to the Romantic.2 This music developed at a time when painters, architects, and sculptors were turning to the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans for inspiration. It is probably not a coincidence that the work is named classical. This musical style follows many of the tenants of the ancient Greek culture: balance, emotional restraint, symmetry, clarity, and intellectual strength. While still tightly linked to court culture and absolutism, with its formality and emphasis on order and hierarchy, the new style was also “cleaner”. It favored clearer divisions between parts, brighter contrasts and colors, and simplicity rather than complexity. In addition, the typical size of orchestras began to increase.

The remarkable development of ideas in “natural philosophy” had already established itself in the public consciousness. In particular, Newton’s physics was taken as a paradigm: structures should be well-founded in axioms and be both well-articulated and orderly. This taste for structural clarity began to affect music, which moved away from the layered polyphony of the Baroque period toward a style known as homophony, in which the melody is played over a subordinate harmony. This move meant that chords became a much more prevalent feature of music, even if they interrupted the melodic smoothness of a single part. As a result, the tonal structure of a piece of music became more audible.3

The new style was also encouraged by changes in the economic order and social structure. As the 18th century progressed, the nobility became the primary patrons of instrumental music, while public taste increasingly preferred comic opera. This led to changes in the way music was performed, the most crucial of which was the move to standard instrumental groups and the reduction in the importance of the continuo—the rhythmic and harmonic ground of a piece of music, typically played by a keyboard (harpsichord or organ) and potentially by several other instruments.4

Economic changes also had the effect of altering the balance of availability and quality of musicians. While in the late Baroque a major composer would have the entire musical resources of a town to draw on, the forces available at a hunting lodge were smaller and more fixed in their level of ability. This was a spur to having primarily simple parts to play, and in the case of a resident virtuoso group, a spur to writing spectacular, idiomatic parts for certain instruments, as in the case of the Mannheim orchestra. In addition, the appetite for a continual supply of new music, carried over from the Baroque, meant that works had to be performable with, at best, one rehearsal. Indeed, even after 1790 Mozart writes about “the rehearsal”, with the implication that his concerts would have only one.5

The basic musical elements:

Meter: a pattern of regularly recurring strong and weak beats. For instance, in the simplest meter a strong beat alternates with a weak beat. The meter shown here is duple meter and is most frequently found as two-four time (2/4).

Twinkle        twinkle          little             star—-

ONE-two     ONE-two      ONE-two     ONE-two

Melody: a succession of tones of different pitch organized to guide the listener’s ear through a composition.

Classical melody: The classical melody is prominent and easy to grasp. It is often broken into small sections or pieces. This is called a theme or a motive. It can be as short as two or three notes. Contrasting melodies within a single piece provided variety; while small fragments, the motives, were used in the process we call development, used to expand a work through a combination of unity and variety.

Rhythm: the duration of a tone, the pattern by which tones are arranged within the metric structure.

Classical rhythm: The basso continuo of the Baroque era is gone. The tempo is steady and less complex to complement the melody. Variety was achieved through rhythmic diversity. The pattern may follow the meter closely as it does in the above example, or it may work against the meter by placing the strong beats where the meter places the weak beats.

Tempo: The speed with which the metric pattern is sounded. Tempo indications range from grave (very, very slow) to presto (very fast).

Dynamic Level: (musical volume) is the relative loudness (intensity) or softness of a sound or series of sounds.

Classical dynamics: Dynamic markings were used more often. They often used the gradual markings of crescendo and diminuendo. Melodic, rhythmic and harmonic changes were often highlighted with dynamic contrasts.


Musical Tempos





Solemn –very, very very slow




Broad – very slow


Moderately fast


Quite slow


Fast (cheerful)






A walking pace


Very, very fast


Somewhat faster than andante


Very fast


Terms indicating change in tempo:

Getting faster: accelerando

Holding back: Ritardando

In time: a tempo



Very soft

Pianissimo (pp)


Piano (p)

Moderately soft

Mezzo piano (mp)

Moderately loud

Mezzo forte (mf)


Forte (f)

Very Loud

Fortissimo (ff)

Term indicating a change in dynamics:

Growing louder: crescendo

Growing softer: decrescendo or diminuendo

Sudden stress: sforzando (sf)


Texture: The relationship of a melody to other melodies of harmony is called texture. Just as different kinds of threads can be woven together to create various textures in fabric, melody and harmony can be combined in different ways to create a variety of textures. The four kinds of musical texture are monophony, polyphony, homophony, and non-melodic.

Classical texture: During the Classical period homophonic texture was favored. An especially popular form of homophonic texture was “Alberti Bass” in which the chords in the lower accompaniment were separated into individual rhythmic patterns.

Harmony: This is the simultaneous sounding of more than one voice. These voices may be concordant (sound well together) or discordant (sound harsh or conflicting). In western music harmony is based on the use of scales, do-re-me-fa-sol-la-ti-do, which begin on any of the twelve tomes in our system. The note on which the scale begins, for example G, is called the tonic of that scale, and music written with G as its tonic is said to be written in the key of G. The key of a piece of music may change once or more during its progress, from G to D, for example. Movement from one key to another is called modulation.

Block Harmony – two tones sounded simultaneously

Counterpoint– two or more melodic lines sounded simultaneously whose tones move independently of each other.

Monophony– music with a single melodic line

Polyphony– music with more than one melodic line sounded simultaneously

Homophony– music in which a single melodic line is supported by chords or other subordinate material. A single voice takes over the melodic interest while the accompanying voices surrender their individuality and become blocks of harmony the chords that support, color, and enhance the principal part.

Classical harmonies were comparatively simple. They move more slowly than those of the Baroque. Modulations were used to distinguish sections.

Form– the basic pattern in which the elements of a work of music are set. The basic law of structure is repetition and contrast or unity and variety. Some basic forms are:

Theme and variations: one theme (melody) is stated and then repeated in altered form a number of times

Song form: a melody is stated, repeated, a contrasting melody is stated, and the first melody is repeated again (AABA is a common shorthand for this form)

Sonata form: employs the song form as the basis for an extended composition

Symphony form: a major form usually including at least one movement in sonata form

Rondo : a form of medieval French music usually used as the third movement of sonatas, replacing the minuet. Although it was characterized by rapid movement in triple meter, as in the minuet, the scherzo is more dynamic and faster in tempo. It was used by Beethoven in the third movement of his symphonies.

Minuet: (French dance in triple meter at a moderate tempo) embodied the grace of the aristocratic age in the Baroque dances; it was used as the third movement of a sonata in ¾ time during the 18th century. The minuet ranges from stateliness to lively pace and whimsical character.


Classical composers used form to create balance and symmetry. Multi movement structures became standard ways to create large works. Works became increasingly complex using contrasting themes and motive development. Balance in Classical music was created by the placement of the climax in the middle followed by long sections of resolution to relieve tension. In Baroque music the climax is at the end with an increase of motion to the final cadence.


The Classical Orchestra
2.37 The Classical Orchestra6

Timbre (Orchestration): This is the selection of one instrument or group of instruments, including the human voice.

Classical timbre: The choice of instruments was not left up to the performers. Composers conceived of specific timbres and wrote for those unique characteristics. The small Classical Orchestra was established. Unlike the Baroque orchestra which could vary from piece to piece, it was standardized into four sections:


Strings: 1st violins, 2nd violins, violas, cellos, and double basses

Woodwinds: flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons

Brass: French horns, trumpets

Percussion: timpani

The number of musicians in the orchestra varied according to the piece and the composer. Unlike Baroque composers, Classical composers did not treat one instrument like another. For instance, an oboe would not play a violin melody for the entire piece. Each section of the orchestra had a special role. The first violins usually took the melody, the lower strings took the accompaniment, horns and trumpets brought power and harmony, but did not usually play the melody. The percussion was for bite and emphasis. The piano replaced the harpsichord because it had a greater flexibility in dynamics and therefore greater expressive capability.

Classical expressiveness: Baroque concept of expression limited each work or movement to a single emotion. Classical composers deliberately and frequently changed affects and emotions to create interesting contrasts.

Sonata and Sonata-allegro form

The term “sonata form” refers to the form of a single movement. It should not be confused with the term “sonata” which is used for a whole composition made up of several movements. Usually the opening fast movement of a classical symphony, sonata, or string quartet is in “sonata form.” In other words sonata form is also called first-movement form or sonata-allegro form and it usually refers to the first movement of larger works.

The three basic elements of “sonata form” are the exposition, the development, and the recapitulation.

First Movement


  • The exposition is the presentation of the first theme in the tonic (home) key. This may often be masculine or virile form
  • A bridge passage, which is a means of moving smoothly from theme one to theme two and might be called a modulation
  • Theme two- presented and expanded in a contrasting key, usually dominant, and usually lighter and more lyrical
  • Codetta (a little ending) which is a means of bringing the exposition to a logical ending
  • Then there is a repetition of a through d


  • Tension is built by frequent modulation to foreign keys
  • There is fragmentation and development of themes
  • The two themes are contrasted against each other
  • The listener may be kept off balance as the music moves restlessly through several keys
  • Motives or short musical ideas are developed
  • A motive may take on new emotional meanings such as when a comic theme may be made to sound aggressive and menacing through melody, rhythm or dynamics
  • A complex texture can be woven by shifting a motive rapidly among different instruments.
  • The harmonic and thematic searching of the development builds a tension that demands resolution


Reconciliation of thematic duality established in the first two sections (Exposition and Development)

  • First theme and expansion is played in the home key
  • The first theme, bridge, second theme and concluding section are presented more or less as they were in the exposition, with one crucial difference: all the principle material is now in the tonic key.
  • Earlier, in the exposition, there was strong contrast between the first theme in the home key and the second theme and closing section in a new key; that basis for tension is resolved in the recapitulation by presenting the first theme, second theme, and closing section all in the tonic key. Underlines the home key and gives the feeling of completion


There is an even more powerful feeling of conclusion in the coda by following the recapitulation with yet another coda. The coda rounds off a movement by repeating themes or developing them further. It always ends in a tonic key.


Second Movement– Slow and lyrical, usually ABA song form

Third Movement– Medium to fast, light, dance-like; minuet or scherzo in a related key

Fourth Movement– Very rapid, in Sonata-allegro form or Rondo form, usually a long coda to give finality at the conclusion.


Sonata form is only one episode in a complex chronicle of styles and principles of musical organization. Seemingly infinite in its variety, the form has since 1750 been the basis for some of the greatest works of Western music. It is exemplified by the typically quick-paced first movement of most sonatas and sonata-style compositions (such as symphonies and string quartets) in the Classical period. While earlier forms prioritized a relatively smooth interface of melodic elements, sonata form emphasizes conflict instead of continuity, ultimately deriving its impact from the explosive power of tonal organization.7

This form is very flexible. Music is not poured into a mold to come out the same each time. Instead it has a set of principles which govern the shape and unify the contrasts of theme and key. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven repeatedly used sonata allegro form, yet each work of art is unique. Sonata allegro form is so versatile that it is no surprise to find its use spanning more than two centuries. Try listening for the sections of the sonata-allegro form in Mozart’s Symphony No 40 in G minor or Beethoven’s Symphony No 3 allegro con brio, also known as “Eroica”. They are on Youtube, so forgive and skip the commercials.

Mozart’s Symphony No 40 in G minor K 550, Molto allegro 8:15

If you receive an error with the link above, use the following link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hJf4ZffkoI

Beethoven’s Symphony 3 allegro con brio 9:05

If you receive an error with the link above, use the following link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6E7b7-zrQg


1 Photo by Karmingimpel, Public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Haydn-Symphony-107-II-bar1-4.png
2 OER Lumen, Music Appreciation, https://www.oercommons.org/courses/music-appreciation-2/view, accessed 14 February 2022
3 OER Lumen.
4 OER Lumen.
5 OER Lumen.
6 By Kristine Betts, Pikes Peak State College, 2022. CC BY-NC 4.0 License.
7 Mark DeVoto, “Coda,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/art/sonata-form/Significance-of-sonata-form-in-Western-music-history, accessed 15 February 2022.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

PPSC HUM 1023: Modern Civilizations by Kristine Betts and Kate Pagel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book